The deadliest day in Metro’s history—when two Red Line trains collided in June 2009, killing eight passengers and a train operator—was the last straw.
I was already prone to anxiety and panic attacks, and the crash confirmed what my irrational brain was sure of: You will die while riding Metro. It’s just a matter of time.
This is, obviously, untrue. Since operations began in 1976, 12 passengers have died in three separate incidents while riding Metrorail. (This does not include homicides or suicides, or train operators and track workers killed while on duty.) Compare that to the 225 million trips taken on the system in 2009 alone. But these facts didn’t stop me from completely avoiding underground trains for more than a year after the deadly crash, opting to use buses instead.
“There’s a difference between fears and phobias,” says Alies Muskin, executive director of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, based in Silver Spring. Fears are reasonable; phobias are not. That is to say that phobias are involuntary and cannot be soothed with logic, like stats on Metro deaths and ridership. The person with a train phobia, explains Dr. Beth Salcedo of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, primarily fears being confined in a space from which she cannot escape. “They fear this whether Metro is working properly or not,” Salcedo says. “These are not people who follow which lines have the least trouble… They treat it all the same.”
The most recent incident on Metro—when a train near the L’Enfant Plaza station filled with smoke, leaving one woman dead—may have reinforced the phobia and panic for some riders, Muskin says. But that doesn’t necessarily mean tragedies cause phobias. “We don’t really see a change in presentation of current or new patients when tragedies like [the one on Metro] happen,” Salcedo says. “The fear is irrational, so [it’s] not precipitated by what you might think.”
It can, however, increase the number of people who are afraid. “I know a lot of people who stopped taking Metro for awhile,” Muskin says of the 2009 crash. But while there may be some decrease in ridership following a tragedy (it happened in 2009), passengers will likely return in a matter of months. It boils down to dependence on the system, says Arline Bronzaft, a New York-based environmental psychologist who worked as a consultant for that city’s transit authority.
Experts say Metro has no responsibility to word post-tragedy statements specifically for people with anxiety disorders, but the agency should focus on how to best explain what happened and assure the general public on the system’s safety: “The way you state how you ameliorate the situation going forward is very important, so that people feel comfortable that you have their best interests at heart,” Bronzaft says. WMATA failed in that respect in an apology for the fatal 2015 incident published in the Washington Post, which read in part: “Our safety work is not complete; it will never be.” Their intention may have been good, but “the message was that Metro will never be safe,” Salcedo says.
Of course, for people with phobias, a statement, badly worded or not, won’t fix the issue; only treatment can. “Nothing rational is going to help people who are already phobic about it,” says Muskin, whose organization has heard from people who won’t take a job because it’s not bus-accessible. Phobias cause people to change their behaviors, which is why they’re often treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a short-term form of psychotherapy that focuses on learning problem solving skills. Beyond seeking professional treatment, ADAA offers self-help materials online, including podcasts.
Days after the latest tragedy, I boarded a Metro train, and I’ll do so again this week and the week after that. Still, it’s hard not to let the phobia commandeer my brain when I consider this: Kim Brooks-Rodney, the attorney representing at least 60 people in a class action suit against Metro over the latest incident, says she will no longer ride the system. She was once employed by WMATA.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery