TPI editorial: It's time for Florida to transfer control of Reedy Creek
Published: July 7, 2009 at 10:31 AM
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident, and it appears that the federal agency will have much to criticize in its report. Not only does there appear to have been operational failures by monorail personnel, leading to the accident, but also Disney's monorail system design was fatally flawed.
The accident appears to have happened because Monorail Pink, which was to have transferred to another monorail beam, did not make the track switch, and instead proceeded backward down the Epcot line, back into the station where it collided with Monorail Purple, killing driver Austin Wuennenberg. Apparently, the monorails' automatic collision avoidance system was switched off during the track switch.
And that is the design flaw. An anti-collision system should never be switched off so long as operations is in control of the track and there are guests on board the system. (Only when the system is clear of passengers and maintenance takes control of the track should safety systems be allowed to be turned off.) If overriding the collision system is standard operating procedure during any moment of the monorail's normal operation, including for track switches, a scenario such as what happened Sunday morning should have been easy to anticipate.
Relying on operators, many of whom have less than a year's experience, to not make a mistake is not good enough. Disney should know this - indeed, that's why the monorails have an anti-collision system in the first place. But that system can't work if it is turned off.
If the scenario described is indeed what happened Sunday night, the NTSB should:
- Order Disney to change its track switch procedure to ensure that its anti-collision system remains on at all times while operations is in control of the track and passengers are in the system.
- Order Disney to ensure that the anti-collision system is bi-directional, that it can prevent collisions between trains moving in reverse as well as forward.
In addition, the state of Florida should take this opportunity to take a hard look at whether it should transfer control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District from the Walt Disney Company to Orange County. The public should have oversight of operations at the Walt Disney World Resort, as it does for all other Central Florida theme parks. If the NTSB can investigate a monorail accident - and it should - then fire, ambulance and inspection responsibilities at the resort should be under public oversight and control, as well.
Disney made a reasonable case 40-some years ago that local governments were not sensitive to the unique planning and zoning needs of a theme park resort, so the Disney company needed its own quasi-government control. Today, that's simply no longer the case.
Orange County and City of Orlando planning and zoning authorities oversee development at the Universal Orlando resort as well as at SeaWorld Orlando. Orange County's emergency response departments are perfectly capable of managing the existing fire and ambulance teams at Reedy Creek. In fact, integration with Orange County's emergency response resources might conceivably improve response at the resort in a catastrophe.
And public oversight would put more eyes on operations such as Disney's monorail system, allowing inspectors to identify design flaws such as this one, before they cost the life of a young cast member.
The Walt Disney World Resort straddles Orange and Osceola Counties. This hasn't created a jurisdiction problem, as the services typically provided by the county have until now been provided at the resort by Reedy Creek. But Reedy Creek is to revert to county control, it should go to one county or the other, and not be split in two. I'm arguing control should go to Orange County, given that county's experience in overseeing two other major theme park resorts.
In making the switch, Orange County residents should not be asked to pay for support services at the Walt Disney World Resort. Reedy Creek has paid its own way, and should continue to do so, with new levies on Disney to pay Orange County to manage the former Reedy Creek services.
But it is past time to lay to rest the idea that certain business should operate outside of public oversight. The people of Central Florida, and all visitors to the Walt Disney World Resort, deserve the peace of mind that an outside set of eyes are watching what happens inside the resort, to help ensure that all of Disney's guests are being kept as safe as possible.