Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board released “urgent safety recommendations” regarding the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metrorail system. Finding the Tri-State Oversight Committee to be understaffed, under-resourced, and effectively impotent to ensure Metro improves, NTSB recommended the U.S. Department of Transportation ask Congress to “classify WMATA as a commuter authority,” placing it under the oversight of the Federal Railroad Administration. “Without adequate oversight, accidents and incidents will continue to place the riders of the WMATA system at risk,” NTSB Chairman Chris Hart said in a letter.
Indeed, as NTSB notes in its letter, Metrorail has been investigated 11 times in the past 33 years for incidents that killed 18 people, including nine in the 2009 Red Line crash. Instead of holding out hope that Metro will get better, safer, and more reliable, riders have begun to abandon the system; rail ridership is down five percent over the past five years, according to a recent Metro Finance and Administration Committee report. But for thousands of people in the D.C. area, despair is not an option. Instead, the region needs to figure out the million-dollar question: How exactly can we fix Metro? Washington City Paper asked a number of riders, advocates, and experts to answer that question by email or phone. Here are their responses. —Sarah Anne Hughes
I have the unique position of being someone who was actually responsible for answering this question—at least for nine months in 2006. The problems of today are the same I dealt with nearly ten years ago. They are just ten years less resolved. Funding, governance, culture—yes, these need to be fixed. But you can’t do that in 200 to 400 words. What can be said quickly is that the leadership should re-adopt the one-point plan we proposed: “Put the customer first.” If you put the rider first you will make the system safe first and foremost. Riders should not be afraid to get on a train or a bus, and Metro should do everything it can, all the time, to make people feel safe. Putting the rider first will also prioritize making the system more reliable, cleaner, brighter, and even more fun. Remind people that they are making a smart choice; a sustainable, socially-responsible decision to team up with their neighbors to make the DMV a better place to live, work, learn, and play.
Riders can help by recognizing the hard work and dedication of front-line Metro employees. Yes, you heard that right, thank a Metro employee for their service and commitment. By reestablishing a bond between those who actually run Metro and those who actually ride it, a common sense of purpose and resolve can make it better. In fact, together, riders and employees can show the authority and regional elected leaders how to recommit to Metro investment, performance, and results. To fix Metro, those who need and support it have to get involved and engaged, not just complain.
Oh, while we are at it: rip out those always-dirty carpets in the railcars; replace the burnt-out lights with LEDs; and let more people perform in the stations.
A “relentless” focus on the customer is the most important component of a strategy to reverse the current downward trajectory that Metro is on. Authenticity and honesty from leadership are the basis of a good customer relationship, and Metro’s admission this week that “there is preliminary evidence that these events are impacting ridership” is a good, albeit late start. When we think about “customer focus,” often surveys, studies, and adding new features come to mind. I will talk about that, but I am also suggesting that internally a focus on lean, Six Sigma, and other management strategies to eliminate errors while continually improving processes towards a 99.999998-percent service level is of the utmost importance. The current mix of daily foul-ups being the norm combined with talk of increasing fares would be a death spiral in the private sector and does not bode well for public transit either.
Second, Metro needs an increased openness to technology and competition to fulfill its commitment to customer service. (Full disclosure, I have worked with some of the firms I will reference in the innovative transportation technology space. Use them, don’t use them, I don’t care.) But Metro needs to recognize that a lot has changed since it opened its doors in 1976. In particular, today’s customer demands much more transparency about service delivery in real time. Oblique texts about service delays, or times until the next train on old-school displays once you get to the platform, are no longer adequate. Metro needs to provide real-time system status like Lyft or Uber, showing where trains are on live maps. They should also utilize modern, interactive displays, such as those offered by TransitScreen, at the street-level entrance to each station. Let me decide whether to walk down the stairs, use Capital Bikeshare, or hail a cab.
Fundamentally, Metro should recognize that their regional role is to provide transportation mobility, connectivity, and access, not operate services. In lefty Europe, who operates the majority of transit service? The private sector does with unionized labor and to strict standards reporting to the transit authority (Circulator bus anyone?). Metro could be the regional clearinghouse for managing public and private mobility information, access, payments, and subsidies and not just one entrant in a subsidised market for transit. By instead prioritizing daily operations, finding funding, and negotiating labor contracts, Metro has risked its focus on customers, coordination, and ultimately service. A collaborative regional approach to mobility that leverages public service provision, contract service, and the multitude of emerging private providers could reduce cost and expand service. In the process, let’s experiment:
- Want more revenue, Metro? Test a $5-a-month unlimited Wi-Fi plan in partnership with a [telecommunications operator]. Maybe provide it free for a monthly bundled service commitment.
- Want to cut paratransit costs in half and provide real-time service versus 24-hour advance reservations? Outsource to taxis as D.C. is testing with vouchers (preferably in-app).
- Want to increase bus speeds? Come out and tell the public that removing stops every block is key and let them vote on what’s important to them.
- Want escalators to work? Study the feasibility of bidding out a design, build, finance, operate, and maintain contract for a replacement service to the private sector subsidized by advertising on those TransitScreen displays.
You get the idea: Start being creative and saying “yes” to non-traditional ideas even if they seem “crazy.” We need to be honest, get rid of the sacred cows, and focus on better service and lower costs. To meet our regional mobility challenges, we need to think as big as those who thought up Metro to begin with. I love Metro, and when I travel people constantly tell me how much they loved using Metro when they visited Washington. Now it’s time for local daily riders as well as Metro employees to feel the same.
Metro’s goal should be to provide efficient, reliable, comfortable, and safe transportation. Lately they have failed on all four counts. The fact that more and more people would rather inch along in D.C. traffic than take Metro shows just how far off track the transit system has gotten. While it may not be as exciting as building the Silver Line, Metro must now focus on fixing the problems that they have created in the system core by expanding too fast.
Many of the vital fixes that Metro needs, such as adding more eight-car trains, completing a backlog of repairs, and adding a new Potomac crossing at Rosslyn, will take years to implement. These fixes must happen if Metro hopes to remain viable into the next generation, and WMATA should push to ensure that they happen as quickly as possible.
It does not mean, however, WMATA cannot begin repairing the damaged relationship that they have with riders now. This can start by creating accountability in their fare system. In London, any subway ride delayed for over 15 minutes is eligible for a full refund. WMATA should make a similar commitment to their riders, thereby giving the system a direct financial incentive to provide the level of service that riders expect.
Additionally, even when trains run on time, WMATA has begun taking an extremely generous definition of what “rush hour” means. Even before the Stadium-Armory problems, Metro defined a train arriving every 12 minutes on the Blue Line as “rush hour service,” warranting peak fares. This is among the longest wait time for any rush hour subway train in the country and it has resulted in thousands of Blue Line riders losing trust in the system. WMATA must either find ways to reduce these wait times or stop charging peak fares for this service.
Public transportation only works when it’s cheap and convenient. This is especially true in today’s world when anyone can press three buttons on their phone and order a clean, quick, and fairly inexpensive car service to pick them up within minutes.
Unfortunately, WMATA is struggling to be either right now, with constant service interruptions and delays making it unreliable for people and rising fares making it more expensive year after year. If you live near the end of one of the lines and have to park at the station to get in the system, you’re easily spending $15 a day to commute into D.C.
The system isn’t working well right now, but it can be fixed. It’s going to take immediate, serious action, but we can, to use the common expression, “unsuck” the Metro system.
In the short-term, we need to hire a general manager who can motivate the workforce to be proactive about improving the system and strike fear in his or her leadership team that if they don’t get things done or make this a system that works for riders, there will be consequences. We also need to continue to get the financial and operational house in order. We need to get an audit done quickly enough that it is actually helpful to improve our finances, we need to create enough maintenance time to keep the system running, and we need to have a sense of urgency to do these things now.
Longer-term, we need to decide as a region if we want an OK system that runs every eight to 12 minutes, has decent but not exemplary geographic coverage, and is one of the more expensive systems in the country. If we decide instead that we want a first-class system that is conveniently located with more stations, has reliable and short headways, and has a cheaper fare structure, then we as a region need to pay for it.
It’s going to take dedicated or at least increased funding—on the order of $25 billion over the next 10 years—to build a system that works for the Washington region in 2025, not 1975. Regional leaders and the public need to decide if that’s what they want, and then pay for it. Raising fares and being inconvenient is a recipe for obsolescence.
My ideal system has a single fare for all riders, never stops building or expanding stations, and is more convenient to use than a mobile car service.
No one will deny that WMATA needs reform on several fronts, but what matters most is finding the balance between safety repairs that must happen and the inconvenience that riders experience while maintenance continues. Concerns over who provides the safety oversight of WMATA are not as crucial as ensuring both the safety of the riding public and the level of service they receive. The safety culture of WMATA must change as well as how it communicates with riders.
Metro should see every major service disruptions or instance of weekend track work as an opportunity to engage riders. We understand that these repairs are necessary, but WMATA should be transparent as to the extent of delays and the timeline for repairs. Customer service should be focused on addressing delays riders are exposed to while the system is brought to a state of good repair. Open communication should occur through all available channels, including timely and responsive social media. WMATA must inform riders, but it must also listen and interact with them openly.
Metro should develop an approach to quickly handle service disruptions should they arise. Having contingency plans in place for when events similar to the recent power substation fire [near Stadium-Armory] would allow the agency to respond immediately and to both inform riders of the issue and what alternate service options are available. Bus bridges and shuttle services should be implemented along with the immediate deployment of staff to talk with riders to ensure that these incidents are as painless as possible.
While Congress and regional leaders evaluate all of the possible solutions to ensure the future stability of WMATA, resources for the agency should not be held hostage. Riders and taxpayers have bought in to the system just as local jurisdictions and the federal government have, and withholding the necessary funds to repair and upgrade the system as a political tool will only make the situation worse.
WMATA belongs to all of us—the Board of Directors and local jurisdictions, but most importantly, the riders. Reforming the system is an opportunity to ensure that the agency provides safety, customer service, and communication to its most important stakeholders, those of us who use the system every day. Effective reforms will ensure a strong future for the agency and the vitality of the region.
Transit planners note that transit has to be safe, clean, convenient, and reliable. And certainly D.C.’s Metro can improve in each of these areas. But there are other factors that Metro—and transit agencies across America—need to consider if they are to be successful in the coming years.
When you examine the most livable cities in the world—Vancouver, Copenhagen, Melbourne, Portland—what you find are multiple modes of mobility, all seamlessly integrated. Streets are chock-a-block with pedestrians, cyclists, bus riders, and straphangers. This isn’t by happenstance. It’s by design. The transportation network in these communities is not just an extension of great urban living, but a reflection of it. The streets are comfortable and compelling for strolling along, biking along, or even just wiling away a couple of hours. The design features that comprise the great streets in these cities—wide, comfortable sidewalks and bike lanes, trees, shade, places to sit so we can read the paper, sip a cup of coffee, or just watch others—need to be included in the overall transportation network. Why? Because every transit trip begins and ends with a short walk or a bicycle ride.
Metro’s Finance and Administration Committee reports that ridership has decreased recently, in part due to other modes of alternative mobility, like cycling. But this is a good thing. Folks should be biking and walking more. It not only relieves congestion, but improves the well-being of us, the environment, and our pocketbook. The issue is when transit does not recognize people’s desire to walk and bike more and incorporate that into train and bus service. Cities don’t win when straphangers compete with cyclists who then compete with motorists who compete with pedestrians—because they are all one and the same. Each citizen is each of these at any given time. Those cities that I mentioned, and others, like New York and San Francisco, recognize that sometimes we drive, sometimes we cycle, we take the bus on occasion, and we almost always walk.
Giving attention to all the environments that transit riders will occupy or pass through on their journey—the walk from their office to the train station; the streets they have to cross to get to the bus stop; the street corner itself where we will wait five or fifteen minutes (or more) for the bus; the bus and train itself—and asking questions—like what is the lighting like, are the seats comfortable, and can I sip a cup of coffee without being harassed by rule-mongers wagging their fingers about “no food or beverages onboard”—help create a transit network that lures even the most entrenched motorist from his or her car.
The recent urgent recommendation from the NTSB to transfer oversight of WMATA to the Federal Railroad Administration brings to question: Should WMATA be broken up? My opinion would be that it should, due to the unraveling of management command and control, ranging from general managers over the past eight years as well as the mentality of the Board of Directors over more than 10 years.
Metro’s governance is a pure political machine and needs to be dissolved. If I was to recommend changes it would be the following:
- Metrorail is the largest and most complex part of WMATA and should operate independently. As it operates across all three jurisdictions on fixed rail routes, and is in essence a hybrid commuter rail and subway, a new authority to manage Metrorail should be created with a board of directors consisting of five individuals (FRA, [the D.C. Department of Transportation] director, [Maryland Department of Transportation’s Maryland Transit Administration] director, [Northern Virginia Transportation Commission] director and general manager).
- Completely revamp operations from the ground up. Current bus operations are both locally controlled and provided by Metrobus; either they all revert back to local jurisdictions or are all consolidated into one agency (my preference is back to local).
- Paratransit would remain third party with different dispatching procedures.
Without Metro, our roads grind to a halt. Without Metro, the federal government cannot function. Without Metro, we cannot support D.C.’s stunning recovery. Without Metro, our city and suburbs cannot attract next generation workers and companies. Without Metro, our air quality gets worse, harming our health. Without Metro, we sprawl outward with abandon, losing farms and forests, killing our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, and making today’s traffic look like child’s play.
Before Metro, the federal government had to work on a shift basis to deal with traffic. Before Metro, the city and older inner suburbs were experiencing economic decline as we sprawled outward. With Metro, they boomed. Without Metro and continued transit expansion, we would need thousands of lane-miles of new highways, and tens of thousands of additional parking spaces, impacting homes and neighborhoods and taking the life out of communities.
Metro has fueled billions of dollars in real estate investment and the walkable, transit-oriented centers that are so much in demand today. Recently, 84 percent of new office development in the pipeline has been within a quarter-mile of Metro. Marriott’s CEO says the company will move to a Metro station location, joining Hilton, Choice Hotels, Intelsat, and dozens of other companies seeking Metro station locations. Office parks are dead. No one wants to work there anymore.
We must unite in a commitment to fix Metro and expand regional transit service. This means that instead of pointing fingers and fighting over who pays what, every elected official—our governors, congressional delegation, mayors, councilmembers, and supervisors—must unite to provide the shared vision, the funding, and the oversight needed to put Metro back on track. They need to hire a new general manager who has the experience and management skills to run a large technologically complex organization, but also the leadership skills to inspire and to change organizational culture. Metro must become much more transparent, improve communications, and engage the public. It must become a customer-focused organization.
Metro planners recently determined that completing transit-oriented development at all existing Metro stations would increase the ridership and efficiency of the Metrorail system, eliminating the need for an operating subsidy and even generating an operating surplus. But we can’t get there without fixing the aging infrastructure; addressing management, communications, and safety issues; and investing in the capacity needed to handle future growth. Let’s get on with it!
I love trains, and the first time I stepped into a Washington Metro station in 1977, it was like entering Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Today, it’s like entering Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
The problem is that rail lines are expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain, especially after they reach 30 years of age. The federal government paid most of the cost of building Metrorail and local governments pay the subsidies required to operate it, but funds to rehabilitate the lines that are over 30 years old are sorely lacking, so the system is falling apart.
Rather than assist with rehabilitation, the federal government has a slush fund dedicated to new rail construction. This enticed the region to build the Silver and Purple lines, when the matching funds required to build those lines should have been spent rehabilitating Metrorail instead. One way the region can solve the problem is to kill the Purple Line and stop construction on the Silver Line and rededicate those funds to the existing system.
WMATA may also have to accept the painful reality that rail was probably the wrong choice for D.C. in the first place. Rail transit is both expensive and inflexible, while Curitiba, Brazil has shown that a well-designed bus corridor can actually move more people per hour than WMATA’s eight-car trains. Rather than rehabilitate the existing lines that are falling apart, WMATA should consider replacing them with bus-rapid transit lines.
Over the next ten years, shared, self-driving cars are going to replace most transit. WMATA’s cost of moving one passenger one mile by rail is more than twice as expensive as moving them by automobile today, and Uber (which recently hired 40 self-driving car engineers) has promised that its shared, self-driving cars will cost less than owning a car.
This means transit won’t be able to compete with self-driving car sharing. Until this becomes a reality, WMATA and other transit agencies should focus on low-cost bus service rather than expensive and clunky rail systems.
Metro is not unique… It’s really a matter of not having adequate funding for transportation.
There was a tragedy recently when the members of Congress opposed a gas tax increase, and the bill didn’t go anywhere. Now it’s happening again, with a couple members of the Senate opposing a gas tax increase to fund the Highway Trust Fund… It’s time to recognize that if we want to have outstanding transportation systems, then we gotta pay for them.
You can’t privatize a program that doesn’t make money, and no mass transportation systems in the world—except for a line here and there and high-speed rail—make a profit. So you can’t privatize Washington Metro, unless you subsidize it and give that tax dollar subsidy to a private company… If you’re going to give a lot of money to a private company, why not give it to Washington Metro and let them rebuild their system and operate it properly? They have the ability. You’ve got people like Mort Downey on that board who are outstanding managers, they just need the money to do the job.
First, you have to provide an outstanding transportation experience, and a lack of maintenance on Metro because of a lack of funding precludes you providing an outstanding experience. So you need to have, first of all, a superior product and you need to marry that with an outstanding management team.
Often times, when you have a lack of funding, those who are loathe to give you money because they don’t have it or because they’re cheap will pit the riders against the managers and against the unions in order to distract you from the fact that you don’t have enough money. The riders, the managers, and the unions need to get together here, realize you don’t have the money to operate an outstanding system, and go to your funding source and ask them, either politely or rudely, for adequate funding.
Look Metro. I don’t like you, and by any measurable standard, you don’t seem to like me very much. But you need customers and what am I gonna do? Bike everywhere? So let’s make this work.
I’m not going to pretend to have the answers to busted transformers or governance structures or arcing conductors. These are tough problems, but they’re your problems. And they’re going to take a whole lot of effort and money to sort out. But there’s some rather inexpensive low-hanging fruit you could pick. Let’s talk about how you communicate with riders and the public. I’m not sure if you’re deliberately trying to piss us off, but it sure comes across that way. Here’s some quick and easy suggestions to fix that.
- Stop, and I mean stop, saying “we regret the inconvenience, thank you for your patience.” You don’t regret it, it’s more than an inconvenience to us, and there is no more patience. This is like when my kid doesn’t pick up her dirty laundry for the fifth day in a row. I don’t want to hear the fifth “I’m sorry.” Make a real apology and do better, or don’t bother, because the pro-forma ones make my ears bleed.
- On the topic of announcements, stop with the “is this your bag” until we get trains running, OK? We don’t need terrorists to shut this system down. Y’all are doing just fine. These announcements aren’t informational; now they’re just background noise. We’ve learned to tune it out, and we need ears to perk up when the speakers come on.
- I wanna see some suits out there. You’re hanging your front-line employees out to dry. Sure, there are station managers and bus drivers that could use some polishing on customer service, but when shit goes down, you shouldn’t hide behind them. You need to hear, see, and feel firsthand how much this impacts customers. And be seen doing it. Leadership is visible or it isn’t leadership.
- Think through what a disruption means for riders. What’s the next step? Who will this impact? Take the recent decision to shut down rush hour service on the Orange and Silver lines at Stadium-Armory. OK, it has to be done. Who will be impacted? Several hundred students at Eastern HS, Eliot-Hine MS, and other schools use the system. Why weren’t the principals called? You can’t just fire off a press release and consider people informed.
- Finally, stop being terrible at Twitter. Admittedly @metrorailinfo and @metrobusinfo have become more responsive lately, but they’re only “good” in relation to how bad the @wmata account is. I could go into detail about what we’d like to see, but let’s make it super easy. Walk on over to Blue Plains, sit down with the folks that run the DC Water and Sewer Authority Twitter feed, and ask them to show you how to Internet. Because what you’re doing now isn’t working.
The recommendations that are presently out there from the NTSB, given the circumstances, are the best way for the [U.S.] Department of Transportation to proceed to try and ensure a safe system.
Regular inspections could help. This is something that’s being done now by the Federal Railroad Administration for seven other rail systems in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, including Maryland’s MARC train, Virginia’s VRE, and PATH trains in New York and New Jersey. So you have a structure that provides independent oversight and independent investigation. I think that will certainly push the ball forward.
There was no structure in place in the Federal Transit Administration to ensure that the accountability and the system safety was being delivered by federal dollars. This is a structural problem that has been sitting, needing attention for years. It’s going to require public pressure and the type of visibility that your article’s going to provide to bring about change.
I haven’t had the time recently to study [alternatives to the NTSB’s recommendations], but that is a responsibility of the appropriate officials in the three-state area. What they have to do is not that difficult: to provide a structure that is focused on safety, that provides accountability, and has independent oversight. That’s not rocket science. That is something that should be in place. And how to go about doing that probably needs some individuals who are independent of the system to come in and restructure it. At the end of the day you’re going to have public officials stand up and make the changes necessary and have the Department of Transportation provide the types of oversight the federal investment demands.
Right now, [the Tri-State Oversight Committee has] no authority to hire staff, establish qualifications and training requirements, promulgate and enforce legislation, and issue contracts or independent actions—all things that [current NTSB Chairman] Chris Hart has pointed out. And it has no uniform standards or qualifications for [Metro’s] members. These are the ABCs of any good organization’s structure. So action is overdue and needed. We’ve had 11 NTSB investigations for accidents that have killed 18 people and injured hundreds, and the system needs an overhaul for the benefit of the safety and the benefit of the traveling public.
I think it’s proven—if there’s one fact we know now—that the current system doesn’t work.
The first thing that’s critical to us is to have permanent leadership in place for the agency. I think that’s incredibly important, but I do think, as many people have said, that we need a different kind of a leader. I don’t know if that leader needs to be someone necessarily outside the transit industry. But I do know that people at WMATA have really looked at our agency as the best in the country, and by some measures it was, and by some measures it might continue to be. But that has bred complacency that is not at all appropriate.
We have typically had general managers, it was their last stop before retirement. You’re not going to get the most innovation or commitment to changes when you’re thinking about retiring. I’ve suggested that our peer group is not limited to the United States, to U.S. transit systems. Many, many other transit systems around the globe might be more comparable both in terms of the development patterns and the degree to which those cities are able to have the non-automobile mode-share that we have in the District.
The second thing: We benefited for 40 years from being one of the most recent heavy rail systems in the country. I think we haven’t really come to grips with what it requires to keep a clearly aging system like ours in a state of good repair. I don’t think we’ve been straight with anybody, including ourselves or our riders, about what it really takes to have that state of good repair, and it’s really hurt the reliability of the system. We need to be honest with ourselves and we need to have a straight-up discussion with our riders very explicitly about what the tradeoffs are and what the needs really are.
Speaking of our customers: We need to have a very different relationship with them than we do right now. We need to be much more transparent and open and communicative with them. We have more than a million riders daily; they are our eyes and ears in the system. We should be creating all kinds of panels for them to give us feedback about how the system is working, what things aren’t working, what their priorities are… So, what do our customers say we should be paying attention to? That’s really important.
If you go to other cities… the Tube in London is a part of the experience in living in and visiting the city. People have such a fondness for the system, even though it’s a very old system and it breaks down sometimes. It’s part of their daily experience, and I don’t think we’ve really cultivated that kind of relationship around Metro. We’ve been kind of formal, standoffish, and bureaucratic as an organization, and I do think we need to talk more about what it means to have Metro choices.
I certainly hear tourists talk about how great it is, but boy, I see things every day that could be improved in terms of how easy it is to navigate the system, what we do to make it as user-friendly as possible, especially when there’s a disruption.
Part of having a better relationship and a more transparent relationship with our customers, I think we need to do more to innovate within the system. That means also being willing to try different approaches and occasionally to fail; but if we manage our customers’ expectations, we can study something for years or we can try something for a couple of months and see how it works, and use that as a way to make an adjustment to service and other things.
This is something I learned in the city government, that as long as you manage people’s expectations, people understand that it’s something that you’re trying as an experiment, and you want the customer’s feedback, if it’s better or worse than what the status quo has been. That’s another way for us to try to be lighter on our feet and more flexible with respect to the service that we provide and the adjustments that we might make.
And of course, Metro needs a dedicated source of revenue so that we are not stuck with funding our system at the level the least of our jurisdictions is willing to provide.
Interviews conducted by Sarah Anne Hughes and Andrew Giambrone