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Posted at 12:55 PM ET, 02/ 3/2011

Sarles talks about Metro goals

By Robert Thomson

Richard Sarles, the no-longer-interim general manager of Metro, met with the Metro RIders' Advisory Council last night to outline his goals and answer some frequently asked questions.

He addressed one of my readers' frequently asked questions about when we might see a return to automatic train controls: It's extremely unlikely that will occur this year. Way too much work remains to comply with the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board in its report on the June 2009 Red Line crash. After that, systems must be tested to assure that they are safe for automatic operation.

So operator control of the trains, imposed right after the 2009 crash, will almost certainly continue beyond 2011.

His discussion with the riders council was heavy on the steep challenges ahead in restoring Metro to the service heyday of long ago. In fact, it was downright gloomy. The Sarles plan is about restoring Metro to a "state of good repair," not about expanding its capacity to deal with crowding. The new rail cars on order will provide service on the first phase of the Dulles line (not being built by Metro) and will replace the oldest cars in the fleet. That doesn't deal with the capacity issues of today and tomorrow.

The repair efforts for tracks, tunnels and stations will become more aggressive this year. That's certainly a good thing, but it means that riders are more likely to encounter disruptions. Sarles says there's no other way. Past programs that emphasized uninterrupted service had the unintended consequence of slowing needed repairs, he said.

Meanwhile, Sarles continues to worry about Metro funding. The transit authority is asking the local jurisdictions to kick in $72 million more for the next operating budget, starting in July. Also, it's unclear at the moment whether Congress will make available the next $150 million capital budget contribution that the jurisdictions have pledged to match -- if it's there.

This was getting so discouraging that I had to ask him to name a few things likely to be visibly better this year, for those of us who need some instant gratification. He cited the new escalators and stairway coming for riders at Foggy Bottom. The Metrobus fleet is as young as it's ever been, and 100 new buses will enter service this year. Transit police have moved more officers into the system, emphasizing a presence at particular stations downtown where more enforcement is needed.

Riders on the sections of the Red Line that are undergoing long-term rehabilitation should begin to experience a smoother, more reliable ride, which would be no small achievement. Sarles describes an overall maintenance program for rail that he believes will reduced the number of cracked rails that disrupt service. The replacement program for insulators should reduce instances when these third-rail protectors arc and smoke, another source of delays.

As he described these very welcome improvements, I thought about how he sees his own slice of Metro history. This course of restoring the system's glory will take many years. He'll be like the baseball manager hired for the team's "rebuilding" phase who eventually hands off to the new manager who takes the team to the World Series.

He says he's okay with that idea. During four decades in the transit industry, he's had a variety of experiences as a manager: He's been the one who benefited from the work of his predecessors and he's also been the one who does the unsexy groundwork for future success. What you can do in the latter case, he said, is go back and look at some transit improvement that wasn't even in the planning phase before you contributed the idea.

One reason for optimism: Sarles, 65, originally was hired to a temporary job, and everyone knew it. If he had looked around at his staff and at the state of the system and said, "This is impossible," he could have cut and run, and no one could have faulted him. The fact that he looked around and decided he wanted to stay might be one of our strongest sources of encouragement about the future of Metro.

By Robert Thomson  | February 3, 2011; 12:55 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, Richard Sarles  
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Did Sarles answer any questions about improving rail car reliability? It not just cracked rails, switching problems, and the like that delay service, especially on the red line, but broken rail cars contribute greatly to the problem?

In an issue related to rail car reliability -- Metro said that it reduced service frequency on the red line at rush hour in exchange for more 8-car trains. As an every day red line rider, I've noticed that commitment is only randomly adhered to. Some mornings, there will be many 8-car trains; however, other mornings, there are very few. I assume that Metro cannot keep its promise because so many rail cars are disabled at any one time.

About the seating design. I thought that Metro would, as they would say in Canada, hold public consultations on new rail car design. It sounds as though an important part of car design, i.e., seating arrangements, has been taken off the table. I think that Metro should honor its promise for public input by gathering customers' view on the seating arrangement.

I certainly hope that the new seat do NOT have arm rests. (The 6000 series cars have some seats w/o arm rests.) I understand that when the system first opening, the planners were hoping to create an upscale, suburban feel to the cars. However, the arm rests make getting into/out of the window seats, and particularly so when a car is crowded.

Posted by: RockvilleBear | February 3, 2011 1:12 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: RockvilleBear, he did address the rail car issue to some extent. He said managers are looking at a more focused approach to preventive maintenance, better targeting what goes wrong on the cars and attacking those issues. Like so many of the other initiatives he described, it doesn't sound very sexy. Don't look for an "Aha!" moment, he said. The improvements will occur gradually over a long time.

On the car design, he said that decisions had been made before him to go with front and rear facing seats, but that the car structure allows for a reconfiguration at some point in the future if Metro decides that inward facing seating is needed. He said that struck him as a good compromise. (I'm pretty sure there are no arm rests in this new design for the 7000 Series.)

I'd like to hear more from Red Line riders about the effects of last year's plan to decrease the number of trains at rush hour -- which slightly lengthens the scheduled waiting time -- and using the extra cars to make more eight-car trains. My experience is different from RockvilleBear's. I'm so used to encountering eight-car trains now on the Red Line that I tend to wait at the rear of the platform, because those last two cars on an eight-car still are the least crowded.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | February 3, 2011 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Sounds to me like he is setting the stage for ongoing dysfunction for the entire length of his tenure. Good pre-emptive strike, Mr. Sarles.

Posted by: Trout1 | February 3, 2011 4:06 PM | Report abuse

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