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Metro Response Undermines Rider Confidence

Catoe Graham.jpg
Metro Chairman Jim Graham and GM John Catoe at Thursday news conference. (Thomson)

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I used to brag that I lived in D.C. where unlike New York, the Metro is clean. Unlike Boston, the Metro is easy to use. And unlike Baltimore, the public transportation is safe. I don't brag about D.C. transportation anymore. It's not because of the June accident -- tragedies and mistakes happen. It's because of the response after the accident.
Jennifer Dein, Washington

When the transit authority faces an emergency on Metrorail it typically focuses on solving the engineering problem. Meanwhile, it rarely mobilizes sufficient resources to help tens of thousands of customers get where they're going, or at least tell them what's going on and what alternatives they have.

In the midst of an extended emergency following the June 22 Red Line crash, Metro still is focused on the engineering. Metro's leaders are vastly underestimating the amount of information they need to share with riders and when they need to share it. They are vastly underestimating how visible Metro personnel, from top to bottom, need to be in handling this crisis.

Instead, they don't look like they're in control of the situation, and riders -- a skeptical bunch to begin with -- are noticing. They know the trains have been slow and the schedules unreliable. They know a train may hold for minutes at various points, or that they may be told to get off and wait for another train to pick them up.

What they don't know is why, or why they're paying for a rush hour level of service they're not getting.

Metro's press conferences and many of its press statements seem more like a reaction to things reporters have learned than a guide to what's happening now and what riders should expect.

As I look at Metro's Web site now, I see this information front and center: "Expect Continued Delays on Red Line ... Takoma Station open through Thursday rush hour." (That's Thursday as in yesterday.)

When I click on the link, I read this: "Metro Red Line riders should expect fewer and slower-moving rush hour trains on the line at least through Thursday morning's rush hour (July 23) while the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continues its investigation into the cause of the June 22 train accident near the Fort Totten Metrorail station."

For people who ride the trains every day, including Fridays, and may be trying to plan travels for the weekend and next week, this useless information. But it's not just a question of updating a Web site. Metro officials need to be far more aggressive. The ride is disrupted. Conditions on the platforms and trains can vary greatly from trip to trip.

Metro people should be out there talking to riders and guiding them -- every day. Do you riders think the rush hour platforms are under control? Have you seen and heard Metro personnel out there directing people and explaining what's going on? Are they handing out pamphlets to those of you who don't catch every newscast or routinely check the Internet for updates?

No, we're not seeing the crisis management that this situation calls for. In trying to deal with the very important engineering problems arising from the crash, Metro leaders are making another important and longstanding problem worse: They're undermining the confidence of their customers.

By Robert Thomson  |  July 24, 2009; 8:15 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail delays, Red Line crash  
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Seems like business as usual at the stations - employees/station managers hanging out and joking around by their booth, nowhere near the platforms. At Union Station, the escalators to 1st St are often out and major backups occur. Metro employees are sometimes nearby but not helping - they just put up dividers to keep traffic "flowing" how they want. (I use flowing loosely.)

Posted by: jmrzx | July 24, 2009 8:38 AM | Report abuse

From the very top (Catoe) to the very bottom (the rude and lazy kiosk attendants), from the physical conditions of the stations, parking lots, and trains themselves, Metro gives off a huge "who cares" attitude. And I don't get the impression that anybody in any position of power, whether it's Fenty, the governors of MD and VA, the President, or anybody on the Hill really cares, either. Why should they, they never use Metro. Only the little people take Metro.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 24, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

The situation at on the Red Line at Gallery Place in the direction of Shady Grove couldn't be more of a mess (Although I'm sure Metro could find a way if they really tried). As everyone knows Metro is pulling all trains to the end of the platform. If a six car train pulls up all of the people at the start of the platform move down to the last car. This creates a huge bottle neck where no one, either getting on or getting off, can move. Each time this happens there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-30 people tring to get in the last door. A lot of the time most of these people get left off the train. This is at 3:00 mind you. Can't imagine what 5:00 is like.

Can someone explain to me why metro doesn't have someone standing there directing people to move down the platform? Or at the very least put up a friggin' sign at the beginning of the platform. Go to Safeway and get some poster board and a Sharpee. I know they make these announcements over the PA (most of which are unintelligible) and electronic signs, but they need to do more. I did notice a orange traffic cone on the platfrom the other day, but a lot of good does if no one knows what it's for.

Get your act together!

Posted by: cuse012 | July 24, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

I too used to brag about Metro vs other cities' system's, until this weekend when I had out-of-town guests. Now, I have to apologize..
Maybe Mr. Canoe is just not a "Details" guy. Ugh!

Posted by: Max231 | July 24, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

This morning at Metro Center, I was boarding a Red Line train to head to Silver Spring.

The trains always totally switch populations there -- they empty out like 80%, and then fill up again. It was only 8:00, so the platform wasn't too crowded. I'd call it just fine. And there was a Metro employee in the ubiquitous navy blue uniform and orange / yellow vest about 20 feet up the platform from the door I was waiting at.

About 10 seconds after the train doors opened, he started YELLING at all of us to get on the train, board the train now, "it's time to GET ON THE TRAIN," etc. Only when a crowded rail car is emptying out, you need to WAIT your turn. If we'd all followed the Metro employee's explicit instructions, we'd have caused a right royal mess and probably broken the train doors.

I'm with Jennifer Dein, above. (Although as someone who spent the first 25 years of her life in Boston, I never found anything difficult about the T. ;) ) I thought Metro was fantastic when I first moved to DC 18 months ago but at this point I'd give pretty much anything to have my 1 train from Manhattan back, rats and all.

Posted by: EtoilePB | July 24, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Normally many complaints about Metro, but none today from my commute.
Rockville to Ballston was smooth sailing. No delays - momentarily or "momentarily". Great communication - driver instructed those waiting on platform at Grosvenor to board the train, that no empty trains were available, all trains were coming from Shady Grove. And a pleasant and respectful crowd (Friday may have had something to do with that, but I think the lack a frustrating commute may have helped too).

Posted by: cprferry | July 24, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Metro doesn't care. Plain and simple. They're more worried with riding the whole system right into the crapper.

Posted by: Ellvee | July 24, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the other commentors who have lived in other cities. I lived in Budapest, Hungary, for a spell, a city of roughly 1 million people. Their subway infrastructure is 100 years old at its core. The majority of trains are easily 40 years old. They have budget problems like everyone. The weather is terrible a lot of the year. They contend with jumpers like subway systems everywhere.

Yet the trains manage to run at rush hours every 3 to 5 minutes, even at the edges of central Budapest, and rarely more than 10 minutes at night and weekends. Construction work occurs at the weekend and is well advertised (in English!). Stations are clean and well-lit, with fast and operational escalators. Employees are helpful and courteous, even to non-Hungarian speakers and disoriented tourists.

Never did I experience conditions that are the norm on DC's Metro: endless delays with no proper explanation, misuse of the word "momentarily" to mean 20 friggin' minutes, garbled announcements that are mostly worthless, poorly lit platforms, etc.

If Budapest's transit authority, BKV, can do this with modest means, why can't DC Metro, with the advantage of newer equipment, trains and a bigger budget? Pure incompetence at the top. (And that the high and mighty Metro commissioners don't know the joys of dark, freezing/sweltering stations, broken escalators and 2-hour one-way trips across town.)

Posted by: padnactap92 | July 24, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

9 PEOPLE DIED - Catoe must go, we can't live in a society without consequences any longer ...

Posted by: ep1234 | July 24, 2009 10:26 PM | Report abuse

Having worked in transit before, I find this article VERY insightful. The public and riders do accept that things happen -- it's how they are handled that makes the difference. Mr. Catoe only speaks to try and "spin" the lastest finding. Customer care must be a priority at the top and the people at the top seem oblivious to the fact that they even have customers. Looks like their "engineering" strengths are not any better. So what do they do right I wonder??

Posted by: lrtcool | July 27, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

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