Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro apologizes for last night's communications breakdown, delays

January 27, 2012 - 03:49 PM
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(Photo: Jay Westcott)

Why didn't Metro let riders know what was happening last night until hours and afters after the system malfunctioned? WMATA doesn't have any one reasonable excuse. The transit agency apologizes, hopes you'll forgive, and promises to do better.

"That failure should not have happened," WMATA chief spokesperson Dan Stessel said, who despite that communication failure only received three hours of sleep last night. "We should have been tweeting independently of the systems."

 Riders strongly agreed as dozens lashed out about the silence. Why were all voices MIA? If Stessel wasn't awake and seeing these tweets, why wasn't some other individual doing so? No alternative communications plan appeared to exist or emanate independently from Metro's control center.

When Metro broke last night, it broke hard. Power throughout much of the system failed due to a piece of equipment called the switch, which monitors the power feed to the facility, according to Stessel. The "partial power failure" of these elements, which comprise the rail and bus control facilities in Landover, Maryland, caused the WMATA website to fail, the alerts system to cease, as did the PIDs, and train operators on the Red, Orange and Blue lines to hold for at least 15 minutes, WMATA reports, though some riders suggest far longer waits. Train operators had no idea what was happening, apparently. Radio and signals continued to operate ... but the control center relied on computers to coordinate all the data and did suffer from the breakdown. "Driver says he doesn't have any communications," one person tweeted (see all the frenzied reactions from late last night, from 11 p.m. till about 1 a.m., here). Stessel began responding to press inquiries at 3:30 a.m. and released a press release on the incident, in which "Metro apologizes for the inconvenience" and stated that the power outage lasted about 15 minutes. "Radio and signal systems are independent and remained online, but desktop consoles and computer systems were affected," he told me in the late a.m. hours last night. "Preliminarily, the cause appears to be linked to a particular UPS [uninterruptible power supply]." But given the outage and the single-tracking, Stessel believes the riders who speak of long, miserable rides on the system.

"I absolutely believe every customer who says they were waiting an hour or nearly an hour on the platforms," Stessel told me. Even before the outage, he said, the headway on parts of the Orange Line was 30 to 35 minutes thanks to single-tracking.

Stessel has spent the first hours of today assembling his limited team and reviewing exactly what happened and coordinating how to prevent the failure in the future. The system that broke was "the nexus of all our different abilities to power the facility," he said, but there's still no clear understanding of why it failed. This problem has never occurred so far since he came to WMATA. These same sets of problems did happen in 2009, I found, but Stessel assures me that it's "not the same equipment, not the same building" as what happened last night. Back then, the control center was located in the Jackson Graham Building, where now only the backup is locate. The new site is in Landover. But the symptoms were the same. And last night, riders had no idea why such long delays, why such communication failures, or what was happening. The train operators themselves apparently had no idea either and as some people tweeted, left the trains to make sure the tracks head were safe.

Did they? Stessel has "no specific reports of train operators leaving the cabin" though acknowledges some "might have [had] to do that" out of caution. Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Local 689, a union that represents thousands of WMATA employees, also heard no reports regarding the confusion last night though adds that train operators have the training to leave and monitor the tracks if it's necessary.

As for the lack of tweeting and rider outreach, Stessel acknowledges the miss. Normally, he emphasized, someone is monitoring what's happening on Twitter and ensuring no major problems are breaking out but notes that didn't happen last night. But Stessel has lacked a full team this week, with one person out, and it's been an intense few days, with the Red Line delays yesterday morning, the Metro board meetings, and so on. He stressed the communications team's "review underway" of how they handled the situation to prevent this from happening again. Even automated Twitter updates are tied to the failure of the control center and failed to send in the height of the confusion. He hopes the addition of new communications staff members next month will help WMATA develop a better strategy for watching the riders. Before 9 a.m. this morning, the @WMATA Twitter account tweeted its own mea culpa in four 140-character updates:

Many of you have asked about why we didn't Tweet during last night's disruption. Answer follows. Due to the nature of last night's problem, the usual channels for notifying us were disrupted... We're working to revise processes to ensure that, in future event this, we're able to get actionable info to customers thru soc channels. We know you've come to depend on Twitter for info from us, and rest assured, we will ensure that it is used to its potential going forward.

Discussions of how to improve will be "ongoing," according to Metro, but Stessel assures me that Metro has a new alerts system for buses on the way as well as other improvements that will make the alerts system, which includes the automated status updates sent to Twitter, "completely independent" of Metro's system. Last night's debacle is hopefully the conclusion of a rocky first month of 2012 for Metro.

"We don't profess to have all the answers," Stessel told me, "and we'll continue to improve."

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