- (Photo: John Hendel)
Brandon Miller is one tired Metro commuter, one among the 700,000 who take to the rails every day. A little over two weeks ago, Miller entered the Twinbrook Metro station and encountered a problem, one that became so frustrating and emblematic of his experiences with transit that he took to Tumblr with a long screed about what he calls "the most pathetic transit system in the country."
Here's what happened at Twinbrook:
The other evening I was trying to enter the system when the card reader didn’t recognize my card. Now I know there was plenty of cash on the card so I didn’t know why it wasn’t letting me through. The card reader instructed me to see the station manager. Sounds simple enough right? Well it would have been if she had been around. I stood at that booth for 20 %*#*$ minutes until she finally decides to show up. I don’t know how long she had been gone, but she wasn’t there when I arrived. In the meantime trains were just coming and going and all I needed to do was go that one stop! When she finally arrives, she notices the line of people waiting at the booth (headed by me) and instead of addressing us first, she starts helping the people that were just running up to her. So, I took a picture of her name tag so I wouldn’t forget her name because the next day when I got to work, I called Metro and reported her tail! She’s the station manager and nowadays anything can go down, so to be absent from your post is unacceptable.
20 minutes does sound like a long wait for a station manager, especially considering how long each minute must seem as you stand idly around the fare gates. What strikes me as even more unfortunate is that Miller's Metro trip was but one brief moment in a longer multi-modal commute. He'd just hopped off the bus and needed to go one stop on Metro. Yet with a busted SmarTrip card and no station manager, what's a rider to do?
Miller told me his relationship with Metro has been "rocky" in recent years. Normally his commute from Silver Spring to Van Ness takes him an hour even though Trip Planner ostensibly says it should take about 30 minutes. Miller is a loyal transit rider — he's taken Metro for 15 years now, nearly half the system's life. The service, in his time, has "definitely deteriorated."
His perception is no surprise given the age and complications of WMATA. If you talk to WMATA's spokespeople like Dan Stessel or listen to General Manager Richard Sarles, they'll allude to the years of neglect and deferred maintenance that have resulted in the enormous, multi-year, multi-billion-dollar effort of Metro Forward. Stessel has quoted a line from the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady to underscore the challenge: "The medicine is harsh but the patient requires it to live."
Yet Miller encounters the 30+ minute waits on the weekend and sees them as, as he told me, "a slap in the face." Will that quote reassure him? Miller complained about at least three occasions in his online post and encouraged others to call in complaints when warranted. here's another he wrote:
So the very next day, I enter my station and try to put my Smart Benefits (subway cash) on (because it’s the first of the month and they’re always available on the 1st of the month) and it wasn’t working. As I looked around this was happening to everyone who was trying to add benefits and it wasn’t working for them either. Now this is an entirely different station from the previous scenario. Was the station manager around? Nooooooooooooo!!!! So we were all freaking out because we couldn’t add money to our cards.
Metro's problem and the necessary medicine is, speaking broadly, two-fold. Yes, there's been deferred maintenance and there's a lot wrong with the 100+ miles of rail. Fasteners, escalators, antiquated computers, brake parts that fall off, and so on do plague the system, in many cases due to the 36 years of age that some parts of the system have experienced. Just see the calendar of track work planned for the Red Line, the system's oldest, to see where the priorities are going throughout the rest of 2012. Age hurts the system. Sarles just yesterday told The Examiner that WMATA's old computers prevent easy integration of flexible monthly passes.
Beyond the mechanical challenge, however, lies the challenge of organizational efficacy and strategic planning for the future. When Miller encountered trouble on the Metro two weeks ago, he faced both problems. One was mechanical (a busted card), the other personnel (no station manager for countless minutes and then a poor sense of prioritizing). WMATA will never be able to completely eradicate either of these problems but it will need better efforts to ward against them in the years to come. Metro Forward is one element that will hopefully improve the mechanical shortfalls and communicate the progress appropriately. The other side is bureaucratic and organizational. WMATA needs better mechanisms for training employees and assuring quality, for rudeness, for how staff treats sexual harassment and crimes in progress, to negotiate properly as well as fairly with its large union, to remain sensitive to emerging issues like suicide on the rails, and to incorporate other modes of transportation like biking, walking, and car-sharing. Here also comes the importance of cracking down on any potential fraud or internal theft and to ensure accountability for its contracts. The average rider needs to trust the competence of the organization and its employees as much as the safety of the trains and rails. Metro has made progress, but a trust deficit still prevents many people from believing Metro has reins firmly in hand guiding the transit workforce as we hear stories of hundreds of thousands stolen, sleeping station managers, insensitivity, and delays.
David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington recently wondered whether WMATA should outline its budget more than a decade in advance to help give riders confidence in its strategy. WMATA's own planning department, meanwhile, already imagines increased ridership and possible future expansions — perhaps the Green Line to BWI and National Harbor, the Orange Line to Bowie and Gainesville; possible new infill stations (Kansas Avenue Metro station between Fort Totten and Takoma?); a new Brown Line along Wisconsin Avenue, Constitution, and Georgia Avenue?
These considerations, all fair, all require Metro to tighten up its ranks today. To reach those future goals, WMATA will need to tackle the two sides of this customer service coin, mechanical and operational, as quickly and as safely and as transparently as possible.