The Metro Riders’ Advisory Council has submitted a letter to the Metro board addressing “one of the consistent topics of concern raised by council members and riders alike” — communication with riders.
The council’s concerns about “the need for that communication to be clear and informative” are well founded. So let’s look at what the council said.
“Metro has made significant strides in its communication to report delays as well as planned and unplanned service outages, often taking advantage of new technology to deliver more targeted messages to riders.”
The council letter goes on to talk about some important communications issues about the riders’ long-term prospects. But I wouldn’t let the transit authority off the hook just yet on its real-time communication. Many riders aren’t wired up, and they still get their information from station announcements, the electronic message boards on the platforms and the train operators — or they don’t get it at all.
Metro officials have told us the transit system will be deliberately disrupted for repairs for the foreseeable future. This is the new normal, as I said in a previous posting.
If Metro officials know that — and they certainly do — then they should also know that they need to do a better job with old-fashioned forms of communication, the face-to-face kind. Or at least the kind that involves station announcements, banners, posters and hand-written message boards.
But the council’s letter to the board went on to say some useful things about the long-term issues riders care about:
“The council believes that these enhanced communications about delays and construction is not a substitute for sustained communication to provide riders with a clearer picture of the agency’s long-term goals, strategic planning efforts and overall mission.
“For example, riders are provided with clear communications about upcoming track work, but not provided sufficient information about the full scope of the rebuilding process or how far along Metro is in that process beyond the warning that the work will continue, essentially indefinitely.”
We do know of the occasional milestone. For example, Metro says this weekend’s work on the Green Line marks the last installation of the protected switches recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board.
But we have no clue when Metro is likely to end manual control of the trains and restore the automatic controls suspended after the 2009 Red Line crash. Or when — even if — the maintenance disruptions scheduled for weekends, middays and weeknight are going to ease up.
The result is that these daily disruptions — whether scheduled or unscheduled, whether because of breakdowns or the repairs intended to lessen the chances of breakdowns — all amount to the same thing as far as many are concerned. Metro asks for patience.
Patience for what? Patience for how long?
The council sees Metro’s effort to publicize the Rush Plus changes, starting with the rush hour service on June 18, as a plus for the communications effort. And it is, up to a point. The interactive map and videos on Metro’s Web site are quite helpful.
But that better not be the end of it. There will be plenty of people on the platforms the morning of June 18 who have no idea what’s happening with their trains.
Rush Plus will modify train service on four of the five lines during morning and afternoon rush hours. There will be three more Orange Line trains and three more Yellow Line trains per hour. But three fewer Blue Line trains will pass through the Rosslyn tunnel. The destinations and terminals for some trains will be different.
Metro staffers need to be out there answering questions, directing people and making sure the electronic signs display correct information about incoming trains. The success of Rush Plus, the biggest change in service since the lines were completed, depends on types of communication that Metro struggles with.
Two weeks after the introduction of Rush Plus, transit passenger will start paying more for their rides. That's yet another thing many don’t understand, in light of the scheduled and unscheduled disruptions.
The council comes to this conclusion about Metro communications issues: “Metro has asked for extraordinary patience from its riders over the past several years as it addresses critical maintenance and safety issues, and will continue to ask for their forbearance for the next several years. Helping riders become informed about Metro’s challenges and plans to address them will serve as a benefit to all.”