Rider says Metro managers don’t understand day-to-day concerns


A Metro worker emerges from a tunnel at Mount Vernon Square station during a switch replacement, the type of job that disrupts weekend service, yields a long-term benefit and is hidden from public view. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

One comment for this week’s online discussion dealt with my column about Metro’s plan to use the Bethesda station as a station design lab, an idea I support. The comment contains many good ideas worth further discussion, so I held it out for posting on the blog.

Here’s what the commenter wrote:

‘Metro – lose the abstractions and nail the basics!’

Dr. Gridlock, thanks for the column about what Metro riders should expect from Metro in terms of design improvements and infrastructure repairs. I don’t disagree with the principle behind what you said, but every time Metro announces one of these high-falutin plans I am reminded that Metro management doesn’t understand that everyday riders don’t care about abstractions.

We care about the everyday reality. And the everyday reality is broken elevators, unreliable escalators, surly employees, uneven and poor communication — these are issues that happen to riders every day, every week, ad infinitum. For example, the elevator at the Van Ness stop is out of service till July (which really means September, who are we kidding?).

For the last four weeks at least, the street-level escalators at Van Ness have not been working properly. This morning [Monday] on the east entrance, which has one escalator and a flight of steps, the escalator was going down, which meant that riders had to climb the steps to exit to street level. At the west entrance, the street escalators have been malfunctioning for several weeks.

These are the types of issues that irk regular riders like me. And when I see Metro’s ad campaign — the posters inside train stations extolling the repair work that Metro has been doing — my thought is twofold: 1) how much of my taxpayer dollars went to a PR firm to produce those posters; dollars that should be spent on fixing the broken escalators; and 2) once again, I don’t care about abstractions; goody that Metro has replaced X miles of track ties or whatever — but I care about the everyday experience. If you can’t nail the everyday experience, what [confidence] can I have that you will nail the future?

Why, why, why doesn’t Metro’s management get this?

DG: I want to address many of those points, so I’m going to keep this response as tight as I can make it.

How a rider experiences a station is no more an abstraction than the replacement of X miles of track ties, which help keep the trains on the tracks.

Riders should expect the escalators and elevators to work, they should expect the trains to be on time and they should expect communications to be clear and helpful. They should expect Metro to plan for new rail cars, tunnels and services that will help them get where they’re going. They should expect the underground stations to be well-lit, easy to move through and comfortable to wait in.

They should expect Metro’s leaders to be working on all those things. Thanks to the D.C. region’s taxpayers, Metro is spending $5.5 billion on fixes and upgrades. Riders see that money getting spent every week night and every weekend.

Some projects are more obvious in their impact than others. This weekend, some Red Line stations will be shut. Among the projects is platform reconstruction at Fort Totten and Takoma. The platforms on the east side of the Red Line, torn up for many months, are gradually starting to look better. And the new style of platform tiling not only looks better, but also should last longer and be less slippery.

Such things are a lot more obvious to riders than the track renewal and insulator replacement also scheduled for the Red Line this weekend. But such work gradually leads to a safer, smoother, more reliable rides.

Those are good investments. Thank you, taxpayers.

They’re also providing the money for modern rail cars, with more robust systems that will keep them in service longer between breakdowns — something that might be particularly appealing to people who were on the Green and Yellow lines during the Tuesday morning rush.

But for many riders, the upgrades are too slow and the benefits too obscure. Meanwhile, the service disruptions are too obvious.

Metro tends to be more oriented toward moving equipment than moving people. Consider that the next time the train doors close in your face, or you get off-loaded and can’t figure out what you and 600 other people are supposed to do next.

So I thought the deployment of those station signs that say what work is going on and why was a step in the right direction. Since trains can’t read, the printed signs are an acknowledgment that humans are around to read them. (The downside is that humans are bound to notice when deadlines for a return to service slip by. Metro officials should pay more attention to meeting their own deadlines and recognize the impact of failing to do so.)

The Metro system deteriorated because of delayed maintenance, and it’s going to take years more of disruptions and delays to restore it. There’s nothing in those statements that provides a good argument against improving the design of the stations.

They are all day-to-day concerns. Metro can and should do all those things, and riders shouldn’t feel they need to pick one thing over another.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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