Metro should set public deadlines for rebuilding effort


Metro riders, like these waiting for a train, have been remarkably patient about the rebuilding schedule. (Jabin Botsford/For The Washington Post)

Two years into Metrorail’s rebuilding program, it’s impossible for the general public to tell whether it is working. It’s time for the transit authority to level with the riders and everyone who depends on the rail system about what’s going to be fixed when.

We’re used to having our transportation departments set goals and deadlines. Look, for example, at the Maryland State Highway Administration’s road work plan for the rest of 2013. You know where we’ll be getting a new ramp or turn lane. You can see the scope of the work at any interchange or stretch of roadway, when it started and when SHA anticipates finishing.

You can see that the SHA is just starting to rehabilitate the University Boulevard bridge over the Capital Beltway and that the work is scheduled to be done in fall 2014. If it’s not done then, drivers will notice, and we can ask why.

Red Line riders, do you know when the Red Line is going to be done? Do you know when your torn-up station platform is going to be fixed?

I know Metro has aggressively pursued track work projects that will result in a smoother, more reliable ride, and that’s swell. I just don’t know whether any commuter reading these words will live to experience it.

When will the trains be returned to automatic control, the method for which they were designed to operate? They’ve been under the control of the operators since the June 2009 Red Line crash while Metro works on a safe upgrade to the system.

Publicly stated deadlines would be good for the transit authority, as well as the public. They inspire confidence, especially when the deadlines are met.

Metro does have performance standards and issues quarterly reports. But the style of performance reports is more meaningful to employees vying for bonuses than to customers waiting for trains.

In May, Dana Hedgpeth wrote about Metro’s latest Vital Signs report: The rail system’s on-time performance was 92 percent for the first three months of the year, higher than the target of 90.5 percent.

Okay, fine, but what is that supposed to mean to Red Line riders who got caught up in the morning-long delays on June 3 that started with an arcing insulator along the tracks between Medical Center and Grosvenor? Or those who wandered around waiting for shuttle buses at Takoma on May 14 after an empty train at Silver Spring started belching smoke and flame?

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles isn’t responsible for the tremendous backlog of maintenance and repair problems that accumulated over more than three decades of Metrorail operations. He is responsible for the aggressive repair program he set in motion in 2011. He’s responsible for the pace and focus of the repair program. And so is the Metro board that approved it.

Many of us understand the concept of intensive work to meet deadlines. With the Metro rebuilding program, we have an intensive program without deadlines.

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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Maggie Fazeli Fard | June 11, 2013