Metro: We’re getting better, really!

Rob Troup, the No. 2 official at Metro, played service rep for the customers Tuesday night. Customers wanted to know when his company’s busted product — the Red Line — would be fixed.

Rob Troup
Rob Troup (Metro photo)

The customers in this case were the members of the Action Committee for Transit gathered at their monthly meeting in Silver Spring. There’s no citizens group in the D.C. area that’s more tuned in to transit than ACT. Members have been pushing the Purple Line for years and are very supportive of Metro, but they want it to work. ACT is based in Montgomery County, so members have a special place for the Red Line in their transit-oriented hearts. They know all about the weekday delays and the weekend disruptions.

When would Troup make it stop?

Troup is a railroad guy, and not so much the service-with-a-smile guy: “It will never end,” he told them. He was delivering Metro’s message that the transit authority is trying to recoup rapidly from many years of under-investment in the stuff that makes the trains go. As the system is rebuilt, the daily delays should lessen and the weekend work abate.

Well, when will that happen?

2017, Troup said.

“2017!?”

That, said Troup, is when the transit system will be restored to what transit officials call a state of good repair. But if weekend station shutdowns and single-tracking ceased after that, we’d just recreate all the problems that got us into this mess in the first place. So, he said, don’t ever expect a time when the scheduled disruptions will disappear.

But is the rebuilding program succeeding, and if so, how can we tell? Yes, said Troup, and you can tell because the number of disruptions along the tracks decreased significantly from 2012 to 2013. More than half of today’s daily delays are caused by problems with the rail cars, not the tracks, he said. Aging rail cars need to be replaced, and that program is underway.

During the past few months, the Red Line has seemed particularly cursed by disruptions, but I hear from riders throughout the system who judge it based on today’s trip, not on what they might expect in 2017.

During my online discussion Monday, a commenter wrote this.

Metro’s To Do List: Surely Metro has a “To Do” list of items to be accomplished during these weekends of work. Is it not possible for them to post this list with items accomplished in some format so we can get a sense of progress on the system overall? Many improvements are not very visible or are occurring in areas we don’t routinely travel. Seems like it would help their P.R. problem. Even if they can’t list things like individual switch replacement, they could say we’ve completed 10% of scheduled replacements, etc.

Metro does have a “To Do” list of what work is scheduled for each weekend. It’s part of the transit authority’s weekly announcements about upcoming work. You see that reflected in my weekly advisories, such as this one from last Wednesday. But Metro doesn’t have anything exactly like what this commenter seeks in terms of detailed reports on progress, and I think that’s a problem for the transit authority as well as for the riders. As Troup noted on Tuesday, Metro wasn’t built to repair equipment, it was built to move people.

People are sharing in the rebuilding experience, so they need frequent and easy to understand updates on how it’s going. Troup, Metro’s deputy general manager of operations, did a good thing Tuesday by going out and answering specific questions from the riders in Silver Spring. More of that, please.

But for mass communicating about progress on the rebuilding program, the closest things I can find to what the commenter wants is Metro’s Capital Program Progress Report. The latest one takes us through the end of calendar year 2013. See the full report here as a pdf, but here are some highlights:

  • Metro began replacing five escalators. Two of them are at Van Ness, and one each at Georgia Avenue-Petworth, Mount Vernon Square and Bethesda. The work is scheduled to be done this spring.
  • At Bethesda, platform-to-mezzanine stairs were completed. Brighter lighting was installed on the mezzanine. The program to install brighter lighting on the mezzanines at all underground stations began, and they should all be done by 2015.
  • Metro awarded a long-term contract for the replacement of over 13,000 brighter light fixtures in 25 parking facilities. These will automatically dim during the day.
  • In the last six months of the year, 50 buses were rehabilitated and 50 more are scheduled for rehabilitation by the end of June.
  • In the same period, Metro replaced 613 signs in the rail system out of the 1,500 it plans to replace by June.
  • Seven elevators and 12 escalators were rehabilitated. By June, the totals should be 22 elevators and 37 escalators.

Now here’s a part that’s a big deal to Metro officials like Troup but drives riders nuts when they hear about it, because it’s especially hard to decipher: In the last six months of 2013 Metro welded 370 open weld joints, rehabilitated 3,509 linear feet of grout pads, tamped 20 miles of track, repaired 1,170 leaks, and replaced four miles of rail, 8,055 cross ties and 11,619 rail fasteners.

Troup said this sort of thing is crucial to making the ride smoother and more reliable. You get where you’re going on time, and it doesn’t hurt.

But there are many thousands of cross ties, rails and fasteners. Metrorail is the sum of all these pieces, Troup said, and if you make some pieces better, you make the pieces they work with last longer and perform better.

But few riders look at the system. They look at their trips. And they don’t look at 2017. They look at today.

To riders, Metro is as good as their last trip, and they don’t measure that in rail fasteners replaced.

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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