Many more Metrorail riders than formal complaints

December 1, 2011

Ask a Metro rider what’s wrong with the rail system and you’re apt to hear, “How long can you ride along and listen?”

The list goes on and on.

Late and crowded trains. Inaudible announcements. Broken escalators — again and again. Rude or unhelpful station managers. Farecard machines that don’t work. Poorly lit stations. Not enough signs. Smelly brake dust. Dirty trains. And all of this for fares that some contend are too high.

But transit agency records indicate that relatively few Metrorail customers make formal complaints when compared with the hundreds of thousands who ride the five lines and 106 miles of track every day.

Pat Bender, who has commuted between Northern Virginia and downtown Washington for 15 years, summed up her feelings on an evening ride from Metro Center to West Falls Church.

“I hate Metro,” she said.

Bender said she files two or three complaints a month online. Among the questions she has put to Metro are: Why does she have to pay more at busy stations such as West Falls Church and Metro Center during rush hour when trains are eight, 10 or even 15 minutes late? And why does she have to pay the higher weekday fares on some federal holidays, such as Columbus Day?

She said she hasn’t received a meaningful response to any of her questions.

“It’s so expensive to ride the subway, and the product isn’t worth it,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind paying the rates if I got service, but I just don’t get it.”

Metro received 15,514 complaints — or about 817 a month — in the 19 months from January 2010 through July 2011, according to agency data. That compares with the 737,196 trips made on an average weekday.

Given that most commuters take the train to and from the office, that’s 10 times a week that Metro has “the opportunity to satisfy their expectations or miss the mark,” said Lynn Bowersox, Metro’s managing director of public relations.

“We know we’re only as good as the last trip you’ve taken,” she said.

The data show that riders on the Red Line, the system’s busiest, lodged the most complaints, with 7,193 for the period. The combined Blue and Orange lines ranked second, with 5,466, and the combined Yellow and Green lines were third, with 2,855.

One top complaint category — with 3,511 complaints across all five lines — was delays, late trains and inadequate service.

Other top complaint categories included:

Elevator/escalator: 1,969

Rude, discourteous/uncooperative staff: 1,144

Air conditioning/heating on rail cars: 752

Train door closings: 710

Dirty rail cars and stations: 332

Nearly two-thirds of the complaints Metro receives are made by phone, and the others are made online or by e-mail.

About 35 percent of complaints by phone are resolved during the call, according to Bowersox. Web and e-mail correspondents receive an “automatic response right away” to acknowledge the complaint, she said.

The goal, she said, is to provide a substantive response to customers within 72 hours. Metro officials said the agency typically meets that goal for “routine matters.” Some complaints, she said, require a more in-depth look and take five to seven days for a response.

Transportation experts said Metro’s riders expect to have a system that runs smoothly on a daily basis, probably more so than such places as New York or Chicago.

“D.C. is the capital city,” said Joshua Schank, an urban planner and transportation expert. “If [the Metro] doesn’t run well or function well, it reflects poorly on the city and the country. It is America’s subway.

“A lot more visitors are going to judge the U.S. based on what they see in D.C. We feel pride in it. We expect it to function effectively because it is not that old.”

Schank said Washingtonians are typically high achievers and often don’t have much time — or patience — for hiccups in the Metro.

“In D.C., there can be a perception of a greater demand on time than, say, in New York,” said Schank, president of Eno Transportation Foundation, a transportation think tank. “They’re working for somebody they think is important. They think their time is precious and more valuable. They have a greater sense that time matters than an average person.”

In New York, the system is known for running 24 hours, and work is constantly being done, Schank said.

“There’s always some trouble,” he said. “You expect things are going to go haywire. Metro is a relatively new system compared to New York’s, and people expect it to function as a new system.”

Public relations effort

Metro recently launched a public relations campaign, called Metro Forward, to publicize an extensive effort to repair and upgrade the system. Metro’s chief spokesman, Dan Stessel, said the campaign seems to be gaining traction among riders.

But some passengers said it just isn’t easy to file a complaint.

Either they can’t find a station manager to give them a form, or they think that if they fill out a form, nothing will actually change. Others said they don’t even know where to find a complaint form, even online.

“I don’t have time to file a complaint,” said Dominique Washington, 18, as she boarded a train recently at Metro Center. Nevermind that her father drove buses for Metro for 12 years before retiring. The Trinity Washington University criminal justice major said that if she had time, she would tell Metro what she would like to see: more time for passengers to get on and off trains; cleaner rail cars; no spitting or eating on trains — already against the law; and more courteous employees, please.

“We pay money for this,” she said. “They treat us like we are nobody.”

Some riders think that the system is so broken they won’t be heard.

“I can’t imagine something would happen if I filed a complaint,” said Jeff Sanders, 35, who commutes between his home near the East Falls Church stop and his job as an analyst at the Government Accountability Office near Judiciary Square. “There’s not much they can do. It seems their hands are tied,” he said, noting the system’s strained financial resources and deteriorating condition.

Others don’t think the 35-year-old system is too bad.

“It’s a fine system,” said Bender’s husband, David Bender. “It breaks down like cars on the road have breakdowns. My wife would argue that point.”

Orange Line incident

Pat Bender was still frustrated at how Metro responded to an incident last month on the Orange Line, in which the transit agency said a man jumped in front of a train at rush hour. That night, Bender said, the crowded platform seemed dangerous, there were too few buses to shuttle stranded passengers, and some Metro employees weren’t helpful in giving out information.

The couple’s commute home took three hours; normally it is half that. A few days after the Orange Line incident, Bender completed a survey Metro distributed on how the situation was handled.

“The questions were slanted in a way that showed they didn’t really want to hear feedback of negativity,” she said. “It gave you a sense that they didn’t really care what happened.”

Eric Fingerhut, 41, of Bethesda said, “I look at Metro and there are things that bother me, and I just don’t get it.”

Take one evening when he was coming from a Washington Capitals hockey game at Verizon Center and there weren’t enough working escalators at Gallery Place to accommodate the crowds.

“It’s easy things like that where you wonder, ‘Is anyone paying attention?’ ”

Get our database of top complaints here.

Download the entire file here.

Follow Dana Hedgpeth on Twitter @postmetrogirl.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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