Metro chief Richard Sarles apologizes to riders on Red Line after series of major delays


Metro General Manager Richard Sarles speaks during a news conference Thursday on Metro's recent Red Line delays.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles apologized to Red Line riders Thursday for a second straight day of major delays on the system’s busiest rail line, saying customers have a right to be angry and deserve better treatment.

“As a commuter myself, I know that it is difficult to be delayed,” he said during an afternoon news conference at Metro’s downtown headquarters. “I apologize. This is not how you want to treat your customers.”

His appearance came on the heels of two days of frustrating morning commutes for Red Line riders.

On Wednesday, a cable fell from the 22-foot-tall ceiling of the Woodley Park station’s tunnel, forcing Red Line trains to share a single track for three hours while crews made repairs. Some passengers said their commutes were two to three times as long as usual.

Then, about 8:15 a.m. Thursday, a Red Line train headed toward Glenmont had brake trouble between the Fort Totten and Brookland-CUA stations.

Crews reversed the train and sent it to the Brentwood rail yard near the Rhode Island Avenue stop, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. But doing that required other trains to single-track to get around it.

When crews tried to restore normal service, workers found a problem with a switch that allows trains to move from one track to another. The result? Another Metro alert to riders at 8:30 a.m., warning of delays because of the signal problems at Fort Totten.

Metro posted an apology from Sarles on its Web site Thursday. In it, Sarles told customers that he wanted to “apologize for the delays and inconvenience you have experienced recently.”

“I know that service on the Red Line has not been good over the past several days. Be assured, we are focused on these issues and are taking steps to improve service,” he said.

Red Line riders said the problems Wednesday and Thursday came on top of complaints about service Monday. Anticipating that there would be fewer commuters because of the Veterans Day holiday, Metro reduced the number of trains. The result, some riders said, was packed trains, crowded platforms and longer commutes for those who were working. Orange Line riders had similar complaints.

The Red Line problems also drew the attention of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who tweeted that riders should share their “disappointment” with Sarles and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), one of the city’s representatives on Metro’s board.

The Red Line is the oldest and busiest of Metro’s five lines, with more than 150,000 rider trips on an average weekday. And although some commuters also think it is Metro’s most troubled line, Sarles said that is not the case.

“These types of issues can occur anywhere in the system,” he said. The idea that it’s always the Red Line, he added, is an “incorrect perception.”

Sarles said riders who want a refund can call Metro’s customer service line at 202-637-1328 or fill out a complaint form online. He acknowledged that the agency’s response to Wednesday’s problem with the dangling cable — which took three hours to repair — was “unacceptable,” adding that he and his senior staff would be looking at ways to improve reaction time. One strategy could involve redeploying repair crews.

He said officials also are examining why rail cars continue to have problems with brakes that lock up — the issue at the root of Thursday’s delays.

Initially, riders experienced delays of 30 to 40 minutes, but by 10 a.m., the delays were about 15 minutes and by 11 a.m. trains were operating normally, Metro officials said.

Sarles also acknowledged other recent problems on the line.

A week ago Thursday, Red Line riders experienced delays of up to an hour after hydraulic fluid leaked from a piece of track equipment, forcing trains to share a track between the Judiciary Square and Rhode Island Avenue stations from 5 a.m. until almost 9 a.m.

The last time Sarles made a public apology for Metro problems was in January, when dozens of passengers got off a stranded train, without supervision, in a tunnel between the Navy Yard and Anacostia stations and came up through a vent shaft that leads into Anacostia Park.

Sarles went to the Navy Yard station during the evening rush period and apologized to customers.

The Red Line’s recent troubles stand out in part because it is the heaviest traveled line. It also is undergoing major rebuilding as part of the transit agency’s $5 billion capital improvement plan. Nearly every weekend, there are numerous stations shut down for track work.

And the troubles come as officials of the transit system launch an ambitious and costly plan for major upgrades to the system, including building a second crossing over the Potomac River and extending service to Georgetown. The long-term plan will require Sarles to win support and funding from member jurisdictions.

All this while riders are complaining that they aren’t noticing improvements in their weekday commutes. Rider Laura Finch tweeted Thursday morning: “Took one look at the #redline platform at Metro Center and bailed. Unbelievable.”

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.
Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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