Metro rider finds customer service lacking even when disruption is scheduled

Robert Thomson
Columnist May 16, 2013

Some reasons Metro struggles with train breakdowns : No station has enough staffers to help the hundreds who pour from trains that can’t continue, and the buses for the substitute shuttle service need to be collected and sent along congested streets to the affected stations.

We saw the dramatic effects of this Tuesday evening at Takoma station after the train fire at Silver Spring.

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. View Archive

But this letter isn’t about chaos resulting from an emergency. It’s about chaos resulting from long-planned weekend track work.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Friday, May 10, my husband and I were among several hundred unhappy Nationals fans who were stranded outside the Ballston Metro station because of Metro’s decision to close portions of the Orange Line at 10 p.m.

We had heard mutterings about station closures over the Metro loudspeaker earlier that evening on our way to the game, but surely Metro didn’t intend to close Orange Line stations before thousands of Nats fans and Capitals fans had gotten home safely?

What happened outside the Ballston station after 10 p.m. resembled a low-budget version of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

Hundreds of weary, bewildered passengers stood in a sea of confusion — not to mention pouring rain, lightning and fog — trying desperately to crowd onto an inadequate handful of shuttle buses that were supposed to take us to our cars at the now-closed Metro stations.

There were no queuing lines, so nobody knew where to wait. Metro staff didn’t know how to organize the crowds, which led to further confusion. There were no signs, so nobody knew which shuttle buses went to which Metro stations.

About 11:20 p.m., my husband and I finally boarded a shuttle bus. It was only after we were on our way that we learned our Metro driver did not know Fairfax County roads or the locations of the Orange Line stations.

About 11:45 p.m., the poor fellow got turned around in the fog and drove halfway back to Arlington before an alert young passenger with a smartphone GPS app pointed out to him that he was going the wrong way. We didn’t get home until about 12:30 a.m.

Here are my suggestions to Metro:

Alert late-afternoon parkers to Metro station closures before they enter the system. We drove to Dunn Loring well before 6 p.m. If we had known we would have so much trouble getting home, we could easily have driven to Ballston and avoided the hassle afterward. A big sign at the parking lot entrance saying “WARNING: Station Closure TONIGHT” would have helped.

Put up bus-queuing signs outside the station.

Give the drivers navigation tools for unfamiliar routes.

●Inform crowds of all possible alternatives. In addition to the free shuttles, some passengers could have used local buses or cabs.

●Provide better training for Metro staff. The drivers, staffers and supervisors we encountered were all clearly just as unhappy and overwhelmed as we were, thrust into a bad situation not of their making. Better training in crowd control, troubleshooting, navigation and public relations would have solved a lot of these problems.

— Celeste Land, Vienna

These planned disruptions for maintenance are the ones Metro should ace on customer service.

Metro has gotten better about providing guidance to riders on the weekends but still is not good enough. There are signs in the stations, but they are not prominent enough. There are loudspeaker announcements, but they are not clear enough. Station personnel and drivers responsible for getting the paying customers where they are going are not trained and supervised well enough.

The only thing we have in sufficient quantity: rider frustration with a system that will continue for years.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@
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