Metro riders group debates essentials of a service pledge to customers

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 9, 2013

Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council is working on its most important task since the citizens panel was formed in 2005: trying to distill the essence of what the transit authority owes its passengers.

The council plans to present this to Metro board members for consideration as a customer-service pledge similar to ones developed by some other transit agencies — though not very many.

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

The project is important to riders because it’s a chance to establish what’s at the heart of their sometimes-troubled relationship with an entity as big and impersonal as the transit authority. And it’s important to the transit authority, because in this era of rebuilding and disruption, it needs to make a connection with customers that goes beyond “Thank you for riding Metro.”

On Wednesday night, the volunteers who form the council held a brainstorming session at Metro headquarters to discuss potential elements of a service pledge. While it’s easy to come up with specific complaints about poor service, such as train doors closing in your face, it’s much harder to narrow them down to a handful of assertions to make a pledge.

Ben Ball, the council chairman, said that developing the pledge “is less about anecdotes and more about ‘This is what I want.’ ”

Members of the council have researched the pledges offered by some transit systems, as well as the various standards used by Metro.

What the council has in mind is a focused, visible document in support of the riders’ basic interests. And make sure it’s not in “transit-speak,” said Carol Walker, the council’s vice chairman for the District. No references to “headways,” for example.

These were among the issues that arose as they reviewed other transit pledges:

●What categories should the pledge cover? Safety and security, certainly. Should there be elements related to staff courtesy? To fares? To communications with riders?

●When something goes wrong, what does a rider most want from Metro?

●Where could a customer take a complaint after reading the pledge? Some other systems have nice-sounding sentences in their pledges that say nothing of substance. Riders must be able to tell whether the transit agency is adhering to the pledge.

●How specific should the language be? On communications, for example, should there be a requirement to notify riders about any delay likely to last a certain number of minutes? In an emergency, should train operators be required to communicate with their passengers every X number of minutes, or should the standard be more aspirational, as in “within a reasonable time”?

Fred Walker, a council member from Fairfax County, made a good point in suggesting that the group also look at private companies’ pledges to their customers. “Everyone has the same issues,” he said, citing Johnson & Johnson’s “Our Credo” as an example.

Ball said the council will continue to work on the language, get feedback from Metro staff and then present the proposal to Metro board members for their consideration this fall.

That’s another tricky part: The service pledge isn’t an in-your-face manifesto from riders to the transit authority. If it were, the council could turn the task over to the crowd on the Shady Grove-bound platform at Gallery Place during the afternoon rush.

The riders’ council is advising the transit leadership on what the leaders need to pledge.

This wouldn’t be the first move toward setting standards. General Manager Richard Sarles created a statistical report called Vital Signs. The board has adopted guidelines that set the maximum number of minutes between trains. And there are service goals in the new strategic plan called Momentum.

It’s not enough. The customer pledge should be a plain-language transmission about what each person who enters the transit system has a right to expect.

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@washpost.com.

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