While Metro looks to bright future, riders’ view of today’s conditions remains cloudy

Robert Thomson
Columnist June 15, 2013

Sometimes, it’s more fun to talk about the future than the present. On Thursday, Metro board members had a good time discussing their new program for dramatically improving the transit system by 2025.

It’s a very appealing plan. Some of the initiatives: operate all eight-car trains at rush hours after buying additional rail cars and upgrading power capacity; restore peak-period Blue Line service between Pentagon and Rosslyn; build new turnarounds and crossovers to make Metrorail more flexible; and expand the bus fleet and make bus service faster by establishing a priority lane system.

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 transit authority assembled an impressive collection of interest-group leaders to endorse the program, which is called Momentum. Metro doesn’t have the authority to make all the improvements, and it certainly doesn’t have the money, so the support of such groups is important.

“We commit to helping you get it adopted and getting the funding to make it happen,” said James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Board member Mortimer Downey made the important link between being here and getting there. “It’s also a plan for the present,” he said. Momentum’s first two goals are to “build and maintain a premier safety culture and system” and to “meet or exceed expectations by consistently delivering quality service.” The next two goals: “Improve regional mobility and connect communities” and “ensure financial stability and invest in our people and assets.”

“If we can do one and two,” Downey said, “then we can get three and four.”

Metro must “keep focused on the present, even as we look to the future.”

But when transit leaders focus on the present, the view gets fuzzier.

On Thursday, board members also listened to several presentations about efforts to dig today’s transit system out of various holes. One of the most important and sensitive programs involves the restoration of automatic train controls, suspended since they were implicated in the 2009 Red Line crash.

Metro, following National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, has been working its way back toward a restoration ever since and is pretty far along in the process. Yet Metro managers refuse to give any sort of timetable on when the trains will again be operating automatically, as they were designed to do, rather than under the sometimes herky-jerky control of drivers.

On this, Downey said he doesn’t want to press for a timetable, and General Manager Richard Sarles said he doesn’t want to give one — not a day, not a month, not a year.

Now, the automatic train control system is a special issue. In rebuilding this system, Metro is taking us to a place we haven’t been before. When the restart day comes, this complex system has to work right every time.

But not even a year? Are they afraid that if they name a year as a target for restoration, the transit staff suddenly will be consumed with go-fever?

What about other, less-sensitive parts of the effort to rebuild the rail system? The transit staff can provide considerable detail on what’s been done to rebuild track and platforms, and on why the aggressive effort, now two years old, isn’t showing more obvious signs of progress.

In fact, Deputy General Manager Rob Troup made a good case for continued station closings and track sharing, saying that “time and space are critical” to get the most repairs done in the shortest time.

How short a time? Again, that’s where the details get fuzzy.

We know the aggressive rebuilding will continue to 2017. But when will your ride be reliable? When will your station repairs be done?

When it comes to addressing what riders care about today, it’s difficult to judge Metro’s momentum.

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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