Editorial page editor June 30, 2013

Who hasn’t imagined, while killing time on a stalled Red Line car or trudging up a broken Orange Line escalator, exchanging a few words with Metro’s boss?

I had that chance last week. It wasn’t quite as satisfying as you might think.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

The timing was auspicious, in a perverse way. General Manager Richard Sarles came to visit with Post editors and reporters on Wednesday. Tuesday, I had one of those Metrorail days.

In the morning, I arrived at the construction site known as Farragut North station, which has been a work-in-sporadic-progress for more than three years. (More than two years ago, this sentence appeared in a Post article: “A year ago, Metro officials estimated the repairs would take about two weeks.”)

A train moving in the opposite direction arrived about the same time, so a resigned crowd shuffled toward the only working up escalator at the north end of the platform. A poster on the board walling off the unavailable escalator, which was supposed to have been fixed this spring, advised, “Slow ride, take it easy.” A poster at the top, acknowledging the missed deadline, shrugged: “time keeps on slippin’.” Who in Metro marketing thought these would make us feel better?

That evening, after a meeting on Capitol Hill, I found myself on a sweltering, frighteningly dark Red Line platform at Union Station. The power was out. I waited 15 minutes for a train.

“Pepco,” Sarles explained, when I began describing the previous evening’s experience.

Okay, Pepco happens. But why was there no Metro employee advising people at street level not to descend into the rancid darkness until a train was close?

Sarles acknowledged that employee interaction with riders, especially during crises, still needs work. “If I had my druthers,” he said, he would hire station managers based on “the ability to operate in a customer-friendly way.”

But, Sarles said, Metro’s collective bargaining agreement requires him to promote bus drivers to train operators and station managers. In fact, his spokesman said, mediocre bus drivers may get promoted more quickly because “we need to get you from behind the wheel.”

And if someone does a great job as station manager, “I can’t recognize that financially,” Sarles said. Good employees can be rewarded with lunches with the boss — him — or saluted at board meetings.

Could the agreement be changed to allow for merit pay? Sarles said any disagreement with the union goes to binding arbitration. Arbitrators “tend to sweep away any non-economic issues . . . That’s the deal you’re dealt, you have to work around it.”

Metro’s deal also includes three inescapable truths, Sarles said: A system that was spanking new in 1976 is showing its age. Ridership has soared 48 percent since 1997, adding to the wear and tear. And in the decade before 2011, when he took over, Sarles said the system did not invest sufficiently in maintenance and renovation.

Thus the hated weekend work, which will persist at least into 2017.

Everyone would be happier if Metro did repairs only during what Sarles called “non-revenue hours.” But, he said, it takes workers 90 minutes to set up and 90 minutes to dismantle, so overnight work achieves at best 64 percent productivity. Working through the weekend, the system can achieve 84 percent productivity and get more bang for its buck.

The conversation was turning out to be less fulfilling than in the angry anticipation. Sarles seemed nice, dedicated and on top of his job. He rides Metro every weekday and at least once on weekends. He has to answer to innumerable jurisdictions and constituencies. At Farragut North, unexpected structural challenges slowed progress, he explained, as did the need to suspend work to handle overflow crowds while Dupont Circle’s escalators were out of service. Listening to him lay out the challenges, it was hard not to sympathize. And the system does work well most of the time . . .

Fortunately, before I could be totally co-opted, Sarles managed to set my blood simmering again. After citing improvements in Metro’s “safety culture” and signage, he bragged that on-time “reliability” has improved from below 90 percent to 91.5 percent, at times hitting even 94 percent.

Really? Why doesn’t it feel that way? Well, his spokesman explained, reliability is defined with a 50 percent “buffer.” If trains are supposed to be running every 12 minutes, and yours comes at 17:59, Metro considers that a success.

Slow ride, take it easy.

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