July 5, 2013

Metro passengers have asked when “normal” service — as they once knew it — will resume, especially on weekends, when major track work has forced us to reduce service.

The good news is that we have reached the halfway mark of our multiyear effort to virtually rebuild the system to improve safety and reliability, which is the hallmark of good customer service.

The maintenance backlog that we are working our way through did not appear overnight. At the beginning of this journey more than three decades ago, Metro was a young system running four-car trains, and maintenance took a back seat to service. This continued through the 1990s, a period of relatively flat ridership. But as the load on the system increased in the first decade of this century, a failure to invest in sufficient routine maintenance had dire consequences. There were broken rails, arcing insulators, mechanical failures and other symptoms of age, neglect and deterioration.

By 2010, the legacy of disrepair could no longer be ignored. There were fatal accidents, unmet National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recommendations and strained relationships with oversight groups. Add to that track conditions that required slow-speed restrictions and extra inspections to prevent failures. Metro had to right itself.

And so began the system’s restoration — a full reorientation, with safety as the focus of everything from governance and policy to funding and management accountability. Metro created a new safety department and built a long-term reconstruction program from the ground up.

Now, at the midway point, we can point to marked progress. Metro has asked for closure on or closed 19 of 29 NTSB recommendations. New rail cars, to replace the oldest in the fleet, will begin to arrive next year. Customer and employee injury rates have declined. A new “close call” reporting program — the first for any U.S. subway — starts this week, encouraging confidential safety reporting in addition to safety hotline and whistleblower programs. And an FTA safety review, which left no stone unturned, validated substantial safety progress in 2012.

In fact, last month a Post poll found a significant shift in views about the system’s safety, with 81 percent of riders rating Metro safety as “excellent” or “good,” an increase of 14 percentage points from The Post’s poll in 2010.

It was very good news to us that all of the work Metro is doing to improve safety and reliability on weekends has been noticed and appreciated by the customers and communities we serve. The investment in our Metro Forward capital program has more than doubled to $900 million annually for track repairs, signal improvements, station overhauls and new trains and buses, thanks to the support of Metro’s funding jurisdictions and congressional delegation.

This progress is possible because of the extensive weekend work that Metro is doing to catch up on the backlog of deferred maintenance. Inconveniencing riders is never a good thing, but performing this work on weekends when ridership is lowest means fewer unhappy travelers and more productivity for Metro crews. That productivity will enable Metro to reduce the intensity of the work in 2017, when the oldest areas of the system — especially the Red Line — will go on a steady diet of regular, less disruptive, maintenance.

While this critical work continues, of course, service hasn’t stopped — in fact, it has grown. Metro operates 929 rail cars daily, up from 850 three years ago. Service and on-time performance have improved, thanks to repairs of doors, brakes, air conditioning units and rails. Spectacular escalator failures are a thing of the past, and today, nine out of 10 escalators are working and moving people as they should.

And when we arrive at 2017, what can we expect? A safer system. Increased on-time performance. Fewer service disruptions and frustrating train “offloads.” New rail cars leading the fleet. A smoother and more reliable ride on rebuilt tracks. Improvements in older stations, such as better lighting and signage. Enhanced security, with more closed-circuit cameras throughout the system.

We are getting there. To our passengers, advocates and stakeholders: We deeply appreciate your patience and support while the journey continues to bring you a better ride.

The writer is general manager and chief executive of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.