August 31, 2012

Metro riders, on the whole, are a reasonable bunch. They just want the basics: safety, reliability, comfort and communication. But these days, even the basics are hard to come by.

Riders are jittery about accidents, angry that they can’t depend on bus and train schedules, fed up with being crammed into trains without air conditioning and frustrated by unintelligible announcements (when there are announcements to be had at all).

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board, general manager and senior management must reinvent their relationships with their customers. They need to put riders first. And they need to do it now.

It’s going to be years before the entire Metro system is in a state of good repair. In the meantime, Metro needs to focus on meeting customers’ basic expectations.

What does it mean to put riders first?

First, it means creating, publicizing and achieving a list of concrete customer-service improvements over the next six to 12 months, and then posting these goals on all trains and buses, at all stations and bus shelters, and on the WMATA Web site.

In the area of rider safety, it means that when trains go out of service between stations, a clear protocol is in place to guide riders’ actions. It also means that train operators will readily open train doors when a person — or a baby stroller — gets trapped by their vise-like grip.

In the area of reliability, it means making the on-schedule arrival of trains and buses the rule, not the exception. It means installing electronic information signs at both ends of train platforms, so riders know whether a six- or eight-car train is arriving. Let’s put an end to the hazardous “Metro scrum” that occurs as masses of riders who had been anticipating an eight-car train rush into the mosh pit that forms outside the last car of a six-car train.

It means providing better information. What’s the plan, station by station, date by date, for fixing the escalators and elevators? Will full cell-phone service be rolled out to all the stations and tunnels by October, as Metro pledged? And when will the “Next Bus” mobile application become reliable?

Rider comfort is a problem summer after summer. When will the air conditioning be dependable on both buses and trains?

Why aren’t rail passengers informed about significant delays — such as single-tracking — before they enter a station, not after they’ve paid their fares and traveled down a long escalator? Why isn’t electronic passenger-alert information, such as on escalator outages, posted in a “crawl” along the bottom of platform information displays, so that time-sensitive train information can be displayed continuously? When will in-station announcements be standardized and station managers adequately trained in announcement protocols? When can passengers expect to be able to consistently understand announcements on trains and platforms?

When will station signs be brightly and more ubiquitously displayed, so those passengers speeding into a station can actually see them and don't have to strain in every direction and ask fellow riders where they are? And when will Metro offer a 100 percent guarantee that it will convey accurate information to riders when trains stop between stations?

Finally, putting riders first means having WMATA board members and executives who serve as champions of the public, as well as a voting ombudsman whose whole focus is near-term rider priorities.

The board should specify clear, strong, annual performance metrics for all aspects of Metro, including: detailed safety management standards, normal rail and bus service levels for all operating hours, acceptable on-time performance ranges for trains and buses, and passenger information and call-center response standards. It means having these goals easily viewable at all major rider contact points.

The general manager should stand up in public, commit to the board’s performance metrics and then personally report on how well those criteria are being met. If senior Metro managers don’t achieve their specific, near-term safety, reliability, comfort and communications goals, they should make room for those who will. It’s up to the board, led by the voting ombudsman, to monitor these goals and insist on their achievement.

On July 25, The Post reported that people heading home on Metro after 10 p.m. are often subject to crowding, unreliable schedules and “bus bunching,” a problem where off-schedule buses arrive within a few minutes of each other, followed by periods of 30 minutes or more without any arrivals.

Metro’s response to these problems and to the demand for improved late-night service was “to study the issue.” Studying the issue isn’t good enough.

We need the WMATA board, general manager and senior managers to start treating riders like what they are: paying customers and human beings who deserve at least the most basic level of service that anyone would expect in any industry.

The writer, Montgomery County executive from 1994 to 2006, is chairman of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.