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Newest Metro Rider Is the System's Boss

White Leaves Car to Get Customers' View

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page B01

Richard A. White, the chief executive of a transit system that has suffered through a year of troubles, says he's now on board -- the Orange Line, that is.

For the past four years, the man in charge of one of the nation's largest mass transit systems drove to work because it was more convenient for his schedule. But last month, he decided that if he is going to fix the problems his agency faces, he needs to reconnect with his employees and the working stiffs who ride the transit lines he runs.

"I need to see and feel and experience what the customers see and feel and experience," Richard A. White says. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Richard A. White

Career: Came to Metro in August 1996, after serving as general manager of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District in California. He has spent 30 years in the transit industry.

Job description: Responsible for the operation of Metrorail, Metrobus and MetroAccess paratransit service. One of the largest transit systems in the nation, Metro employs nearly 10,000 people. It has a $1 billion annual operating budget and a six-year capital improvement program worth $3.3 billion.

Accomplishments: Has overseen the completion of the original 103-mile rail system; three stations will be added by the end of this year. New rail cars have been purchased, and the fare and fee collection system has been modernized.

Challenges: As White tries to build public support for financing service improvements, Metro management and staff have been the target of complaints about poor service. The transit agency has increased fares twice in two years.

_____Metrorail Special Report_____
For Red Line Riders, A Year of Misfortune (The Washington Post, Nov 8, 2004)
Red Line Back on Track (The Washington Post, Nov 8, 2004)
Richard A. White (The Washington Post, Nov 8, 2004)
More Metrorail News
Metrorail Map

"I need to be a good transit user," White said. "I need to see and feel and experience what the customers see and feel and experience. The simple statement here is that we are back on the case in a strong way, starting with me. I'm changing my own personal behavior and my own professional behavior."

So now he drives from his Fairfax County home to the Vienna or Dunn Loring stations, parks, gets on the Orange Line, takes it to Metro Center and hops over to the Red Line for one stop to Gallery Place. He said it's not so bad on early morning trains -- he can usually snag a seat then -- but in the evening, the crowding is pretty severe.

White said he has gotten on board more than just the Orange Line.

Last week's train crash at Woodley Park Station was the latest in a series of crises for Metro leaders, but it was also the unveiling of what the chief executive said will be the new Richard White. He left his office, went to the scene and spoke directly to the public. He said he knows this is the kind of out-there, in-charge approach that is required of him.

"We're going to have to show some people that we're doing some good thinking here," White said. "We get it."

White, 52, said Friday that he recognizes he is a man fighting for his job and pledged to improve reliability, customer service and accountability.

"Our way of providing customer service and outreach is abysmal," White said.

He said his attention has been diverted for years by budget problems and efforts to secure billions from the local and federal government to keep the system running.

One of his failures, he said, is that he has "not cracked the nut on the organizational culture issue." Many Metro employees have never worked anywhere else and can't draw on the broader experience of the industry in tackling problems. He also said the agency is suffering from an influx of new, inexperienced employees.

Investigators probing Wednesday's crash are looking into the actions of the operator whose train rolled back down a tunnel and struck the train stopped at Woodley Park, slightly injuring 20 people. The operator has been in the job for seven months.

The crash was the latest setback for the transit agency in a tough year. An internal audit made public in February suggested that the agency was losing up to $1 million annually at parking lots because it failed to monitor cashiers. Officials sought to solve that issue by going to a cashless system based on electronic payment cards, but they failed to order enough SmartTrip cards to meet demand.

In June, officials shifted to two-car trains at night to try to save money, resulting in severe crowding that forced them to revert to four-car trains. In August, a train derailed at Silver Spring, and last month, service was slowed by cracks in the tracks.

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