washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Special Reports > Metrorail

Metro Advisers Offer List Of Flaws

Suggestions Include Longer Peak Trains

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page A01

A panel of outside experts that analyzed Metro's subway operations found flaws that include fragmented management, poor training and a shortage of qualified track walkers to inspect rails for cracks.

The panel, composed of top officials from subways in Boston, New York, London, Toronto, Atlanta and Philadelphia, recommended a reorganization of Metro's operations department and suggested immediate changes that could improve train reliability and minimize disruptions.

Metro chief executive Richard A. White asked for the review by the outside panel of transit experts. (File Photo)

_____Advice to Metro_____
Panel's suggestions
_____Metrorail Special Report_____
Outdoor Diners Can Go Back for Seconds (The Washington Post, Feb 24, 2005)
Local Ties May Not Hold in Richmond (The Washington Post, Feb 24, 2005)
More National Builders Competing for Local Parcels (The Washington Post, Feb 24, 2005)
More Metrorail News
Metrorail Map
_____Live Online_____
Message Boards Traffic Talk: Share your war stories and weigh in on the many transportation issues facing D.C., Maryland and Virginia commuters.
Dr. Gridlock: The Post's Ron Shaffer delves into area traffic woes, every other Monday at 1 p.m. ET.
_____Message Boards_____
Post Your Comments

The panel's leader, Michael H. Mulhern, told Metro directors yesterday that the agency should operate fewer but longer trains during peak periods.

Metro sends the maximum number of trains along its lines during peak hours. When one train stalls or breaks down, all others behind it must slow or stop. The stop-and-go pattern is familiar to riders of the Orange and Red lines, in particular.

If fewer trains were running down the tracks, with more room between them, one delay would not necessarily force the rest of the line to a halt, Mulhern said. The overall number of rail cars -- and passenger capacity -- would remain the same, but the trains would be able to travel faster and more efficiently, he said. The idea should be tested on the Red Line and expanded across the system if successful, he said.

Another area hindering efficient operation is the loading and unloading of rail cars during peak hours, said Mulhern, the general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, who began his career 26 years ago as a bus driver and performed a series of jobs on the rail side as he worked his way up.

The cramped interior of Metro's rail cars -- with their narrow aisles and poles clustered around the doors -- makes getting on and off "clumsy," forces trains to dwell in the stations and bogs down the entire line, Mulhern said. Metro should reconfigure a pair of rail cars by widening doors, removing poles and rearranging seats, then ask riders and train operators whether it makes a difference, he said.

Metro chief executive Richard A. White asked for the $12,000 review as part of a management shakeup and an effort to answer criticism after what he calls a "year of hell," marked by service problems and management missteps. White said he agreed with the panel's findings and is trying to figure out ways to implement them. Last week, James T. Gallagher, the second in command at Metro, who is responsible for day-to-day operations, announced his resignation.

The outside panel was put together by the American Public Transportation Association, the main industry group, which is being chaired by White this year.

"Flaws, warts and all, it's a great-running system," Mulhern said, but Metro needs heavy investment in maintenance and repair at a time when ridership is surging. Management problems were masked when the system was running well, he said. But with aging and breakdowns, flaws in structure are evident, he said.

The panel found a fragmented operations department where lines of authority are blurred, workers frequently change jobs, and problem employees can evade detection. Meanwhile, the people who run rail operations have no control over training of rail operators and line supervisors, Mulhern said.

"It makes it really hard to breed loyalty, mentoring and upward mobility, but it's real easy for a problem employee to escape accountability by a manager," Mulhern said.

Workers responsible for maintaining and monitoring Metro's 212 miles of track seem to have become complacent, Mulhern said.

"Apathy might have set in within the track department, to the point that they don't take basic procedures seriously," he said. Track walkers cannot properly inspect the segments of track they are assigned to cover by the time their shifts end because their coverage areas are too large, he said. And they lack a comprehensive training program and are not required to be recertified to prove that they have kept up their knowledge and skills, he said.

Jackie Rhodes Jeter, a spokeswoman for Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Metro's largest union, said some of the panel's ideas will face stiff opposition from organized labor. She said that it was easy to blame workers but that Metro ought to focus on ineffective managers. Some track walkers, for example, have to report rail defects several times before managers order them fixed.

One factor compounding service problems is the lack of experienced line supervisors, Mulhern said. Line supervisors are supposed to respond to a train if it is malfunctioning at a station and try to fix minor problems sufficiently to get the train underway. But most line supervisors interviewed by the panel "had very limited experience with rail. They are what we'd call back in Boston 'rookie motorpersons,' " Mulhern said.

As a result, trains that experience minor problems are emptied of passengers and sent to the rail yards for repair, when they could easily remain in service with some minor tweaking by someone who knows how to do it, Mulhern said. Each time a train is pulled from service, delays are created on the rest of the line, and hundreds of passengers are inconvenienced.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company