Metro Trying to Erase Image of Poor Service

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 6, 2005

A string of extraordinary fumbles last year made even the most loyal riders wonder what had happened to Metro service.

A Metro Transit Police officer handcuffed a government scientist for chewing the last bit of a PayDay candy bar as she entered the Metro Center Station, providing material for weeks to radio talk show hosts and comedians.

A train operator abandoned a loaded Red Line train during rush hour because her shift had ended.

A station manager, disturbed in his booth by a pregnant passenger inquiring about a broken escalator, allegedly wielded a broom at her and pushed her husband.

And train controllers opted to run just one train an hour after a Redskins game, leaving angry football fans sitting on idle trains as night turned into morning.

While many Metro workers are dedicated and even heroic, the series of celebrated incidents created an impression that some employees are more concerned about their own comfort than passenger service. And this was happening as train delays were increasing.

Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White defended what he said was a "damn good workforce." The job is made more complicated by the culture of the region, he said, calling Washington area residents demanding and a "tough community to provide service to."

Still, faced with unhappy riders and bad publicity, Metro officials have been trying to fix the mechanical problems and improve customer service. They've also put new emphasis on a simple goal: Get riders where they need to go.

Steven A. Feil, a tough-talking New Yorker who recently became Metro's chief operating officer for rail, is revamping the operations control center, where controllers direct traffic, and changing many of Metro's long-standing policies.

For instance, if a problem develops with one rail car, managers now will empty that car but keep the train running, instead of taking it out of service. When a train overruns a station platform, supervisors try to help passengers off rather than order the train to the next station.

"When you're in the [control center] seat, you're moving trains and you're thinking of keeping big hunks of metal rolling down the railroad," said Dan Epps, tapped by Feil to run the operations control center. "But if you think of the folks out there, it's pretty logical to let them off where they want to get off."

Several of these changes were recommended in February by a panel of subway experts, which found that Metro managers could make smarter decisions after a disruption.

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