Responding to Complaints, Metro Will Soon Offer Callers Timely Taped Updates About Delays

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Stuck on a Metro train and don't know what's causing the delay? Metro says it hears your frustration and wants to help.

In about two weeks, people will be able to call Metro's customer service line and hear a taped recording with updated and timely information about incidents likely to cause significant delays, officials said.

"One of the key messages we have heard from customers over and over is that they're looking for better and more timely information so they can adjust their trip accordingly," said Ray Feldmann, Metro's acting assistant general manager for communications. "They just want to know: Is this a five-minute delay or a 35-minute delay?"

Train operators are supposed to provide timely and appropriate information to riders about incidents and delays. But the quality of that communication is often spotty and depends on individual operators and personnel at the Operations Control Center, who make the announcements heard at stations. Even then, passengers often are unable to understand what is being said because many stations have old speaker systems.

The recordings will be "another method to supplement" what operators do, Feldmann said.

He said officials are deciding which types of incidents will prompt recordings. "Obviously, we don't want to put every two-minute delay up," he said.

A recording would have helped Friday during the morning rush, when a track fire at the Farragut North Station on the Red Line caused delays throughout the heavily traveled route. Passengers were forced to get off trains at the Dupont Circle and Rhode Island Avenue stations so their trains could be used to pick up stranded passengers in downtown stations.

The fire, at 8:44 a.m., was caused by newspapers on the tracks, officials said. Metro personnel extinguished the fire, and the incident was cleared by 8:59 a.m.

Since August, Metro has had 13 fire reports, all on the Red or Orange lines, that have required passengers to be removed from trains, according to agency reports.

Although incidents are often cleared quickly, the delays ripple up and down the lines, especially during rush hour, when trains become backed up at busy downtown stations. The lack of detailed information is one of the biggest customer complaints.

On one Red Line train Friday, the operator told riders at Grosvenor shortly after 9 a.m. that the train was holding because there was "an emergency at Farragut North." He provided no additional details.

Another rider, writing into the Get There blog on as "another red line rider" said there were not announcements at the Shady Grove Station. Passengers headed downtown did not know anything was amiss until the train stopped outside the Twinbrook Station for 10 minutes, the blog poster wrote. "The driver finally announced a fire at Farragut, but no additional information. It took over an hour to go from Twinbrook to Union Station.

"I wish Metro would get a clue -- TELL us what is going on. Please."

The new recorded message, available at 202-637-7000, will tell riders what is going on. But there is one catch. If passengers are on a train in a tunnel, they better have cell service on Verizon. That's the only wireless provider that works underground.

Staff database researcher Derek Willis contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company