Metro Seeks Better Ways To Get Word Out to Riders

By Lena H. Sun and Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 15, 2007

It was rush hour. Metro trains were stuck. Smoke, fire and a power failure had shut down 11 of 86 stations, mostly in Virginia, and shuttle buses dispatched to pick up stranded passengers didn't know where to go.

Frustrated riders couldn't get answers. At the Pentagon Station, more than 100 passengers followed one supervisor around, straining to hear shouted directions about which buses to board. The confusion drove Martina Schwartz to tears. "I asked him three hours ago how to get to Franconia," she said. "I never got a response."

For many who have ridden Metro, the scenario from the late August service meltdown was all too familiar. For years, customers have complained that train operators, bus drivers, station managers and just about anyone else wearing a Metro vest fail to give basic information during delays and breakdowns. Or when they do, it's impossible to understand.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has promised to fix communications, adding his name to a list of agency chiefs who have vowed, unsuccessfully, to cure one of the agency's largest and deepest ailments. At a board meeting last week, managers outlined a new take on the long-standing problem. Success, they said, will not be achieved by simply making station announcements comprehensible; it will require a complete culture change, from top managers to all 8,200 bus and rail operations employees.

The agency has failed to provide basic information to its customers on too many occasions, Catoe said. People understand that mechanical things break down, he said, but after that happens, Metro fails "to tell [customers] how long it's going to be, what the problem is or even where to go."

Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille, a Virginia representative on the Metro board, put it more bluntly: Metro workers have to stop viewing riders like "robots" and more like "human beings."

Some board members questioned whether the new efforts would matter.

"We've had this same conversation, in this exact same room, quite a few times," said Christopher Zimmerman, who represents Virginia. Still, they should be given a chance, he said, adding, "I want to see results really soon."

The communication problems trace to nearly every aspect of how Metro operates. Some are technical and require more money and new procedures; others could be fixed with little more than handing out dry-erase boards. The most basic could be fixed with dedication to old-fashioned customer service.

The root of most miscommunication happens internally. Metro officials say they need to do a better and quicker job of getting information to train operators, station managers and other front-line workers, who should pass it on to riders. Officials are considering buying hand-held radios that would allow station managers to receive updates directly from the agency's operations control center and wireless microphones that would allow them to broadcast over a station's public-address system.

They also want to give dry-erase boards to station managers so they can jot down information and put the boards at station entrances to alert riders before they get to the fare gates.

On Aug. 27, almost an hour after officials shut down the Pentagon Station, passengers continued to head down the escalator, unaware that trains weren't running. An electronic sign at the top of one entrance still showed a Blue Line train to Franconia-Springfield arriving in 12 minutes. Alan Dorhoffer almost got to the fare gate when a Metro police officer screamed at him to turn around. "Every time something happens with Metro, there is always misinformation," Dorhoffer said, fuming.

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