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Hired Riders to Assess Metro
Critics See Waste, Say There's No Mystery to Poor Service

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

The Metro board yesterday approved spending as much as $1 million over five years to hire professional "mystery riders" to assess the quality of service on trains and buses.

But some rider advocates questioned the expense and said the transit agency could get equally valuable information from its riders, who already bombard Metro with more than 3,000 complaints a month.

Much like the mystery shoppers of retail, the undercover Metro riders would take trips on Metrorail and Metrobus. Armed with a checklist of criteria that includes cleanliness and on-time performance, the mystery riders would travel on nearly all routes, evaluate the service from a customer's perspective and provide feedback to Metro, officials said. The information would be used to help Metro identify and correct problems.

"We want to know what works and doesn't work, and what can be made better," said Metro board Chairman Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County and pushed for the program as part of Metro's goal to improve service.

Metro already hears from many customers about what does not work. The agency receives between 3,000 and 4,000 complaints a month, according to agency reports. The most common complaints are late buses, rude and discourteous behavior, and a lack of reliability for MetroAccess, the paratransit service. More than 1.2 million trips are taken systemwide on an average weekday.

Zimmerman said the mystery-rider program is needed because "we can't afford to wait until there's a complaint" to improve service.

The board authorized the agency to hire a company to assess 95 percent of Metrorail and Metrobus service, according to Donna Murray, Metro's manager of consumer research. Metro would pay $175,000 for the first year's work, according to the board resolution. The $1 million budget covers three years, plus two one-year options to renew the deal. The program could begin by late August, she said.

Murray said she could not provide an estimate of how many mystery riders would be deployed.

Metro had a similar program several years ago that used trained volunteers. Maryland board member Peter Benjamin asked why the agency needed to spend money to hire professionals.

The earlier program produced unreliable results skewed by riders' subjectivity, said Sara Wilson, Metro's assistant general manager for corporate strategy. "We'd only get the results of the person who rode the X2 every day."

The new proposal drew a mixed reaction from rider groups.

Nancy Iacomini, who chairs the Metro-appointed Riders' Advisory Council, said it was a "great idea" to have "people deployed in an organized fashion to every bus line and train line at different times of the day." Relying on customer complaints as feedback provides only part of the picture, she said.

But Jack Corbett, of MetroRiders. org, urged the agency to "listen to its own riders with its own staff and use the million dollars for something that would benefit the riders."

He added, "You don't need a professional to determine that lights aren't lit, or that the air conditioning isn't working, or that the trains are 30 minutes late."

The larger issue, he said, is that the amount of feedback Metro receives -- whether from real riders or hired ones -- is irrelevant if the agency does not use it. The agency is making critical decisions about rail and bus service as it drafts next year's budget, but riders' opinions are not being taken into consideration, Corbett said.

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