Dr. Gridlock

Dr. Gridlock: After D.C. Rail Crash, Riders Say Metro Fails to Inform Them

By Robert Thomson
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Monday was the worst day in Metro's history, and riders complained that the disaster was compounded by the agency's inability to get timely, accurate information to commuters.

Hundreds of angry commuters flooded message boards and Web sites yesterday with complaints -- including dozens to this column -- that Metro did not inform riders of the seriousness of the crash or provide them with direction. Many said they got more accurate information from e-mails, texts and tweets from friends and family.

Communication problems have long been a major complaint of customers, and Metro has implemented various ways to get information to them, including enhancing its Web site and creating a Twitter page and an e-mail alert system. But riders say such efforts are worthless if the information is inaccurate or outdated.

The crash between the Fort Totten and Takoma stations happened about 5 p.m. At 5:18 p.m., Metro sent an alert noting a "disruption" at Fort Totten and said that trains were turning back at Brookland and Takoma because of a train experiencing mechanical difficulties outside of Fort Totten station and that shuttle bus service had been requested.

At 5:29 p.m., The Washington Post confirmed that there had been a crash, and at 5:36, Metro sent a news release on a derailment and "collision." But an alert sent by Metro at 5:46 p.m. said: "Disruption at Tenleytown-AU was cleared. Thank you for riding Metro." It was nearly 6 p.m. when Metro sent a release noting a derailment and crash and acknowledged that there were injuries.

Throughout the night, riders complained, the announcements they were able to hear (many were garbled and unclear) continued to mention "disruptions." None detailed the seriousness of the incident, how long service disruptions were likely to last or what their options were for getting home.

"When I hear mechanical problems, I think of malfunctioning doors," wrote one Red Line rider. "Later on the commute I got a text message from a friend letting me know that two trains crashed. If METRO had been honest in their alerts and announcements I would've walked or taken the [bus] . . . and not been trapped on the Red Line . . . "

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein defended the agency, saying Metro got a lot of information out to many riders through its alert systems.

"To keep our customers informed," she said, "we issued seven press releases [Monday] and one [Tuesday], which went out to more than 2,400 subscribers. The releases were also posted to the Web site, which was viewed yesterday more than 1 million times."

Also, she said, Metro used electronic signs in the stations to direct and inform riders and issued 13 e-alerts on the accident to 53,000 subscribers between 5 p.m. and midnight. Twitter users had access to 72 messages about the accident through yesterday morning, she said.

Riders have particular contempt for the e-alert system. Here, for example, is the text of an alert received by subscribers about 3 p.m. yesterday, 22 hours after the crash involving two trains left nine dead and shut part of the Red Line:

"Disruption at Fort Totten in both directions. Trains are turning back at Rhode Island Avenue & Silver Spring due to a situation outside of Fort Totten station. Shuttle bus service has been established. Expect delays in both directions."

It's like telling riders that President Lincoln has been shot.

A message Metro sent during the first two hours after the crash referred to "a train experiencing mechanical difficulties." Less than 15 minutes later, the transit authority issued a news release confirming two fatalities, including the train operator. Meanwhile, television and Web site viewers could see horrific images of one train lying atop another.

Wrote rider KVL98: "How can people around the country know that there was something a bit more serious than a mechanical difficulty and I didn't?"

© 2009 The Washington Post Company