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Catoe Should Make Gadfly Bloggers His New Best Friends

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Forget about getting more money for Metro or whether to fire the general manager. The real issue is poor customer service: mysterious train halts, boarded-up escalators, rude station attendants.

That, at least, is the view of a bearded, 41-year-old former news reporter who writes the successful gadfly blog with the off-color title Unsuck DC Metro. He doesn't want his name published, saying he's received several threats over blog posts that embarrassed Metro employees. On that condition, however, he agreed to meet for lunch for his first full interview and discuss what he thinks ails Metro following the toughest three months in the transit system's 33-year history.

"The lack of oversight infests the culture top to bottom," Mr. Unsuck said. The need for steady funding is an obstacle, he said, "but it's not the source of every problem Metro has." Instead, he cited "all the slipshod stuff you see every time you're on there."

The blogger, whose site is http://unsuckdcmetro.blogspot.com, bases his judgment partly on personal experience but mostly on the thousands of e-mails, comments, photographs and Twitter messages he's received since he started in January. He gets more than 1,000 hits a day and has nearly 1,400 followers on Twitter -- very near the approximately 1,650 following Metro's own Twitter site.

Mr. Unsuck specializes in day-to-day annoyances, including train delays, unsafe bus turns and broken Farecard machines. He faults the system for being considerably less reliable than systems he's used in Japan and western Europe.

"In Japan, it's pretty much error-free. Expectations are lower here," he said. "It seems like Metro dodges things rather than tackling them head-on."

A blog devoted to gripes inevitably overstates the problem, but I think Mr. Unsuck is right that Metro is too complacent about deteriorating standards. The shortcomings described on his blog and others that follow Metro, although anecdotal, offer a damning portrait of flawed habits.

General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., whose contract was just extended for three years, should pay attention. The bloggers have come to speak for Metro's core customers and serve as a kind of collective conscience for the system.

To its credit, Metro responds to bloggers' queries and, despite some understandable tensions, deals with them professionally. Other bloggers following Metro include Greater Greater Washington, Moving Momentarily, Why I Hate DC, Infosnack and DCist (along with such mainstream media blogs as The Post's Get There, which features Dr. Gridlock).

"We've adopted this philosophy that our bloggers are not exactly journalists, but we look at them as sort of virtual community organizers," said Doug Karas, a manager in Metro's public relations office.

David Alpert, founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington, praised Unsuck DC Metro as "very entertaining, and they've done a great job of collecting people's individual stories about customer service problems."

Alpert's blog is wonky and policy-oriented, while Unsuck DC Metro's tone is humorous and mocking. A posting on Thursday cited 10 "reasons" why dogs should replace Metro employees. Example: Dogs can bark and are therefore "inherently more communicative" than train operators, who are "decidedly unintelligible or incoherent in most every situation." Dogs "respond to positive reinforcement," whereas "There are no known means to motivate current Metro employees."

The site also delights in catching passengers behaving badly, such as by putting their feet or wet umbrellas on seats. One memorable photo showed a man on the Orange Line trimming his arm hair and brushing the clippings on the seat and floor.

Mr. Unsuck decided to blog after he changed jobs in November and began commuting regularly on the Orange Line. He was surprised when trains stopped regularly mid-trip and when, in his first week, he had to get off and wait three or four times when a train was suddenly taken out of service. Compared with foreign systems he knew, "I just felt there was something wrong with this one," he said.

His blogging is part-time and unpaid. On slow days, he works on the blog for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes after work. A lengthy posting might take several hours. The lunch I bought him (his share was $27.50) was the first material benefit he'd received.

For somebody who feels passionately that the system needs improvement, he's surprisingly neutral regarding some big-picture issues, like whether Catoe should go.

"There've been a lot of people that want Catoe's head. I don't know. He may be doing the best he can with the hand he was dealt. Or he may be letting it slide," he said.

The one structural issue that excites him is what he sees as the urgent need for Metro to come under the oversight of a powerful regulator. "A lot of this rot, which is festering inside of it, hopefully would be exposed and rooted out," he said.

Remember how proud we were of Metro when it opened? The bloggers want to restore it to the status it once had as a model for the nation. Catoe should use them to help set his agenda.

Plus, They Can't Spell

Perhaps because he worked for years as a journalist, Mr. Unsuck is irked by Metro's typographical errors. One that really peeves him is in the small print in the bottom left-hand corner of system maps on Metrorail cars. Under "Copyright 2006," a word in "Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority" is misspelled as "Metropolitian."

E-mail me at robertmccartney@washpost.com

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