Transcript

Off the Rails

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Jo Becker and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 7, 2005; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writers Jo Becker and Lyndsey Layton were online Tuesday, June 7, at Noon ET to discuss the four-part series "Off the Rails."

The transcript follows.

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Lyndsey Layton: Good afternoon, everyone. We've got lots of questions pouring in, so let's get started.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you so much for your series on metro. The biggest problem for metro has been a total lack of accountability for management and the metro board. Hopefully this series and all your previous pieces (including the best one ever that showed that only one person on the metro board actually takes metro) will finally hold metro accountable. What I got from the series is that Richard White and the rest of metro management must be replaced. It would be one thing if he were new but it has been nine years and everything has gotten worse. As your series points out, the problems cannot be blamed on outside factors, but on incompetent management and lack of accountability and oversight. Richard White must go.

Lyndsey Layton: Well that's one perspective. Other thoughts?

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Silver Spring, Md.: I have certainly experienced Metros escalator 'improvement' program. My heart is still benefiting from the MONTHS I spent going up and down the stairs at the Silver Spring station on the Colesville Rd. side.

I think the process suffered from a lack of planning. They took the escalator apart, and then did nothing for months. About a week before the date the sign said it would be completed workmen started showing up. Even if the escalator couldn't be used, there could have been two stairways all those months. Why start a repair when the labor and materials aren't ready? My guess is that it's funny accounting and a culture of non-performance.

Jo Becker: We spoke with many customers who, like you, felt frustrated by the escalator overhaul program. As you know, it takes months to take the escalators apart and put them back together again, and we found that more than a third were working worse afterwards. As for routine maintenance, several audits found that Metro mechanics didn't always have the parts they needed to make repairs.

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Washington, D.C.: How is Metro coping with the problem of ground water leakage into the subway tunnels and stations? Didn't they choose not to install water barriers when the system was built? Wasn't this a huge oversight and potentially a major expense for Metro to correct?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Washington DC,

Yes, groundwater is a huge problem. On any given night, when it's dry in Washington, it's raining underground - water is seeping into the Metro, corroding the system. When Metro was first constructed, engineers coated the tunnels with "shotcrete", a substance they thought would repel water. But it's been no match for groundwater, particularly along the Red Line from Medical Center to Farragut North.

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Arlington, Va.: So is there anything you think that Metro has done to improve upon how it operates?

Jo Becker: During the preparation of this series, Metro took a number of steps to try to improve the agency. CEO Richard White reorganized the agency and put someone new in charge of Metro's projects to buy new and overhaul old rail cars. On the safety front, he recently developed a new policy. Now, when the safety department makes a recommendation, other agency divisions will still have the opportunity to dispute that recommendation, but if White's office upholds it, then managers will have set deadlines to implement the recommendation or face disciplinary action.

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Washington, D.C.: Why does The Post give considerably more coverage to Metrorail than Metrobus, when ridership on the two systems are about equal? (The current series on Metro barely mentions Metrobus.) While Metrorail has had a lot of problems in the past year, bus riders have always had to contend with a lack of reliable service (largely because buses get stuck in traffic). I'd like to read more about bus service and efforts to improve it, to give those of us waiting for the bus some hope.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Washington,

As a daily bus rider, I understand your frustration. And I agree that Metrobus is ripe for a closer look. We decided to focus this series on the rail system because the railroad consumes such a massive amount of public money, far more than the bus system.

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Reston, Va.: Based on your research do you feel that it is wise to extend the Metro system at this time (i.e. Rail to Dulles)? It seems to me that the problems need to be corrected and the existing system needs to be maintained before we pour billions more in and create an even larger problem.

Jo Becker: That's a debate for the region and the federal government. The Federal Transit Administration as given Metro money to do engineering studies but has not yet committed to funding a portion of the construction.

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Washington, D.C.: THANK YOU!!! This series has been an eye-opener for those who don't ride Metro and a confirmation for those who do. How do you respond to Metro's "official" press releases questioning your reporting? Personally, until the Metro board and Mr. White start riding Metro more than once in a blue moon, they should keep their press releases to themselves.

Jo Becker: We feel that the reporting speaks for itself and that riders who experience the system every day are able to judge for themselves.

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Washington, D.C.: I appreciate The Post investigating problems in the Metro system that need to be addressed. However, it seems unfair for the paper to spend so much time and ink on the problems of Metro, while riding in a vehicle is many, many times more dangerous. (Over 40,000 people were killed in car accidents in the United States last year.) When can we expect The Post to give a similar level of scrutiny to the dangers of car travel?

Jo Becker: Riding the subway is far safer than getting in a car, as we point out in the article.

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Arlington, Va.: Fantastic set of articles, and a perfect example of the investigative reporting that I look forward to in The Post.

On to my question. I've always been curious as to why Metro continues to spend money on carpeting in the metro trains. I would think that the cost associated with cleaning and repairing the carpets would be fairly substantial. Frankly, the carpets look horrible and often smell as the mold begins to grow -- I would have no problem with a tile floor and I would think it would be easier for Metro to clean. Have you heard anything as to why they continue to stick with the carpet?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Arlington,

Thanks for your note. When I wrote a story a few years ago about mold on the carpets of Metro trains and the related odor, I got a call from a carpet industry spokesman who said carpeting subway trains was just asking for trouble.

The carpeting decision stems from Metro's original planners, who wanted to set Metro apart from mass transit in other cities (most especially New York). They envisioned a subway that was more upscale and comfy, hence the cushioned seats, carpets and two-by-two seating.

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Bethesda, Md.: You made sure to mention more than once that Metro does not have a specific government to which it reports and acts an oversite for the system. Do you think this is necessary if Metro is to improve (i.e. will someone that can actually penalize the system actually do it?)? If so, who gets the job - D.C., Virginia, MD, or the Feds?

Lyndsey Layton: Bethesda,

That's such a good question. I do think our fractured political landscape makes accountability/oversight of Metro much more complicated. Maybe it would ultimately require the federal government to intervene, since Congress created Metro in the first place.

In places where the transit authority is located wholly within a state (Boston, for example), the governor or legislature could make reforms.

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Arlington, Va.: As a regular rider of both Metro trains and buses I knew the system was deteriorating, but nothing prepared me for the level of neglect and incompetence exposed by your series. Each article makes me wonder how Richard White has managed to keep his job for so many years? Would any other CEO of a failing business remain in control for so long, with almost no one calling for his removal?

Lyndsey Layton: Arlington,

In fact, the Metro board of directors did discuss White's performance during closed sessions earlier this year. But White laid out his plans to correct problems and the board apparently backed his strategy.

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Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post team obtained information about internal WMATA safety audits and failed programs, etc., that haven't been public before -- because you were the Post. WMATA isn't subject to the kinds of local laws that other government agencies observe -- open meetings laws, etc., because of its creation through an Interstate Compact. Going forward, what changes should WMATA adopt to make more information readily available to the public without a Post investigation: internal audit reports and the responses of Metro management to those recommendations, full texts of peer group reviews, etc.? What else? Thanks.

Jo Becker: Metro recently adopted a new records policy to set up a process that more closely mirrors the federal government's, but I believe that only Congress would have the authority to subject Metro to federal or state public records laws.

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Kalorama: Fine, fine work this week, thanks for your reporting. I know this is "Off the Rails," but will you be devoting a project of similar urgency to the Metrobus situation? I think regular bus users are even more frustrated than rail riders, and I think there is just as much fraud, corruption, unsafe practices, and management problems to unearth in the bus world. Thanks!

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Kalorama,

Please see my earlier response about Metrobus. I agree there's plenty to look at regarding the bus system, which carries some 500,000 people a day. If you have specific ideas, feel free to email me at laytonl@washpost.com

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Alexandria, Va.: I ride Metro every day to work and seldom have a problem. If I do have a problem it's temporary. Compared to New York's subway, Metro is a palace. I don't expect anything to be perfect. The Post should try fair and balanced reporting. You wouldn't be perfect but you would be more credible.

Lyndsey Layton: alexandria,

You can always compare Metro to other transit systems and say, gee, it's so much cleaner/better/easier here. The point of the series was to compare Metro against itself, to understand the factors behind Metro's deteriorating performance and try to explain them.

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Washington, D.C.: When you examined performance statistics for your articles, was there any factoring in ridership levels? For example, more crowded trains (say during cherry blossom time), may lead to more breakdowns, disruptions, etc. If this year was more crowded than the past several years, it may be unfair to simply compare actual number of breakdowns rather than somehow "normalizing" the statistics to account for ridership levels.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Washington,

We did take that into account and still found the growth of breakdowns and delays outpaced ridership growth.

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Alexandria, Va.: What a sad, sad story. I remember the region before there was any Metrorail (there was actually a Metro subway car on exhibit at the Smithsonian, to show what the "subway of the future" would look like--people would line up to walk through it). It was something to be so proud of in the early years.

What can we do to fix this? Does the multi-jurisdictional Metro Board have the clout to insist on changes to the attitudes of "the frozen middle" that your sources referred to? Would more money help? The problems seem so numerous as to defy solution -- but on the hopeful side, I also remember when the same was said about the derelict, collapsing fiasco that was Union Station, now a showplace.

Jo Becker: While Metro remains popular with riders, as evidenced by a recent Washington Post poll and by increasing demand, we spoke with many long-time riders who, like you, believe that the system isn't what it used to be. CEO Richard White makes the case that more money would improve the system. The region will certainly debate that as Metro pushes forward with a campaign for a dedicated source of funding for Metro, such as a regional sales tax.

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Washington, D.C.: The evidence presented in The Post's article is a pretty devastating illustration of incomprehensible mismanagement at the highest levels.

As the typical Metro commuter, I've seen the decline in Metro's services over the past five years first hand. Now, I know why.

Here's my question: Why did it take The Post so long to write this article?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Washington,

Metro has never before released the documents that were key to this investigation - internal audits and investigation reports. The agency has always claimed it is immune from local, state and federal records laws which would make those documents available to the public.

Once we started getting the records, we had to review them - and they numbered in the thousands.

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Washington, D.C.: Despite the headlines, your articles seem to indicate that Metro is trying to fix most of of the problems you highlight, albeit belatedly. Do you think Metro will be able to solve these problems on its own, or will it need additional oversight or further shake-ups to get back on track?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Washington,

I think it's too early to know if these reforms will be effective and longlasting. As we point out in the stories, this is the third time in nine years that Richard White has reorganized his management structure at Metro.

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Dumfries, Va.: What has Metro done to correct the heavy-handed Gestapo tactics of Metro police in handcuffing a 12-year-old for eating a french fry or arresting a pregnant woman for talking too loud on her cell phone?

Your article mentioned these incidents, but didn't describe what Metro management has done to ensure further injustices don't take place.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Dumfries,

The transit police underwent special training to learn how to defuse situations and avoid the kind of arrests that led to such bad publicity. And the police department is also hiring a consultant to take a closer look at its operations.

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Re: immunity: "The agency has always claimed it is immune from local, state and federal records laws which would make those documents available to the public."

That explains a LOT. It seems to me that if Metro feels it is immune from public records laws, it ought to be immune from public money as well. If they can't take the scrutiny as well as the benefits, they have no business being in operation.

Lyndsey Layton: To its credit, Metro did voluntary hand over the documents the Post requests late last year and it recently reformulated its public records policy to try to make it more akin to the federal Freedom of Information Act request.

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Northern Virginia: MORE MONEY, MORE MONEY!; That is what CEO Dick White claims will solve all the problems. Just how much does he make? He seems obsessed with ridership figures, not performance. Does he receive a bonus or salary increase based on the number of riders, regardless of the quality of service they receive? How about we dock his pay for every incident? If I'm late for work because of Metro this is what happens to me.

Lyndsey Layton: Self-serving plug alert: Read tomorrow's Post, Northern Virginia.

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Alexandria: Metro is so upset with your story that Metro employees will be passing out a rebuttal at stations this evening. Is this a legal use of taxpayers and riders' money?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Alexandria,

I can't think of any law that would be violated.

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Washington, D.C.: While this series of articles is great and all, I would like to comment that it seems every time Metro is "exposed" they raise fares. I understand that there are a lot of safety concerns for metro, but really do we need them spending another 30-50 million on frivilous things? For instance it cost 20+ million just for bomb proof trash cans -outside- of the turnstyle and then they wonder why the trains are so messy.

While in a perfect world it would be great to ride in a super comfy air-conditioned car with room to spread out but in reality I just want to get to work and get home ... cheaply. The prices now are out of control and with these reports surfacing it's only going to get worse. The real problem is that metro isn't regulated by the local governments that hand them cash.

Jo Becker: Metro has no plans for a fare increase next year.

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Arlington, Va.: From what I saw about your series, the two of you spent six solid months doing your stories, right? I don't get why it would take so long to write the articles. It seems like most of what I've read is a global look at stuff/information that has been in the news before. Can you explain your process?

Lyndsey Layton: Arlington,

You don't want to hear the ugly details but we obtained thousands of pages of documents from Metro, the FTA, the NTSB, digested them, analyzed them and then conducted hundreds of interviews with Metro officials, contractors, transit experts, federal officials and riders. The series contains many findings that have never been previously reported. It takes time.

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Chevy Chase, D.C.: Has Metro talked to transit operators in other cities with similar issues? I'm thinking specifically of Moscow, with its tremendously long escalators and countless trains. Just try walking down a stopped Moscow elevator -- the attendants at the bottom will give you quite the earful!

I'll second a few other suggestions here for a similar story on Metrobus. Its a system that is terribly advertised, but yet serves a dedicated population. Will they ever publish maps that show each stop? will the M4 ever run on time? That said, I have seen Metro reps over the past few weeks tracking which bus arrives at certain stops at what time. How long has it been since they actually looked at the routes they drive and where their passengers end up going? In my opinion, Metrobus has its downside and daily frustrations, but it is largely a system with huge untapped potential.

Jo Becker: Metro recently brought in a team of officials from Boston, London, New York and other subway systems to suggest changes that would make Metro more efficient.

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Judiciary Square, D.C.: How thoroughly do they clean the escalators that have acted as stairs? Because for months, I've been walking up a recently repaired escalator at Judiciary Square that's chock full of ground-in straw wrappers, paper towels and cigarette butts. It's going to take more than a superficial cleaning to take care of it -- and could easily break the escalator when it starts moving again ...

Lyndsey Layton: Judy Sq,

I don't think those escalators are regularly cleaned, if ever. I've seen the same cigarette butts.

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Washington, D.C.: I got a flyer this a.m. outside Metro Center that asked us to support a strong Riders Advisory Council for Metro. This seems like a step in the right direction for Metro. Do you know any more about the Riders Advisory Council?

Lyndsey Layton: The Riders Advisory Council idea sprang up not too long after the Post ran a story about the fact that none of the Metro board members are daily riders. The Sierra Club proposed the idea of a committee of riders that could advise the Metro board on policy. Metro backed the idea and appears to be trying to set it up. The council would be a creation of Metro and funded by Metro, not an independent body like the Straphangers' Campaign in New York.

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Lyndsey Layton: I'm afraid we've run down the clock, folks. Thanks for chatting. Sorry if we didn't get to your question. If you have a specific story suggestion, please email us directly at laytonl@washpost.com or beckerj@washpost.

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