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Richard A. White
Q & A With Richard A. White

Monday, July 31, 2000, noon EDT

As general manager and chief executive officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Richard A. White is responsible for the operation of Metrobus and Metrorail.

White has led WMATA since 1996. He came to Washington from San Francisco, where he was the general manager of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Before that, he worked for the New Jersey Transit Corporation and was a program analyst with what is now the Federal Transit Administration.

For more information, visit the Metrorail Special Report.

Arlington, Virginia: Metro has recently extended Friday and Saturday hours of operation to 1 a.m. and now 2 a.m. Has this increased ridership just during those times? Or is ridership also up during the rest of Friday and Saturday evenings? (In other words, are more people taking Metro TO their destinations, now that they know they can take it home later?)

Richard A. White: During the first few weekends so far, we are carrying approximately 10,000 additional people each weekend due to the extended hours. It appears as if the numbers are pretty evenly divided between people going "to" their destination and people coming "from" their destination. As you know, we plan to continue this pilot program through June of 2001, at which time our Board will make a final decision about 2 a.m.

Metro DC: I watched in horror last Friday as a wheelchair-bound passenger tried to board the last car of a red line train at Gallery Place bound for Grosvenor. The front wheels of the chair became lodged between the platform and the door. The train conductor must have not been able to see what was happening because he repeatedly yelled over the intercom for passengers to stop holding the door!

Frantic passengers worked to get the wheelchair wheels dislodged while the conductor kept opening and closing the doors on the good Samaritans.

Ironically I had seen a news feature the night before on Fox5 of a woman who said this happens to her frequently.

And now Metro wants to shorten station stops!

washingtonpost.com: The Washington Post article detailing concerns about the effects of the shorter dwelling times on disabled riders can be found here.

Richard A. White: Thank you for raising this issue. I, too, watched the Fox 5 report last week about the disabled passenger. We strongly encourage our passengers in wheelchairs to board the train with the rear (larger) wheels of their wheelchair first. Although we meet all of the federally imposed standards for accessibility, we are voluntarily moving forward with a device that will further reduce the distance between the train door and the platform edge. This should be of significant benefit to our wheelchair passengers, and I believe we are the only transit system in the U.S. that is doing this. Thanks.

Brooklyn, NY: Mr. White--
I just relocated to the NYC area after living in DC for six years. I was a big user of the Washington DC transit system and was, for the most part, satisfied with it. However, I've recently discovered the swipe cards that are used up here by the MTA in NYC. These can be used both on subways and on buses. How come the DC transit system hasn't come up that is as easy to use like this?
A former DC resident

Richard A. White: Our use of SmarTrip cards is a far superior technology to New York's swipe card. We are in the process of purchasing fare boxes for our buses which will also accept the SmarTrip card. Then, we will have a system similar to New York's, where one card can be used interchangeably for bus and rail trips. We hope to have these new fareboxes in place in our buses by the end of calendar year 2002.

Arlington, Virginia: If you found out TOMORROW that Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and Congress all agreed to extend the Orange Line out to Tysons and then to Dulles and that all the money was allocated and in the bank -- and you had a new baby born on that day -- how old would the child be when she took her first ride to Tysons? Dulles?

Richard A. White: My two-year-old son would be eight years old. Therefore, the answer is, by the end of calendar year 2006, assuming full funding and a "go right" implementation process. Sounds like a nice birthday gift in 6 years, huh??

Georgetown, DC: We want a Metro stop!! Any chance? (I didn't live there back when they -didn't- want one. What a bunch of morons!)

Richard A. White: We are working with the District of Columbia identifying the full range of new transit corridors for the District. And then we will be evaluating these corridors against a set of criteria to determine priorities. This is a very comprehensive and exciting process, and one that will be done in full partnership between Metro and the several key agencies in the District of Columbia (DPW, Planning, Economic Development, etc.)

Arlington, Va.: I have been a rider on the orange line ever since it opened.

Please, please do NOT start closing the doors sooner. There is already an unfortunate tendency of some riders to push and shove when there is a chance they can't get on.

Given the number of first-time users, especially during certain times of the year (like now), I shudder to think of the panic when a group fears all its members won't make it on the same train.

I foresee more problems with doors sticking and all passengers being dumped at the next station.

Have you ever thought of express runs during rush hour? Like metro center, Farragut west, Rosslyn, Ballston, West Falls Church, and then Vienna?

Richard A. White: First, we are not going to do anything that alienates our customers. Our focus will be on moving as many people and as many trains as we can, particularly during our rush hours. As for express trains, the possibilities are very limited because, unlike New York and Boston, we do not have several express tracks. We are a two-track operation. We will continue to look for ways for how we can better manage the thousands of additional customers who are pouring onto our trains and our platforms, making sure that passenger safety remains our #1 priority.

Germantown, MD: When is your contract up for renewal and is the process for its renewal subject to board approval?

Richard A. White: My employment contract with Metro runs through December 31, 2002. Any extension(s) to the contract is the decision of the Board and will be made at the appropriate time.

Washington, DC: Can you update us on the timetable for the escalator repair? After twice having to walk up the Dupont North escalator (witnessing two people having respiratory problems on the way up), I'm getting reluctant to take Metro. At the very least, why are there not warnings about broken/stopped escalators before you exit?

washingtonpost.com: In 1998, Metro adopted a policy to always have one escalator going up. (Read the article.) Is this still the policy?

Richard A. White: Our Board has asked us to make recommendations on how to speed up our escalator overhaul program. These will be presented to the Board on Aug. 10. The situation at Dupont Circle will be reported at that time. Keeping our customers informed about the status of our escalators is a high priority, and an area that we need to make immediate improvements in. Our action plan for this, as well, will be presented on Aug. 10. You may have noticed that last week, we held a customer information event at our Eastern Market station to alert passengers there one week in advance of an escalator rehabilitation project. We intend to do more customer communications efforts like that in the future. Thanks for your patience. I know the situation with our escalators is a great inconvenience, but we have both the most and deepest escalators in the world. And we are in the process of implementing a multi-year improvement program in the amount of $130 million for our elevators and escalators.

Lexington Park, MD: Mr. White, what are you doing to try to catch rule breakers. I routinely see people eating and drinking on the trains and in the station. I've tried to tell the station kiosk attendant, but more times then not, that is of no help. I've even seen some metro security walk right by the offenders. Do you see this rule as not needing to be heavily enforced? I think it should, I've been on the New York subway and don't want the Metro to become that.

Richard A. White: We have a zero tolerance policy for eating and drinking on the Metro system. This is one of the things that makes the Metro experience better than many other systems around the country. Ensuring that this policy is enforced is a large task. It requires the efforts of all of our employees, as well as our customers. We have Metro transit police officers riding throughout our system at all times, but, of course, they can't be everywhere at once. You can help by contacting the station manager or calling 202-962-2121 any time you see someone violating these regulations on the Metro system.

Alexandria, Va: I used to be able to park my car at Van Dorn station early in the morning and ride the metro in. Why did you allow so many parking spots to be reserved to a private company, making parking impossible for people like me?
I now drive into D.C.

Richard A. White: A guaranteed parking program has been attractive to those who use it, but it is a source of frustration to other customers when they see the spaces unoccupied. We will be recommending modifications to the program in the near future to our Board of Directors to attempt to find a better balance in the program. I hope this will make it easier for you to park at Van Dorn station in the future and that you become a Metro rider again soon.

Arlington: The Post's architecture critic took a whack at Metro's proposed escalator canopy designs on Saturday. Personally, I agree; the canopy at the Courthouse station, which was apparently used as a model for the new canopies, is nothing special.

What's your reply to his article, and what kind of schedule is this project running on anyway?

washingtonpost.com: You can read the review by Benjamin Forgey here.

Richard A. White: The need for escalator canopies in the first place is due to the affects of water, snow, and ice on the proper functioning of the escalators. We are very mindful of architectural issues and will do our best to balance this consideration with functionality. The cost of our canopy program is currently budgeted at $27 million. Designs that are more architecturally and aesthetically sophisticated will likely double that cost. We will try, to the extent possible, to make sure our canopies are compatible with the communities where they are built and are mindful of the overall architecture of the Metro system.

Rockville, MD: Good day Mr. White:

As a fan of public transportation, let me tell you that I don't envy your position. Lots of challenges in the short and long-term.

One of which is the ongoing water seepage in the red line. Do you and your people have a plan for fixing it...I'm assuming that things can't stay the way they are forever.

Also, on the question of capacity. Are your trains spaced too far apart? I recall my experiences living in Tokyo...the Yamanote line (which circles Tokyo the way the proposed purple line would here in DC) was a marvel in efficiency. Trains would seemingly come 20 seconds after the last train departed. And, in typical Japanese efficiency fashion, these driver-operated cars would hit their stop mark so consistently that they'd paint little marks on the cement and lo and behold, the doors would always open on the mark.

Anyway...can you put trains closer together to increase capacity?

Richard A. White: The tunnel design for the Red Line section of which you speak, between Farragut North and Tenleytown, was state of the art at the time it was conceived some 30 years ago. Since then, new tunneling design methods and strategies have been advanced. That helps to explain why the section of Red Line between Forest Glen and Glenmont, opened two years ago this month, is better protected against water seepage. We have programs in place to deal with water infiltration and will augment them as necessary to stay ahead of this problem. This is in NO way a safety problem, but it can have an effect on the reliability of our service. As to the distance between trains, today we run 480 trains during our four-hour rush period or the equivalent of two trains per minute. We carry the equivalent of 32 lanes of highway capacity every rush hour. Despite this significant volume, we are looking at ways to accommodate more ridership through reduced train spacings, longer trains, and a variety of other ideas. We'll keep you posted on our progress in the near future.

Bethesda: As a loyal Metro rider, I'm thrilled that ridership is up to record levels.

Recently I've been following with some alarm the news of the delays due to minor fires. I have to ask: have there been more fires lately, or are there just as many now as there ever were, and the only difference is Metro's policy on stopping for them? I know some of these fires are very minor, but as you can imagine they cause a lot of concern among Metro's riders. And where does Metro's policy on dealing with fires stand now?

Richard A. White: Thanks for being such a loyal rider. The simple answer to your question is no, we are not seeing more smoke and fire incidents. We are simply responding to them differently than we did in the past. You should also know that there is very little in our tunnels to create a fire, as they are largely steel and concrete items. When a fire is reported, it is normally related to a power condition or small debris that has come in contact with our third rail (power which propels the trains). We have made recent changes to our procedures that have improved the balance between passenger safety and customer convenience. Lately, you'll notice there have been far fewer delays and disruptions because of smoke and fire related incidents. We expect that trend to continue.

Arlington: Why is there no mechanism for users to propose suggestions to improve service? Seems like having a suggestion box email set up the website would be very simple to do. I think the riders have lots of good ideas on how to improve service but we have no way to communicate with metro.

Richard A. White: We have several ways in place today for you to communicate with us. Check out our Internet website (www.wmata.com) and you will find an easy-to-use e-mail link. You may also call us at 202-637-7000. We are eager to hear from our customers any time they have a suggestion (or even a complaint) about how we can do things better. We strongly encourage you to contact us any time you have an idea to share with us.

Arlington, Virginia: How long is Metro infrastructure designed to last? 25 years? 50 years? 100 years? I'm talking about the tunnels, the tracks, the switches, etc.

Richard A. White: The replacement cycle for the kinds of infrastructure you mention are variable, depending on the particular item. Recently, we have all of our assets examined by an independent party (known as the Harris Report) and a conditions assessment performed. This has formed the basis for our capital replacement program. Our 25 year needs are approximately $7 billion...with a B, versus a current funding projection of $4 billion. So we (like the highway system) have a big funding problem. And these estimates don't even include service improvements and expansions, such as trains and buses for expanded services. You might be interested in knowing that our system costs $10 billion to build and would cost $22 billion to build if we were starting from scratch today. Clearly, protecting this investment should be a top priority of everyone in the region.

Washington DC: Metro used to be such a glorious selling point for this town. Now it's turned into a bad joke. Fires, breakdowns, stalled escalators, mangled guide-dog paws, delays, sudden breaking, leaks. What the heck is going on? What can you do to restore credibility to this system, or is it just falling apart?

washingtonpost.com: A recent Post article, "What Is Wrong With Metro?" reported frustration among riders due to many of these problems. (Read the article.)

Richard A. White: We still believe we are a glorious selling point for the region and have the best transit system in the nation. We also understand some of your frustration. We've had more than our share of problems, particularly during the past three months. Although most of these problems are unrelated, they do create an impression that we have system-wide failures. We intend to address all of these issues with renewed vigor and to restore the pride (and consumer confidence) in our Metro system. Some of these issues are related to our success (i.e., record ridership on both rail and bus). We are also experiencing the twin challenges of growing pains (the ridership growth) and aging pains (we are nearly 25 years old), and in need of major capital reinvestment (see previous reply!). All of our managers are committed to doing whatever it takes to keep our system great and a source of pride for everyone in the Washington region.

Wash, DC: When will the operation of the trains occur automatically rather than manually? Currently, the ride coming to a stop at stations is often abrupt and inconsistent. The automatic braking was much better.

Also, how about using pre-recorded messages aboard the trains to inform customers of the next stop. Some of the train operators speak clearly and are easy to understand, but others are muffled and inaudible.

Richard A. White: AS you know, we have been in manual operation since March 1999 due to safety considerations. It has taken time for our train operators to become proficient in operating the trains in a perpetual state of manual operation. I am hopeful that the "light is at the end of the tunnel" (pun intended) and that our supplier of vital relays (the central nervous systems that control automatic operation) will deliver a sufficient quantity to allow us to revert back to automatic operation before Thanksgiving.

Arlington: I ride the Orange and Blue lines every day from Ballston to Crystal City. Of course that means I have to change trains at Rosslyn. Quite often during the afternoon rush hour two Orange line trains come back to back with a short train first (totally packed full of people) followed by a longer, virtually empty train. Why not put the long train first in order to spread the crowd better between the trains? This has always baffled me and seems like a simple solution to the overcrowding.

Richard A. White: The extra trains that we slot into our schedule are called "trippers." Usually, they are four-car trains as compared to the normal six-car rush hour trains. This is largely due to our limited number of rail cars. You should be glad to hear that we will begin taking delivery of 192 new railcars beginning in December of this year. This will allow us to schedule more cars for service to address over-crowding conditions. One of the options under consideration is to make all of our "tripper" trains six-car trains. Other options include scheduling more trains during the rush hours. These ideas will be brought to our Board of Directors for their determination as to the most appropriate use in the near future.

Alexandria, VA: What is the deal with the new electronic signs that have been put up throughout the Metro system? Are these ever going to be used to display useful information? How about using them like the London subway system to display the time remaining for the arrival of the next train? If these signs are only going to display messages along the lines of "Have a nice day" then Metro certainly has wasted its money on the installation of these items.

Richard A. White: The short answer is "Yes," they will be used to display useful information such as "next arrival" times and information about delays in the system. We share your frustration in the long delays we have experienced in getting these signs to work. Our contractor has had more than expected difficulties in linking the software in the signs with our central computer system. Until this linkage is made successfully, the signs are being used to display "static" messages, such as the ones you identified. Clearly, we are as interested as you in getting these signs to reliably provide our customers with the "dynamic" (i.e., real time) kind of information they need, and for which the signs are intended. Keep watching!

DC: I can't tell you how irked I was when I read the Post article asking "What's Wrong with Metro." The quote about being in a slump -- professionals get sent to the minors for that. How do you plan to get yourself out of your so-called slump?

Richard A. White: Actually, professionals don't usually get sent to the minors for slumps. For example, I don't recall Cal Ripken being sent to Rochester any time recently whenever he encountered a tough time at the plate! My comment was intended to point out that we had experienced a few problems of our own making that clearly need improvement. We have been working hard to deliver the kind of service that our customers have been accustomed to...and deserve. We are facing up to the things that need to be done, including taking personnel actions when warranted, providing more training for our key personnel, and making necessary changes in our rules and procedures. Under no circumstances will we ever sit on our hands and shrug our shoulders about our situation. We have a very pro-active plan to deal with the kinds of issues you raise in your note to me, and these will be publicly revealed on Aug. 10. Meantime, I hope you'll be patient as we continue to climb back to the top of the standings!! Just to put everything into perspective, lately we have been carrying roughly 600,000 people per day on our rail system - 97% of them successfully (or 580,000). We do understand that for the other 20,000 people, delays and passenger offloads can be a major inconvenience. Although 97% would get Cal Ripken into any Hall of Fame, we know we need to do even better because of the high standards people have for us!

cleveland park: Please settle the rumors once and for all...

Why was a Metro stop never built in Georgetown? The trains run right under Washington Harbor. Is it true what everyone says? That snooty Georgetown residents didn't want the Metro to bring the "riff-raff" in?

Richard A. White: Actually it was a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with community concerns at that time in the Georgetown area. In addition, there were some engineering considerations as well. However, as I said in a previous note today, this issue is now being re-examined in the District of Columbia with several G'town options now being evaluated for future, long-term implementation.

Thanks very much for all of your questions and suggestions. Whew, it's hard to believe an hour has flown by so quickly. I will be back again in the not-too-distant future to take more of your questions and ideas for improvement. I truly appreciate all of your interest in Metro, and your ideas as well as your challenges for us. Thanks to all of you for your continued loyalty and support. The future is riding on Metro!!

washingtonpost.com: Thanks to everyone for participating in today's discussion. Thanks to Richard A. White for taking the time to answer questions today. There were too many questions to answer in just one hour, so we'll try to have him return in the future.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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