In June, Steven A. Feil took over as Metro's chief operating officer for rail, the person responsible for operation of the 83-station, 103.5-mile subway system. Before joining Metro, Feil held a similar position with the Hudson-Bergen (N.J.) light-rail system, which he helped design and build. He has more than 20 years of experience in the rail industry, including positions with Amtrak and the New York City Transit Authority. He answered these questions by e-mail from staff writer Lyndsey Layton:
QYou came to Metro from a brand-new light-rail system in New Jersey. What are the major differences between a new system and this region's 28-year-old Metro?
AThe Hudson-Bergen light-rail system is a smaller (20,000 daily riders compared with Metro's 700,000), new, state-of-the-art system, so it has obvious differences when compared to Metro's more conventional subway. The major difference has to do with the constraints of age on our system. We do not have a lot of excess capacity; we have old equipment that is starting to fail or needs to undergo a midlife overhaul; and our wayside track equipment such as switches, power equipment and rail substations are old. Those things take away from our system reliability and flexibility to move more people at a time when our ridership projections are increasing.
The main difference in the way the two systems are run is that the light-rail system is not an automatic train operation-controlled system like Metro. Here, everything is fully automated and, for the most part, we operate in an automatic mode, although we use manual operations when the situation calls for it. By running in automatic, Metro trains pull into stations at a much more frequent rate than at Hudson-Bergen, something our 700,000 daily customers appreciate.
Do you plan to make any changes in the way Metro trains are run? What areas do you think can be improved?
Sure. One change that I've made is already paying dividends. I've challenged some supervisors to improve their oversight of the rail lines. As a result, they are out in the field more often -- in train stations, rail yards and on trains -- helping to ensure a smoother trip for our customers. It is improving the frequency with which trains leave the rail yards on schedule; it is allowing us to make a quicker recovery when a train experiences a problem, meaning shorter delays during mechanical breakdowns; and it's even making a positive impact on station cleanliness.
Another change I've made is that I've separated the overall planning of homeland security and emergency management from the daily operation issues in our Operations Control Center to ensure that the center's focus is and will remain the day-to-day operation of our trains. I am confident that this change will result in improved customer service and faster response when our trains experience a delay.
We also are working to improve the type of information that we give customers via the train operators and through the station public-address system; we're implementing an "all-hands-response" to major service interruptions; and we're looking at some possible different ways to move trains on our existing tracks.
Soon after you arrived, flooding knocked out a small section of the Red Line around Silver Spring and hobbled that line for about nine days. Why did it take so long to fix the problem created by a small storm?
The storm flooded a 400-square-foot room known as an automatic train control room. That room was packed with floor-to-ceiling electronic computer components, all of which were under four feet of water. We had to rebuild the room's computer components, which was an extremely complex step-by-step fix. In the interim, we ran controls manually at slower speeds than we usually do under automatic train control. All things considered, it was quite an accomplishment to rebuild that room in only nine days. We're sorry about the delays, but the flooding was unpredictable, and we worked around the clock to get it all fixed and replaced as quickly as possible.
How do the riders in Washington compare to the straphangers in New York, in terms of what they expect from their transit system and how they behave?
Customers in the Washington area appear to have a higher set of expectations than in other communities that I am familiar with.
Our customers have a very high expectation for good, reliable service -- and they should. We expect that of ourselves as well.
Is there any way to squeeze more service from the existing rail system, to decrease crowding on the lines?
We are addressing the need to decrease crowding by purchasing more rail cars. Plus, we need to make more rail cars available for when we open the Blue Line extension to Largo later this year. We have an order of 62 cars in process (due to start arriving in 2005), and this fall we hope to have funding in place to order another 120 rail cars.
The true next step is for the region to fund our Metro Matters campaign that will allow us to operate eight-car trains, thereby increasing capacity. If we have the funds to purchase those 120 rail cars, we will be able to run about one-third of our trains with eight cars each.
Soon after you arrived, you faced the Red Line flooding, a marooned train that couldn't be immediately located by downtown controllers, a rail operator who abandoned her packed train during rush hour, a station manager who allegedly assaulted passengers inquiring about a broken escalator and a train that derailed as it was about to enter service. Are you having fun yet?
First, I want to clarify one item in your question where you claim that a train "couldn't be immediately located by downtown controllers." There is never a situation in this rail system when we do not know where a train is at any given time. We temporarily lost communication with the train, but because we knew the exact time the train entered a specific section of track where communication went down, we knew where the train was located and worked to recover it.
I've put in a lot of extra hours, and it has been rewarding. I see myself as a someone who troubleshoots, problem-solves and constantly searches for new ways to do things more efficiently. I've found that the people here are receptive to new ideas and accept the challenges that we face as our system reaches middle age. The fun is only beginning.