Richard A. White, the chief executive of a transit system that has suffered through a year of troubles, says he's now on board -- the Orange Line, that is.
For the past four years, the man in charge of one of the nation's largest mass transit systems drove to work because it was more convenient for his schedule. But last month, he decided that if he is going to fix the problems his agency faces, he needs to reconnect with his employees and the working stiffs who ride the transit lines he runs.
"I need to be a good transit user," White said. "I need to see and feel and experience what the customers see and feel and experience. The simple statement here is that we are back on the case in a strong way, starting with me. I'm changing my own personal behavior and my own professional behavior."
So now he drives from his Fairfax County home to the Vienna or Dunn Loring stations, parks, gets on the Orange Line, takes it to Metro Center and hops over to the Red Line for one stop to Gallery Place. He said it's not so bad on early morning trains -- he can usually snag a seat then -- but in the evening, the crowding is pretty severe.
White said he has gotten on board more than just the Orange Line.
Last week's train crash at Woodley Park Station was the latest in a series of crises for Metro leaders, but it was also the unveiling of what the chief executive said will be the new Richard White. He left his office, went to the scene and spoke directly to the public. He said he knows this is the kind of out-there, in-charge approach that is required of him.
"We're going to have to show some people that we're doing some good thinking here," White said. "We get it."
White, 52, said Friday that he recognizes he is a man fighting for his job and pledged to improve reliability, customer service and accountability.
"Our way of providing customer service and outreach is abysmal," White said.
He said his attention has been diverted for years by budget problems and efforts to secure billions from the local and federal government to keep the system running.
One of his failures, he said, is that he has "not cracked the nut on the organizational culture issue." Many Metro employees have never worked anywhere else and can't draw on the broader experience of the industry in tackling problems. He also said the agency is suffering from an influx of new, inexperienced employees.
Investigators probing Wednesday's crash are looking into the actions of the operator whose train rolled back down a tunnel and struck the train stopped at Woodley Park, slightly injuring 20 people. The operator has been in the job for seven months.
The crash was the latest setback for the transit agency in a tough year. An internal audit made public in February suggested that the agency was losing up to $1 million annually at parking lots because it failed to monitor cashiers. Officials sought to solve that issue by going to a cashless system based on electronic payment cards, but they failed to order enough SmartTrip cards to meet demand.
In June, officials shifted to two-car trains at night to try to save money, resulting in severe crowding that forced them to revert to four-car trains. In August, a train derailed at Silver Spring, and last month, service was slowed by cracks in the tracks.
Transit officials also have found themselves having to defend the actions of their employees. A Metro police officer arrested a woman who had downed the last bite of a candy bar in a station; a pregnant woman was arrested for talking loudly on a cell phone; and a station manager screamed at another pregnant woman and pushed her husband after they asked about a stopped escalator.
There is a familiarity to the challenges facing White. When he came to Washington eight years ago from his spot atop California's Bay Area Rapid Transit system, Metro was dealing with the effects of a crash that was blamed on system failures and questionable management decisions. The public was concerned about safety and service. And local leaders were searching for a reliable source of transit funding.
White was the man who would bring a business approach to the agency, bust Metro's entrenched bureaucracy and heal Metro's relationship with the public.
And he did, he and others said. The normally low-key, low-profile manager instituted "Dear Fellow Rider" and "Meet the Metro Manager" programs, spent time with employees and held the line on fares until last year.
Even among detractors, there is agreement that White has achieved a lot. In his first year, he settled a dispute over the future of bus service and kept the buses running. He has simplified fare collection, added high-tech upgrades and operated under budget several years.
White also brought an executive look. He's fit, stands straight, wears well-tailored suits and crisp shirts with his initials on the cuff, and he never seems to have a hair out of place. He changed his title from general manager to chief executive and started referring to passengers as customers. His contract, which expires in 2009, provides for compensation this year of $317,088.
His reputation grew locally, on Capitol Hill and in his field. Last month, he rose to the prestigious position of chairman of the executive committee of the American Public Transportation Association.
Nonetheless, White has been at the center of Metro's operational, managerial and image problems.
"I look at him as almost two individuals," said Gordon Linton, a Metro board alternate representing Montgomery County. "There was a time period where he was going to platforms, meeting with customers and was making a concerted effort to reach out to riders. Unfortunately, the challenges of finances diverted attention from doing those things, and we have to get back to that."
David Gunn, chief executive of Amtrak and a former general manager of Metro, said the leaders there "need to put together a good get-well program and then be really, really very public about it. If you get very specific about what it is you need to do, [people] tend to support you."
Some leaders wonder whether White can do that.
"Communications is probably his weakness," said Charles Deegan, who represents Prince George's County on the board. "He tends to be a little aloof."
But Deegan said he supports White, whom he described as an "extremely smart man."
"Dick's finally got it," he said. "It took awhile."
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who represents the District on the board, said that "it's going to require him moving away from what has been a remote and distant manager toward becoming a leader of a workforce and an agency that is seriously troubled. This is not the Dick White we have seen. The question is whether he can rise to the occasion."