Several hundred people packed Metro's first-ever "town hall" meeting last night and demanded to know why train operators slam doors on passengers, why Metro provides poor service for the disabled, and how the system can handle a terrorist attack when it cannot stop thieves from stealing cars parked at stations.
The two-hour meeting, moderated by former Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, was billed by Metro as the first step in a new relationship between the transit system and its passengers.
"Tonight's meeting will be only the first of an ongoing dialogue with our riders," said Metro board Chairman Robert Smith, who came up with the idea and said it was part of Metro's new emphasis on customer service.
The crowd of 230 was lively, and challenged Metro's board of directors in a way never experienced at the board's weekly meetings, where public comment is not allowed.
After a question about whether Metro directors ride the trains and buses themselves, the room broke into loud applause. When Chief Executive Richard A. White said bus operators obey laws against using handheld cell phones while driving, many audience members shouted "Not true!" and "That's a lie!" prompting White to quickly say, "Okay, that's good feedback."
One man wanted to know why Metro had never held a similar meeting in its 28-year history. Another asked why White only recently resumed riding the subway on a daily basis.
Audience members handed their written questions to Levey, now a vice president at Washington Hospital Center, who read them aloud. Stacy Liska of Adelphi, who uses MetroAccess, the curb-to-curb service for disabled riders, asked why she waited nearly five hours for a ride last week.
When she called to complain, she was told the driver was 20 minutes away, she said. During her second call, she was told the driver didn't know his way around Northern Virginia. When Liska phoned Metro to complain, she said, she could not get anyone to take her complaint.
Smith expressed his regret. He said transit systems across the country have difficulty providing good service for the disabled.
The room broke into applause when one questioner suggested the creation of an advisory group of passengers.
Since February, Metro has been beset by operational, mechanical and managerial fumbles, on top of its financial difficulties. Two weeks ago, White issued a mea culpa, acknowledging that the public is losing confidence in his agency.
This year's troubles began in winter, when an internal audit found that the agency was losing as much as $1 million annually at parking facilities because it failed to monitor cashiers. Officials sought to solve that problem by switching to a cashless system, but they failed to order enough SmarTrip cards to meet demand.
In March, a fire chased Red Line riders onto the streets at the height of the morning commute. In June, officials shifted to two-car trains at night to save money, resulting in severe crowding that forced them to revert to four-car trains.
Transit officials also have found themselves defending 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; another officer arrested a pregnant woman for talking loudly on a cell phone.
During the summer, a station manger screamed at another pregnant woman and pushed her husband after they asked about a stopped escalator. That altercation prompted officials to put station managers through a refresher course in customer service.
Other miscues included a decision to run just one train an hour after a Redskins game, delaying thousands of fans for hours, and the instance when a train operator walked away from a full train during rush hour to catch a train in the opposite direction and head home for the day. Last month, a worker ignored sprinkler alarms at the Mount Vernon Square station, allowing the sprinklers to flood the station.
On Nov. 3, Metro had its first train crash since 1996, when an empty train rolled backwards into an occupied train at the Woodley Park Station.
T. Dana Kauffman, who represents Fairfax County on the Metro board, said the agency needs to hold its workforce accountable for mistakes.