A string of extraordinary fumbles last year made even the most loyal riders wonder what had happened to Metro service.

A Metro Transit Police officer handcuffed a government scientist for chewing the last bit of a PayDay candy bar as she entered the Metro Center Station, providing weeks of material to radio talk show hosts and comedians.

A train operator abandoned a loaded Red Line train during rush hour because her shift had ended.

A station manager, disturbed in his booth by a pregnant passenger inquiring about a broken escalator, allegedly wielded a broom at her and pushed her husband.

And train controllers opted to run just one train an hour after a Redskins game, leaving angry football fans sitting on idle trains as night turned into morning.

While many Metro workers are dedicated and even heroic, the series of celebrated incidents created an impression that some employees are more concerned about their own comfort than passenger service. And this was happening as train delays were increasing.

Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White defended what he said was a "damn good workforce." The job is complicated by the culture of the region, he said, calling area residents demanding and a "tough community to provide service to."

Still, faced with unhappy riders and bad publicity, Metro officials have been trying to fix the mechanical problems and improve customer service. They've also put new emphasis on a simple goal: Get riders where they need to go.

Steven A. Feil, a tough-talking New Yorker who recently became Metro's chief operating officer for rail, is revamping the operations control center, where controllers direct traffic, and changing many of Metro's long-standing policies.

For instance, if a problem develops with one rail car, managers now will empty that car but keep the train running, instead of taking it out of service. When a train overruns a station platform, supervisors try to help passengers off rather than order the train to the next station.

"When you're in the [control center] seat, you're moving trains and you're thinking of keeping big hunks of metal rolling down the railroad," said Dan Epps, tapped by Feil to run the operations control center. "But if you think of the folks out there, it's pretty logical to let them off where they want to get off."

Several of those changes were recommended in February by a panel of subway experts, which found that Metro managers could make smarter decisions after a disruption.

Metro service is seriously affected by even small snags because the railroad was designed like a two-lane country road without breakdown lanes. The system has just two tracks and few places where trains can move from one track to the other. That means if a train breaks down, others back up behind it.

Earlier this year, in the glow of the electronic railroad map that stretches the length of Metro's darkened operations control center, Hercules Ballard could see trouble looming. A passenger had become ill in a bad place: on a Green Line train at L'Enfant Plaza. If the train stayed there more than a couple of minutes, trains behind it carrying thousands of riders on the Yellow and Blue lines would begin to slow or hold in the tunnels.

A year ago, if Ballard had been faced with a sick passenger, he would have ordered everyone off the train and held it until medical help arrived.

But on this day in March, Ballard had a supervisor comfort the sick passenger as the train moved one station north, releasing the choke point that had been forming. The passenger declined medical help and went on her way. Delays were minimized.

Still, changing the culture at Metro is a daunting task, and there's plenty of evidence that not everyone has gotten the message, passengers say.

Corinne Rothblum and five friends saw that firsthand when they tried to take the Metro home the night of May 21 after a D.C. United game at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Hundreds waited to head toward downtown as three trains in a row passed, outbound to Largo Town Center. As the platform grew dangerously crowded, Rothblum sought help from a station manager. She said the manager abruptly cut her off and handed her a customer comment card to mail to Metro headquarters.

A Metro spokeswoman said five extra employees were on duty that night, but Rothblum said she saw only two, and they were lingering upstairs near the station manager's booth. She could see no one coming to help control the crowd.

"There's a complete lack of accountability," said Rothblum, 39, a daily Metro commuter for 11 years. "I'm a huge supporter of public transportation, but Metro just [ticks] me off. The leadership just pays lip service. They send some people off to training, but the quality of customer service stays the same."

Ansche Hedgepeth was 12 when she was arrested in 2000 for eating a french fry in a station.

Stephanie Willett was arrested for munching on the last bite of a candy bar just inside a station.

Sakinah Aaron was jailed last year after talking loudly on her phone in a station's bus area.