Carmen Turner, the delightful person who has taken the impossible job of Metro general manager, has the opportunity to do something none of her predecessors could accomplish: force Metro's operating bosses to concentrate on passengers.
It is a change that must be made if Metro is to retain its riders, their good will and the support that is necessary for this city to have the kind of transit system it is already paying for through taxes and high fares. It is a change that requires attitude adjustment at Metro, not budget increases.
The fact is that Metro, no matter how shiny, will never be better than average until it improves the way it treats passengers. Well-known problems have gone unsolved for years. A few examples:
When the subway began serious service with the opening of the Blue Line from Stadium-Armory to National Airport in 1977, one of the first problems was that passengers on trains that were delayed missed buses that left on time. Schedule adjustments and other solutions have been promised by every general manager. None has delivered.
Someone in the subway division must be ordered to tell the bus division when trains are delayed; someone in the bus division must be ordered to hold those buses every time a train is late. Middle managers list dozens of reasons why this is hard to do (union contracts, schedule adherence, etc.). None of the reasons helps if you have to sit for 45 minutes in a howling windstorm in Silver Spring before the next bus comes. It has been six years and not one head has rolled; it is time for this problem to go away or for heads to roll.
Destination signs have not worked since the subway opened in 1976. A train at McPherson Square the other day said "No Passengers" on the front and "West Falls Church" on the side of the first car, "Silver Spring" on the second car, nothing on the third car, and "National Airport" (its true destination) on the last car. Long-time riders could figure it out; newcomers had no idea what to do. The helpful public address system was encouraging passengers not to run for the train when the doors begin to close. See comment about rolling heads, above.
The escalators don't work. Actually, they do work most of the time, but safety switches trip and turn them off. They stay off until a station attendant turns them on again. At most stations, the attendants have to leave their kiosks to discover what the escalators are doing and fix them. Not all station attendants do that well. This problem was discovered the week the subway opened in 1976. Rolling heads, etc.
Metro's board--several of whose members were there when the world's most beautiful engineering project (without people) was designed in the 1960s--has blocked proposals to do such sensible things as install sales offices for bus tickets and Flash Passes on the platforms or mezzanines of larger stations, such as Metro Center and the Pentagon. Would disturb the architectural sight lines, and all that jazz.
Meanwhile, at the much less convenient Metro sales offices in the Pentagon concourse, on New York Avenue and in the Metro headquarters building itself, the sales windows are closed every day between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. It would take more people to man them, they say. Surely somewhere among Metro's 7,200 employees someone can be found to work at the sales windows during the lunch hour of thousands of Metro riders without increasing the Metro budget.
Since many of the Farecard machines don't work much of the time, perhaps the sales windows could begin selling Farecards again, just like they did in the good old days.
Bus air conditioning. Need more be said?
You want a subway timetable? Why?
I have called Metro's fare structure and transfer policies Byzantine; a colleague on the editorial page has called them Talmudic. They are also inexcusable. Only board members and Metro employees, all of whom use free passes to board buses and free passes to bypass the nonworking Farecard machines, can be unperturbed by the unnecessary daily hassles these policies produce.
At least twice a week, I guide a nuclear family from Iowa out of the subway to the White House. The Family Leader is perplexed when he or she gets off the train at McPherson Square. The signs on the wall point to the 14th Street and Vermont Avenue exits. For those who don't know, 14th Street is the Combat Zone; Vermont Avenue is how you get to the White House without giving your 2.1 children more of an education than you planned on your trip to Washington. There are many other stations, particularly in the Mall area, that need good, helpful, permanent tourist-oriented signs with arrows pointing in the right directions, regardless of what the crowd in Metro's architecture office thinks. (The architecture office, for some bizarre reason, is in charge of signs.)
Metro does some things well and has improved some others. It is possible, at least on weekdays, to get almost anywhere inside the Beltway and many places outside it on public transit. The trains and stations are generally clean (although the buses sometimes need work); the train operators usually make understandable and helpful announcements; the telephone information service is much sharper than it used to be; it has been several years since I have encountered one of those truly rude bus drivers that D.C. Transit left us.
But problems remain. Some of those listed above are beyond the general manager's control. The Farecard system and the fare schedule are board creations; former general manager Richard S. Page tried hard to get rid of them and was overruled unanimously.
Others can be fixed by strong management action. The danger is that the unbelievably petty board bickering certain to break out again over the reduced construction budget and the annual battles with the operating account will sap Turner's strength, just as it did the strength of her predecessors, and the board and the rest of Metro's management will continue to ignore the riders.