About two hours after a two-train accident on the Red Line yesterday, Metro chief executive Richard A. White and his top lieutenants got their orange reflectors and flashlights.
It was the kind of response White promised last week when he took responsibility for operational, managerial and mechanical failures at the transit agency and signaled that he would adopt a more aggressive approach to dealing with them.
He probably did not expect to have to keep that promise so soon at as large scale an event as the accident, which capped a year Metro might like to forget.
"Lately we've got a serious perception and credibility problem about what it is we're doing and how hard we're working on behalf of our customers," White said yesterday. "I feel a stronger level of need to help try to navigate the organization . . . to show a little bit stronger leadership for our troops."
Last week, at a news conference announcing a potential contract dispute that could cost Metro as much as $3 million, White said that "much of the criticism directed at this organization, the [Metro] management team and, frankly, at me personally, has been deserved." He went on to say that Metro officials had made decisions that "don't make much sense" and that have "misfired badly."
The year's troubles began when an internal audit made public in February suggested that the agency was losing up to $1 million annually at parking lots because it had failed to monitor cashiers. Officials sought to solve that issue by going to a cashless system, but they failed to order enough SmartTrip 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 try to save some money, resulting in severe crowding that forced them to revert to four-car trains. In July, part of the ceiling at Farragut North collapsed. In August, a train derailed at Silver Spring, and last month, service was slowed twice by rare 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. That altercation prompted officials to put station managers through a refresher course in customer service.
Other miscues included an incident in which a worker's error caused a flood at a station when sprinkler alarms were ignored; a decision to run too few trains after a Redskins game, delaying some fans for hours; and the stranding of a train full of passengers when an operator left the train at a station.
The string of embarrassments occurred while Metro was trying to gain promises from local governments to increase funding to avoid what White termed a "death spiral" of decreased service. It also coincided with an increase in fares for the second year in a row, angering beleaguered passengers.
Groups in Fairfax County urged voters to defeat a ballot proposal in Tuesday's election to raise $110 million for Metro because of what they said was a "mismanaged Metro system." The measure passed handily, despite the ads.
White said: "If you look back to almost since February . . . it seems like everything since then has been one set of bad events after another. I don't think our organization has really come through this thing looking like we have a grip on what's going on. We obviously have to do everything we possibly can to show people we're trying to mitigate situations and we've got their best interests in mind."
Metro officials said yesterday that White's on-the-scene actions were the beginnings of the agency's atonement.
"It's unusual for Dick White to go to the scene of a major interruption" in service, said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. "We want people to know we get it." As if on cue, the chance came yesterday.
When White got to the Dupont Circle Station on his way to the accident, he asked about a faulty escalator, checked that temporary bus service was running and ordered police to direct traffic on the chaotic street. After getting to the scene, White also decided to take the unusual step of running eight-car trains along the crowded Red Line and charging off-peak fares during the rush hour crunch, a measure first instituted last month when a rail cracked.
Metro officials had planned to make station managers who have taken the customer service course available to talk to the public today about what they have learned, though that plan was delayed by the accident.
"We're trying to do everything we can to show customers we feel their pain," Farbstein said.