The leaders of the Metro system promised yesterday to give customers a better ride, outlining a plan to improve the performance of station managers, train operators and the people who run the transit agency.
They described the initiatives as a "back to basics" attempt to reconnect with customers alienated by service problems that included train and bus crowding, poor communication and delays caused by derailments, cracked tracks, flooded stations and a collision.
"This organization is reengineering itself," said Metro's chief executive, Richard A. White, adding that he and other employees need to realize "we're not about transportation or maintenance, we're about customer service."
Metro will appoint managers to take charge of the various train lines and will post their names, pictures and contact information in stations and on trains. The goal, transit officials said, is to provide riders with an outlet for complaints and make someone at Metro directly responsible for train service.
Station managers, whom riders sometimes find rude and unhelpful, are being trained to improve their relations with customers. The new program teaches them how to greet passengers and to ask, "How may I help you?" They are also being taught how to listen, interpret body language, manage conflicts and stay positive.
Metro said riders will get immediate refunds if they are forced to leave because of major delays, train operators will pay more attention to how long the doors stay open, announcements will be more informative and platform workers will help control crowding. "Ride quality" teams will be sent into the system to identify problems.
Officials vowed to make sure that trains, buses, elevators and escalators are not sidelined because parts to fix them are not available. They also said they will seek outside performance reviews, improve their hiring practices and give employees a greater sense of involvement in the mission of Metro.
The transit agency will hold more town hall meetings like the agency's inaugural one Tuesday that drew 230 people, many of whom wanted to complain about service problems.
Managers also said that they will hold get-togethers with Metro police and the public and that workers will be retrained to respond better to problems.
White blamed many of Metro's problems on too little funding to handle a sharp increase in riders. He said the renewed focus on customer service will be especially critical during the next two to three years, as Metro awaits the arrival of 120 rail cars, 185 buses and other upgrades to the system.
White promised last month to come up with ways to regain the public's confidence in a transit system that has been a point of civic pride since it opened 28 years ago. He also took responsibility for decisions he said didn't "make much sense" or that "misfired badly."
Many passengers said they welcome the new approach.
"It's good that they're paying more attention to customer service issues and accountability. We applaud them for that," said Kevin Moore, co-founder of MetroRiders.org, a Web site started two months ago to provide a forum for passengers. "It is another try, and we give them credit for that, and let's give them a chance to get it right this time."
Subway riders will get a break during the morning rush Dec. 16 when riding the rails will cost nothing. Metro board members approved a deal yesterday with ING Direct, a financial services firm, that will cover about $600,000 in fares in exchange for extensive exposure for the company's name throughout the system that day.
Members of the board, a regional panel that governs the system, said they were happy to hear about the changes but criticized the staff for taking so long to address problems they said have festered for years. Some members also complained that no specific measures were offered for bus service, though White said the overwhelming number of complaints have been about rail service.
Charles Deegan, who represents Prince George's County on the board, said he was pleased because he "had the impression we were afraid of the hard work needed to change the culture here."
White responded that Metro workers had not been asked to do many of the things customers have come to demand, but now they are being trained to do so.
"Station managers are people who can help you get a Farecard out of the machine," he said. "People are expecting station managers to be one-stop shopping for everything, and they're not trained to do that."
Board Chairman Robert J. Smith said that has to change.
"It's not enough to have someone who is capable of operating a train," he said. "As part of the job, they need to have certain personality traits to balance with people."
T. Dana Kauffman, who represents Fairfax County on the Metro board, added: "We've said it before. Now we have to prove we're a customer service organization."