Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that a heat kink in a rail on the Red Line developed on Monday. The incident occurred Tuesday. This version has been corrected.
“We have a lot of brown wood out there,” Metro Deputy General Manager Dave Kubicek told transit board members last week. Metro riders can easily confirm his observation. In many stations, they see the effects of the train system’s age, and Metro’s efforts to restore a more youthful look.
Busted escalators, shattered platform tiles and other blemishes are walled off with wooden barriers, painted in the traditional Metro brown color, while workers make repairs.
Not every problem has vanished behind brown wood. Metro, the D.C. region’s greatest transportation asset, has never looked so crummy. General Manager Richard Sarles and members of his leadership team say they’ve mobilized the transit agency to repair the damage, but the fountain of youth will flow slowly across the age spots.
Metro’s leadership seems energized by this task to an extent that hasn’t been as apparent since Metro was building the train lines. But for riders, it’s a different experience. They may have heard about the big plans, but for the most part, what they see is turmoil and disruption.
It’s very discouraging.
The answer, of course, is to get things fixed, but since everyone says the big fixes are many transit trips in the future, Metro needs to do a better job of communicating what’s going on and why.
It’s fine to tell riders that Metro will spend much more on escalator fixes and platform repairs over the next six years, but what they really want to know is, “What about my ride?” What’s going on with the entrance at Foggy Bottom, and the ceiling at Farragut North, the air conditioning at Rosslyn and the escalators at Union Station?
That’s not news to Metro management. They’re working on communication efforts that include the “Metro Forward” information campaign about the six-year improvement program, better explanation signs to put on all that brown wood, an expanded e-mail system that can provide more details about both short-term and long-term repairs, and new hires to push out more information through social media.
In his remarks to the Metro board members last week, Kubicek highlighted the fact that the first of the three new escalators at the Foggy Bottom entrance would open Monday. Foggy Bottom, which has only one entrance, often has at least one escalator out of service, and many times all three are out. Long lines form to get in and out. So Foggy Bottom is a leading symbol of the frustrations riders feel.
Replacing the first escalator is a small step in a year-long project, but it was well worth highlighting. It wasn't a number in a line-item capital budget. It was something riders could see. And they understand what it means to have an escalator that’s more likely to stay in service than the old ones.
Tuesday afternoon offered another example of an evolving communications strategy. A heat kink developed in a rail near Silver Spring Station. A heat kink isn’t an example of aging infrastructure, the way a busted escalator is. When it gets hot, heat kinks happen. But the communications response went beyond the traditional.
At first, riders did get the traditional e-Alert:
“Disruption at Silver Spring. Trains sharing same track btwn Silver Spring & Forest Glen due to unscheduled track maintenance. Delays both directions.”
These are sent out by transit staffers in the operations control center. The idea is to get such warnings to riders as quickly as possible. The problem is they’re not telling riders everything they need to know or want to know.
How bad are the delays? How long will the disruption last? A common rider lament in such situations: “Just tell me what’s going on, so I’ll know if I need to make other plans for getting home.”
The messages we were receiving from Metro via Twitter had more:
“Red Line: Single tracking btwn Silver Spring & Takoma due to heat-related track problem. Delays 20 minutes both directions. DS” The Twitter transmissions, which were copied here on the blog, included a photo showing the bendy rail.
DS is Dan Stessel, Metro’s new communications director, whose plans include focusing more resources on social media and creating real-time alerts for bus riders.
Later in the evening, Metro put out this statement:
“Metro apologizes for the delay and inconvenience many customers experienced this evening on the Red Line.
“At approximately 3:30 p.m., Metro crews reported a weather-related ‘heat kink’ in the rail between Takoma and Silver Spring on the ‘outbound’ (Glenmont-bound) track. A factor for railroads throughout the world, heat kinks are caused when the metal rail expands due to extreme heat and direct sunlight. As it expands, the rail loses its proper alignment, making it necessary to take the track out of service until repairs are made.
“During the evening commute, Red Line trains were forced to share a single track between Silver Spring and Takoma, causing train congestion, crowding and delays in both directions. Some trains were turned back at strategic locations to preserve adequate service levels elsewhere on the line.
“Metro has an aggressive track inspection program that is used to detect any signs of track defects.
“As of 9:30 p.m., crews remain on the scene using heavy machinery to reset the rail to its proper alignment. The work continue overnight until the track is able to be returned to service.”
That’s the second one of these apologies and explanations I’ve seen in two weeks. (The other was for the June 30 delays on the Red and Green lines.)
Stessel, introducing himself to the Metro Riders’ Advisory Council last week, noted that anyone can sign up to receive such press releases, but he thinks riders shouldn’t have to. He wants to find ways, like the Twitter messages and an expanded e-mail system, to deliver need-to-know news to riders.
We’re still not that far along a very tough path toward a smoother ride. Metro’s leaders need to make it very plain that they’re on this path with us. Every little bit helps. They need to make it less likely that riders will feel the way our long-time commenter WashingtonDame felt Monday afternoon when sending us this message about the Monday afternoon commute:
“This is the moment when I do a happy dance that I dumped the Red line and drive to work. I got home in 30 minutes and my drive was pleasantly air conditioned the whole way, and accompanied by satellite radio.”