The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Metro fixes its trains, it will need to repair the public’s trust

Commuters catch a train at the Rosslyn Metro Station. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

There are no rats.

That was my first thought when I stepped into a D.C. Metro station after riding through New York’s subway system for years.

Like many people who encounter the Washington region’s transit system for the first time, I was impressed by what I saw — those concrete, waffle-shaped ceilings — and by what I didn’t see — trash strewn, platforms made sticky with fallen food and rodents loving the muck.

But that was more than 15 years ago, before I made the region my home and became a regular commuter.

Only then did I become familiar with a different side of Metro, one that leaves its riders, time and again, frustrated and fuming and not knowing if they are getting the truth or some save-face version of it.

“The most frustrating thing about the experience was the lack of information,” Andrew D. Realon told my colleagues Ian Duncan and Justin George in an article they wrote this week about Metro’s current debacle.

Prolonged disruption could be a drag on pandemic recovery for Metro and D.C. region, leaders say

Realon was on the Blue Line train that derailed during rush hour last week, forcing an evacuation of passengers. A federal safety investigation into the derailment found that the train had derailed at least twice earlier that day and the problem had resulted from a defect in wheel assemblies. It also found that inspections had revealed dozens of similar defects and that since at least 2017, some people at Metro knew of the problem and chose not to tell the public or safety regulators.

“The potential for fatalities and serious injuries was significant,” Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, said earlier this week. “This could have resulted in a catastrophic event.”

This could have resulted in a catastrophic event. Those are gut-punching words that Metro officials are probably hoping Washington residents soon forget. Here’s why they shouldn’t, at least not until Metro officials give them sufficient reason to do so. Those words reveal not only what didn’t occur, but also what did. When faced with the chance to address a known hazard, Metro officials showed little consideration of the lives of the people who depend on them. Among its daily riders: students trying to get to and from school safely, adults hoping to arrive at work and appointments on time, and tourists whose presence is needed to help the local economy.

Lives, thankfully, were not lost to the problem with the wheels, but a whole lot of trust was. And it was lost at a time when Metro was starting to see its ridership increase, which is critical to the economic recovery of the region.

As a result of the investigation, Metro has pulled more than half of its trains from service, causing delays throughout the region. On Tuesday, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) updated riders via Twitter by posting this message: “Metrorail service update: Delays possible through end of the week.”

It didn’t take long for people to start posting responses that reflected their skepticism that service would return to normal before the end of the week.

“Delays possible? Possible? You’re joking, right?” wrote one person.

“Which is just WMATA continuing to insult everyone’s intelligence . . . like we haven’t seen them for years be unable to meet their own deadlines . . .” wrote another person.

“Delays confirmed through at least the end of the month*” wrote yet another person. “Translated for y’all who don’t speak WMATA.”

In case Metro officials have avoided looking at the criticism being flung their way, here’s what people are also saying:

If you live in the DC metro area today and you’re a commuter, just start crying and throwing up.

The best thing I did during the pandemic was put myself in a living situation where the DC Metro is an amusing catastrophe rather than a necessary part of my everyday life.

This is bad, scary, and might get much, much worse before it gets better.

Metro’s current failure has residents remembering its past ones, including that time inspectors found $87,000 worth of gold pins that had been purchased for employees and left forgotten in a storage room. And in 2015, after smoke poured into a stalled train, a passenger died and others were injured.

The region is only a few days into the delays and already people are concerned that they could cost jobs. It’s a valid worry. While some people can afford to pay for a ride-sharing service or parking, low-wage workers have fewer options and too often less-understanding bosses when they show up late. There is no telling what could be lost in the coming days for those workers, or students with complicated commutes, or people who are counting on the trains to get them to important medical appointments.

Metro officials need to fix the problem with the trains quickly, but they also need to do it in a way that is transparent with the media and the public. They need to speak straight, show the work that is being done to address the problem and give as accurate as possible a timeline of the delays so that people can plan accordingly. They need to stop worrying about saving face and start focusing on how best to face the public to earn their confidence.

Then, once they achieve that, maybe they can start addressing another potential problem. Tucked among the many critical comments that have circulated online in recent days about Metro was one that expressed a concern that went beyond the transportation disruption.

“In addition to delays and track construction all over the city,” the person wrote, “I saw my first rat in a DC Metro station today.”

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