As Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld heads into his second year leading the agency, he will shift focus from rebuilding the system’s debilitated tracks to railcar reliability, the source of a majority of delays for riders.
Wiedefeld announced his post-SafeTrack agenda during a speech Wednesday at the National Press Club, where he marked his first anniversary with the region’s troubled transit agency and offered a progress report on Metro’s safety, reliability and finances.
He acknowledged the laundry list of problems that continue to plague the system — unreliable service, falling ridership, a $290 million budget shortfall, and jurisdictional disputes over governance — but said he is confident that the agency is headed in the right direction.
“Believe me, we have a very long way to go to turn Metro around,” Wiedefeld said. “But I know we are on the rise.”
Wiedefeld’s theme for his second year: “Back2Good,” an initiative that will include a ramped-up railcar maintenance program and is part of an effort to win back customers who have fled the system in droves in part because of chronic service disruptions and safety lapses.
It’s not quite “SafeCar,” but Wiedefeld said the changes could have dramatic effect on the day-to-day experiences of Metro riders. About 60 percent of the rail delays customers experience are caused by problems with the trains themselves; fewer than 20 percent result from track issues.
Wiedefeld plans to double the number of the agency’s newest railcars — the 7000 series — and hasten the retirement of the 1000- and 4000-series, the oldest and least reliable in the fleet. Those cars are “bellied” in the middle of newer trains because of safety risks.
While Metro had planned to retire all of its 1000-series trains by the end of 2017, the 4000s were originally scheduled to be scrapped by 2019. This month’s discovery of a software glitch that posed a collision risk prompted Metro to accelerate their retirement.
Metro says the need to sandwich the cars in the middle of trains limits their usefulness in railyards where other models are in short supply. As a result, eight trains per day fail to leave the railyard and an additional four are offloaded because of breakdowns and other issues, causing a ripple effect of delays across the system.
By the end of that process, Wiedefeld promised, all eight-car trains running on Metro will be composed of the new railcars, and the 7000s will make up one-third of the system’s rush-hour fleet.
But while Metro hails the 7000s as a solution to its reliability problems, the series has not performed to expectations.
Figured released this week show that the cars are traveling only half the expected distance before malfunctioning — sometimes less. Metro says failures are occurring every 8,518 miles, well below the target of 20,800. Failures include issues such as malfunctioning air-conditioning that might not require pulling a car from service.
However, the good news is that although delivery of the cars was initially slowed by problems with the manufacturer, Kawasaki, Metro is now receiving 20 of the cars per month. The agency has commissioned 224 cars for service, equivalent to 28 trains.
Wiedefeld also wants to focus on repairs and preventive maintenance for the rest of the legacy fleet, which is prone to breakdowns. Workers will focus on recurring issues with doors, brakes, air-conditioning and propulsion systems that cause the bulk of delays.
Wiedefeld’s first year was marked by drastic measures to address degraded infrastructure: a systemwide shutdown in March to inspect and replace 600 fire-prone “jumper cables,” the year-long SafeTrack program aimed at restoring tracks to a state of good repair, and dozens of emergency inspections after a July derailment raised concerns about the condition of crossovers.
During his speech, Wiedefeld reflected on some of those challenges, saying he knew the decision to shutter the entire rail network for a full day would be a make-or-break moment during his tenure as general manager.
“It was the most difficult decision I ever had to make in my 30-year career,” Wiedefeld said, “and also one of the easiest.”
As for the effects of the SafeTrack work that has inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of people throughout the region, Wiedefeld said the state of the tracks on aboveground sections of the system is better than it has been in more than a decade.
“It is amazing to me to see the transformation that is occurring out there on the system,” he said. “I know that you don’t see it or feel it as much, but the reality is that the amount of work that we’ve done — it’s just unbelievable.
“I know that we had hiccups along the way,” he said, in a nod to ongoing concerns about the quality of the repairs made during the first several SafeTrack surges. “But believe me, those are extremely minor compared to what we were up against and what we are doing out there.”
Wiedefeld also outlined several goals he has set for improving service in the coming year. By the end of 2017, he wants to reduce unplanned track-related delays by 50 percent and railcar-related delays by 25 percent.
Wiedefeld’s first anniversary comes at a pivotal juncture for the agency, which is looking to stem ridership losses that have contributed to a $290 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year. October ridership was down to about 625,000 weekday trips, a steep drop-off from 2009 peaks of 750,000. While safety and reliability problems have contributed to a years-long trend of plummeting ridership, the long-term disruptions caused by SafeTrack have added to the losses.
But despite the continued problems with reliability, Wiedefeld said he’s proud of the steps the agency has taken to improve safety and instill an increased level of personal accountability among workers.
Some of those decisions, he acknowledged, have been painful: He eliminated 500 jobs and has proposed to eliminate 500 more in the coming fiscal year. He also terminated a slew of managers — a decision he defended Wednesday, saying that inadequate leadership and communication from high- and mid-level managers was part of what led to lapses in safety.
After the July derailment, Metro imposed dozens of speed restrictions as, officials said, employees grew comfortable reporting urgent safety issues up the management chain.
“Some of the speed restrictions we’ve been seeing — they’re not coming from management. They’re coming from line workers,” Wiedefeld said, “and that’s exactly how it should be.”
Wiedefeld also announced initiatives to use technology to gauge customer satisfaction. Rail customer satisfaction is at 66 percent — 20 points below target.
Using the same software as “MyTripTime,” a program launched in July that allows customers to measure trip durations against expected travel times, Metro will measure its on-time performance by examining SmarTrip data, rather than how often trains adhere to established wait times. Quarterly surveys will ask riders to rate their experience based on a range of factors, including reliability, customer service, personal safety and security.
He also outlined a plan for station improvements, including better lighting and sanitization. While deep cleanings are now done every four years, a new program will power-wash, scrub and polish all 91 Metro stations annually. Metro also will begin issuing computer-generated text-to-speech announcements in stations — rather than prerecorded human ones — much like in its newest railcars.
After the speech, Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans applauded Wiedefeld for getting through his first year on the job.
“We’ve taken an organization that was literally in chaos and have grounded it,” Evans said. “So that is an enormous accomplishment over the last year.”