The Washington Post

For Metrorail riders who see service problems, today is like yesterday


The shock wave created by the fatal crash of two Metro trains in June 2009 reverberates to this day. On Thursday, Richard Sarles, who took over as general manager in 2010, listed recent safety achievements, including fulfillment of several recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board.

“When it comes to safety,” Sarles said, “it is too easy to slide backwards, and that’s why we must never get too comfortable or complacent in our efforts.”

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

The safety programs launched under Sarles are crucial for the survival of the transit system and its passengers. Yet even as Metro draws support from safety officials and government leaders on its journey back from the despair of 2009, many of its customers complain that they haven’t been brought along for the ride.

Their despair may not be quite fair. After all, safety is an essential part of the service. Yet when riders assess the state of Metro, they tend to look at what happened on their ride, rather than at what didn’t happen.

It’s the nature of being a customer, someone who thinks that a service has been paid for and not delivered to the customer’s satisfaction.

In that sense, the customers of today have much in common with those riders who appeared in a June 2000 story by Post reporter Lyndsey Layton.

“It feels like the system is falling apart,” Miguel Lopez said after scaling a busted escalator at Dupont Circle. And the Red Line rider wasn’t alone.

Stalled escalators, broken-down trains and track problems were taken as signs that Metrorail needed major refurbishment.

During the height of an evening rush at Metro Center, a Glenmont-bound Red Line train broke down, and hundreds of passengers had to get off and join an already crowded platform. “What is wrong with Metro?” and “What now?” could be heard as the crowd grew.

The most striking thing about the 14-year-old story is that today’s riders talk like those riders. The routine service problems they said they were fed up with then are the same ones riders say they’re fed up with now.

“We’re just basically in a slump,” responded Richard A. White, who was general manager 14 years ago. In discussing a long rebuilding program for escalators, elevators and trains, he told Layton: “It’s not going to get better overnight.”

Apparently, it didn’t.

Sarles often says that the transit authority dug itself a huge hole over many years by delaying maintenance and rebuilding. The spending on rebuilding in 2000 sounds like pocket change compared with today’s $5.5 billion program. For that money, Sarles can point to legitimate improvements: During the week in which Layton wrote her story, 17 percent of Metro’s escalators were out of service. According to Metro service reports for the past week, 6 percent of the escalators were out of service.

She cited another statistic: During the first three weeks of June 2000, 130 Metro trains broke down.

That’s bad, and the riders of that era certainly noticed. But when I looked back at Metro’s daily service reports for the first three weeks of this month, I counted 175 trains that either offloaded riders because of equipment problems or did not enter into service in the first place, creating delays.

Riders are most certainly noticing that, too, even if they’re not keeping count. On Tuesday morning, just one busted Blue Line train near Stadium-Armory was enough to jam platforms and trains on the Blue and Orange lines.

This wasn’t just a bad week for Blue and Orange riders. When Metro used Twitter on Wednesday afternoon to invite people to enter a contest to be among the first passengers on the new Silver Line, a rider waiting through a long delay tweeted back: “Can I just be on the next Red Line train?”

The rail system of 2000 was quaint compared with today’s, said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. “Back then,” he said, “the system closed at midnight every night. The number of railcars necessary to support peak service was less than 700.” Today, Stessel said, “we need more than 940.”

The oldest cars in the rail fleet are still in service — and 14 years older. Metro trains are in service for more hours now than they were in 2000. Weekday ridership was about 23 percent lower then, too. So platforms and trains are that much more crowded, even when things are running smoothly.

So the historic comparison is not “apples to apples,” Stessel said.

Many riders won’t care about anybody’s view of transit history. But they would identify with a statement made in 2000 by an annoyed Red Line rider named Carolyn Pomponio: “I don’t know what’s going on, but it bothers me.”

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail .



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