More than a year after Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld launched his service-focused "Back2Good" initiative, riders have found themselves living a dual reality: Statistics point to improving performance, with fewer breakdowns, delays and safety incidents, but the experience has been marred by service cuts, curtailed hours and higher fares — making them feel like they're paying more for less.
Back2Good was billed as a customer-oriented effort to win back trust, with a renewed focus on rail-car maintenance and station improvements such as deep cleaning, better lighting and amenities such as free WiFi. The goal was modest: "First, we will get back to good. And eventually, we will restore Metro to the world-class transit system it once was," Wiedefeld wrote in a memo about the program.
But riders say things are more complicated than the $400,000 marketing campaign could have communicated.
For example, the new 7000-series trains are a welcome replacement for their clunky ancestors, commuters say, but they cannot make up for the fact that Metro is running fewer trains in the system.
Amid budget cuts in June, Metro reduced rush-hour train frequencies on five of six lines and raised fares. Those changes were paired with an aggressive preventive maintenance push that cut operating hours significantly for nights and weekends.
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In interviews with more than 60 riders who use the system regularly, customers expressed an array of reactions from cautious optimism to dismay at the state of the system in Wiedefeld's second year. While Metro touts safety improvements and reliability gains made over the past 12 months, riders said that the system's status remains fragile — that any unexpected problem could send their commute spiraling — and that no amount of free WiFi, station painting or revamped lighting will make a difference.
Riders, for example, were recovering from disruptions caused by a two-week, partial shutdown on the Red Line for a crossover replacement when Metro announced Tuesday that a defective communications cable, responsible for transmitting critical speed and location information to control centers, would shutter a portion of the line over the weekend.
"There's no reason why we should still have delays after we endured a year-long stretch of mess," Red Line rider Damien Martinez, 29, of Northeast Washington, said about Metro's year-long SafeTrack maintenance program.
Turning to a metaphor, Martinez said, "You can't cover it up with paint; you still see cracks."
Katherine Kortum, chair of Metro's Riders' Advisory Council, which serves as a liaison to the Metro board, described a sense of "qualified hope" after Wiedefeld's second year.
"It feels like we're on an uphill swing now, but it feels like it wouldn't take much to get us going backward again," she said.
Statistics show that rush-hour ridership is stabilizing on the nation's second-busiest subway, a testament to improving performance in the eyes of agency officials. Breakdowns related to rail cars have fallen about 40 percent, according to the agency. And by fall, statistics showed that 88 percent of rail customers' trips were on time.
Metro retired its oldest and least reliable rail cars, and introduced dozens of new 7000-series cars — which totaled 456 by early December, nearly enough to make up all of Metro's eight-car trains. And in critical safety areas — red-signal overruns, rail fires and derailments, Metro recorded decreases. (One exception: Arcing drove the number of smoke and fire incidents up 14 percent, according to Metro's most recent vital-signs report).
"From a customer perspective, I do know that we're providing better service," Wiedefeld said following Thursday's board meeting. "We were in a stage last year, two years ago now, where we were telling people not to use the system. We're beyond that. But we will have issues, as with the Red Line or the entire system, where we have to do major capital projects."
Though statistics point to fewer breakdowns on the system, failures related to rail cars remain the leading cause of delays. Compared with last year, when failures prompted 1,288 offloads, there were 757 offloads by mid-December of this year, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.
Meanwhile, riders actually spent more time in track-related slowdowns this year, Metro said — despite Wiedefeld's goal to cut the percentage of unplanned track delays in half. Metro blamed the problem on new "foul-time" requirements, which prevent trains from entering certain tracks while works crews are in place.
The amount of time spent in track-related delays is up 14 percent this year, with the foul-time delays making up more than a quarter of the slowdowns, Ly said.
Board chairman Jack Evans described Metro's position as improved relative to 2016, which was largely focused on addressing urgent safety problems.
"We were in free fall," Evans said. "I would say, in the last year, we stopped the free fall and now we're better. We're not anywhere near where we want to be. But we're better."
And despite the continued, day-to-day disruptions, some riders applauded Wiedefeld for his safety focus.
Greg Storer, 33, of Edgewater, Md., who rides the Orange Line from New Carrollton station to downtown Washington for his job with the federal government, said he would rather have the agency focus on quality than quantity.
"Metro's done a good job earning my trust back over the past several months. I think the 7000-series trains are cleaner; [there] seem to be fewer problems. That overall has improved the quality of the ride," Storer said. "To me, the trade-off is better — that the service is better instead of reduced quality of service running late hours."
Among the most noticeable improvements over the past year, noted by at least a dozen customers: the 7000-series trains, which were lauded for being cleaner, more spacious and — a departure from past series — carpetless.
"It's got a nice, colorful floor," observed Madeline Guay, 27, of Hyattsville, Md. "The seats are comfortable."
But for many customers, the conclusion of SafeTrack was expected to bring a noticeably better commute. Instead, weekday track work continues to snarl trips and close stations, causing daily frustration for riders. Dozens of new trains glimmer from station platforms, but they continue to run on old, herky-jerky technology, stuck in manual mode with the rest of the fleet after the fatal collision near the Fort Totten station in 2009.
Meanwhile, customers who commute during off-peak hours said that they have been left behind, with interminably long waits between trains.
"The trains look great, but what does it do for me?" said Franklin Urena, 44, of Northwest Washington, who commutes from Columbia Heights to Dunn Loring, Va., where he works late-night shifts. "The 'Back2Good,' I don't know where or when it's happening."
Sometimes, after finishing a shift, Urena arrives at the station to see that the last train of the night has departed — 10 minutes earlier than scheduled. With Metro's new weeknight closing time of 11:30 p.m., that leaves him few alternatives.
"And in the meantime, everything is more expensive," Urena said. "If I have to wait because it's delayed, they should be saying, 'We're not gonna charge you.' "
There also is fear about what could happen in coming months and years because of the agency's precarious finances.
"I think most people who follow [Metro] know that they're at the edge of a cliff when it comes to funding," Kortum said. "We're a little wary of what comes next."
Agency leaders have warned that, without a permanent source of dedicated funding each year, the system could be forced to further cut service and raise fares.
Wiedefeld has asked for $15.5 billion over 10 years — including $500 million in annual, dedicated funding — to meet the system's safety and reliability needs, but so far, no regional consensus has been achieved.
The agency says that it has performed well, given the circumstances.
"Given Metro's recent history over the past five years of declining reliability that eventually necessitated an unprecedented systemwide shutdown, followed by a tough year of SafeTrack, we have made significant gains," Ly said in a statement reflecting on Back2Good.
"But we cannot cut our way out of budget issues," Ly said. "We need to increase revenue by increasing ridership and letting customers know that notable improvements were made in track and train reliability, which has resulted in markedly improved on-time service."
In the latest survey, 74 percent of rail customers indicated that they were satisfied, according to Metro's vital signs report — up from 66 percent a year ago. Among the top complaints of those who weren't satisfied: service reliability, including "consistency of trains arriving when expected and ride quality."
After dealing with sporadic disruptions for a year under SafeTrack, Janel Herbert of Sterling, Va., thought that her commute from Wiehle-Reston East station to Judiciary Square station would be faster. Instead, she said, her morning struggles only grew as Metro raised prices and increased headways.
"The wait is longer. And the price went up," Herbert said. "You pay more and it's not as good."
Crowding prevented C.J. Libassi, 30, from boarding two trains in a row amid Red Line problems at Union Station on Tuesday.
"Is it better than it used to be? I mean, it's not catching on fire, said Libassi, a policy analyst who lives on Capitol Hill. "That's a low bar."
Asked if he thought the system had improved during Back2Good, Robert Sherman, 44, a waiter who lives in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, gestured to a pile of discarded bottles, assorted paper and other refuse that had gathered on the Glenmont track at the Gallery Place station's Red Line platform.
"Look at that pile of trash down there," he said. "I've been watching that pile grow for the last month."
He saw it as evidence of apathy among some at Metro.
In a week of disruptions, a Red Line rider from Germantown, Md., had an almost comical take on the state of affairs. Jon Rayer, 26, works as a software developer downtown and rides in from the Shady Grove station five days a week. Lately, he said, the eight-minute headways have grown to 10 or 12 minutes.
"Other than the delays," he said, "everything seems to be fine."
Martine Powers contributed to this report.