This spring, Doug Walker did what would have seemed unthinkable a year ago: He bought a car.
For eight years he made his daily commute on Metro. But after moving to West Springfield last year, he grew weary of the endless delays and service problems on the Blue Line. Service reductions to make way for the new Silver Line had stretched his evening commute to 90 minutes on trains where riders were packed tighter than sardines — and that’s when he could even get on.
“You would see this crush of people trying to get in and then be turned away,” he said. “Once or twice, during really bad days, [trains] would not even stop. . . . There was just no room.”
Yes, Metro riders have been complaining for years, but now many of them are saying enough is enough. It seems for riders of the nation’s second-busiest subway system, things have finally reached a tipping point. They’ve started a riders union and held their first organizational meeting. A Virginia Tech professor has launched a grass-roots campaign for general manager — and some riders are backing him. Others, like Walker, are giving up on the system entirely and moving closer to jobs or buying cars to avoid having to use the system.
The laundry list of problems facing the transit agency is extensive. First, a Jan. 12 smoke incident killed one passenger and injured scores. The agency has been the subject of several outside investigations and reviews for its safety, management and financial lapses. And a derailment last month that snarled service for a day highlighted a summer of service disruptions that frustrated and angered riders. Added to that, the beleaguered transit agency has been without a chief executive since January, and its governing board has been unable to agree even on what type of leadership it needs.
“Let’s be honest, it’s a death spiral,” said Chris Barnes, curator of the Twitter account @FixWMATA, which has more than 3,600 followers. “This is a classic death spiral. . . . New York saw this decades ago. They managed to pull up and recover from it. But [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] is going through it right now. There’s hardly a single aspect of WMATA that you can give high marks for.”
Last week, Barnes and fellow Metro watchers Ashley Robbins, known online as “Clayton County Transit Girl,” Graham Jenkins (@lowheadways) and business analyst Roger Bowles started the WMATA Riders’ Union, which was formed via a digital hangout that attracted dozens of viewers.
As @FixWMATA, Barnes has been known for his blistering nonstop criticism of the agency — and the media for its coverage — but he now says it’s time for a different approach.
“We want to work constructively,” Barnes said. “We want to change the tone and not just be complaining for the sake of complaining. We want to fix things. We want to turn anger into solutions, and that’s what we’re going to work for.”
In just a few days, the group, which uses the hashtag #RidersUnite, registered more than 400 members; its Twitter page has amassed more than 1,400 followers.
Barnes said the group will serve as a unified voice for the public and ensure riders’ concerns are swiftly addressed by Metro officials. He pointed to the New York Straphangers Campaign — formed as that city’s system became “unreliable and decrepit” — as a model. There is a 21-member Riders’ Advisory Council that reports to Metro’s board of directors, but Barnes said it is powerless, calling it a “focus group.”
The most important goal, he said, is to secure rider representation on the Metro board. Metro workers have representation through Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, and officials have voting power, but what about the lifeblood of the system, its customers?
“The only people who are missing in this whole picture are riders,” he said. “Riders swipe that card, four times a day or more.”
Metro officials did not comment on the formation of the riders’ union, but spokeswoman Sherri Ly did explain the process of adding another voting member to the transit authority’s board. Doing so, she said, would require a change to the compact that governs Metro, something that would have be approved by legislation in the District, Maryland and Virginia, along with Congress.
Riders and advocates across the spectrum say one of the most critical issues facing Metro has nothing to do with the rails: communication. The agency, they contend, fails to communicate with its customers in a timely and forthcoming manner. They note that most of the agency’s top officials are not on social media and don’t engage with riders.
Ly countered that the agency’s rider-engagement practices are effective, noting that the WMATA Twitter account has 100,000 followers — second only to New York in the level of rider engagement in the country. Metro has also shared its practices and learned from other transit agencies, including Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, she said.
During high-volume travel periods, at least one staff member monitors social media, Ly said. And staffers work to provide same-day feedback to operators based on what riders say on social media.
But passengers complain that updates are not disseminated clearly or quickly enough.
“The trains’ on-time performance, the fatal smoke incident in January, the derailments of the past few years, personal safety on trains, arcing insulators, all have pushed a good portion of WMATA’s passengers to the breaking point,” said Bowles, who has been monitoring the system since 1989. But the single action the agency could take that would “reduce the hostility from passengers” most, he said, is providing more information on what is happening and why.
“If operations continue on the same trajectory that has been occurring for the past eight to 10 years, then ridership will continue to decline and the system will deepen in its current death spiral,” Bowles said. “To put it in context, Metro will turn into the NYC subways from the ’70s and ’80s.”
The New York subway had earned a reputation for unreliability and high crime, resulting in a precipitous drop in ridership before a revitalization campaign. If the state of affairs doesn’t improve on Metro, observers said, the same could happen here.
Kevin Heaslip, a Virginia Tech engineering professor, wants to intervene before the system deteriorates to that point. The idea came to him as he was sitting in the Ballston Metro station last week, faced with another frustrating afternoon of delays. A disabled train at the McPherson Square station had stymied service on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines, giving his brainchild plenty of time to incubate.
By Heaslip’s calculation, 46 minutes passed before his Reston-bound train pulled into the station. So by the time he boarded a Silver Line train, he had a backlog of frustrated tweets to match the litany of backed-up trains. Minutes later, he fired off this one: “Ok @wmata . . . Here’s a deal for you. Make me GM and I’ll take a sabbatical. I even have taught transit operations before.”
The following day, Metro’s informational Twitter account sent him a tweet showing him how to apply for the general manager position.
Heaslip, who has a PhD in civil engineering with a focus on transportation from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, teaches Transit Operation and Planning at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia campus in Falls Church. He said he teaches students that Metro “used to be a great system, that it is a great system” but that it is collapsing under the weight of chronic problems.
“When you’re trying to provide as much service as WMATA does, there are going to be times when it doesn’t work perfectly,” he said. “This is where I tell them that traveler information is very important.”
He called Metro a “reactive” organization in need of a culture change. On his first day as general manager, he said, communications would be an immediate priority. Staffers would engage with riders directly and frequently on social media, and the relationship would improve, he said.
“The people that I think are most frustrated are actually the people that love the system more than anything else,” he said. “I just don’t see any engagement with the riders, to be honest with you.”
Ly said Metro is working to upgrade software that will allow Metro’s customer-service staffers expanded social media engagement with riders.
Heaslip’s announcement earned praise and support on Twitter last week. Barnes was enthusiastic about his candidacy.
“What’s the worst this guy can do? He can’t be worse than (Richard) Sarles,” he said, referring to Metro’s previous general manager, who retired in January.
Riders said they would welcome the change from the established leadership. After a year of problems that snarled her Red Line commute, Ashley Parker, of Rockville, said she’s reconsidering the up to $300 a month she spends on Metro. Now she, too, is looking into buying a car — or moving to the District to shorten her commute.
“There’s no GM,” she said. “Knowing there’s not any real direction to improve, that’s frightening to me. Because something else will happen, and that’s inevitable, something else will happen.”
Walker, meanwhile, will continue commuting to work in his new Volkswagen GTI. It’s a 25-minute drive from his home in West Springfield to his IT job in McLean. It beats being stuck in a tunnel, he said, or waiting for a train on a jam-packed platform.
“Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, to me, is preferable to the nightmare that was these crowded trains on the Blue Line.”
Still, not everyone can afford to buy a car.
For the remaining riders, and even those lost during a year of mishaps, Barnes said that he is confident there will be strength in numbers.
“We’re advocates and we want things to get better,” he said. “We’re no longer just going to be individuals yelling and screaming on Twitter.”