Columnist

Are Metro riders better off now than they were in 2009?

More than halfway through the massive rebuilding program that is costing $5.5 billion and disrupting weekend travel for thousands of people, riders and government officials are asking the question they asked after the 2009 Red Line crash: Are the trains safe to ride?

The rebuilding strategy launched early in the term of Metro General Manager Richard Sarles was about more than carrying out the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board after the 2009 crash that killed nine people.

Sarles made it his priority to implement the recommendations and also to restore the entire system to “a state of good repair.”

“There is a big catch-up going on here, and it’s going to go on for years,” Sarles said.

“You’ve got an old, old system, really,” he said. “It’s the first time it’s seeing the rebuilding that you have to do.”

He made it the entire region’s priority, as well, winning crucial support from government, business and civic leaders. A segment of the ridership was more skeptical. The riders bore the brunt of the disruptions, and it was the riders who viewed the immediate and sometimes disappointing results of rebuilding.

Every time the transit authority goes to work on the tracks, it reminds riders that the program is installing “new rail, ties, platforms, escalators, signals, lighting, communication systems, and more. It represents the largest capital investment — and work effort — since the system’s original construction in the early 1970s.”

But to some of those riders, it’s been like living in the basement while a contractor rebuilds the upstairs, then emerging to find the upstairs looks pretty much the way it did before the contractor lifted a hammer.

Sarles is leaving town, but the rebuilding program he launched is scheduled to continue into 2017.

We should be feeling better by now. In fact, some officials tell us we do.

On Jan. 8, Sarles got a happy send-off from the Metro board, which praised him for re-creating the “safety culture” at Metro.

At that time, Metrorail was in the midst of a bad week that set a very different tone among the transit authority’s customers. Morning commutes had been delayed by a cracked rail and train breakdowns attributed to the cold weather.

What followed was worse. Monday’s Yellow Line episode involving a stalled, smoke-filled train left one woman dead and sent scores of riders to hospitals. While stuck in the train, many whiled away the idle minutes — more than 30 of them — wondering whether they would survive.

Sean Lynch of Arlington County, one of the trapped passengers, urged us not to let the images of those coughing, crouching riders fade.

“Awful, terrifying,” Lynch recalled. After about 25 minutes on the stalled train, Lynch said, it became apparent “that the emergency procedure plan had failed to be executed properly, and people in the cars started getting really scared, and the operator stopped giving information about what we were going to do — although I’m sure he had no idea.”

If Metro failed to carry out its emergency plan, was it because the plan wasn’t workable, because it was unclear or because the staff wasn’t sufficiently trained? Metro officials aren’t communicating. (It’s one of their strengths.)

But if Metro did carry out its emergency plan, the transit authority needs a new plan.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Stalled trains, filled with hundreds of distressed passengers, is a repeating theme at Metro. And each time it happens, the transit authority’s top managers vow to do better.

But they don’t do better. In fact, it gets worse.

Self-evacuation” is becoming part of the inside-the-Beltway lexicon.

Metro commuters mourn the loss of Carol Glover of Alexandria, who died in the Yellow Line incident, and hope for the full recovery of those hospitalized. As they learn about the personal tragedy, they also put the event in a broad context.

“Having lived in this area since 1985, I am completely baffled as to why Metro still has such problems communicating among its employees and with passengers,” a commenter wrote during my online discussion Tuesday. “That would seem to be the easiest thing for Metro to address. Yet, time and again, we hear that Metro cannot clearly communicate, either during routine service disruptions and also during emergencies.”

Metro needs to rebuild more than the rails and the escalators. It needs to rebuild the trust of its riders. That should cost substantially less than $5.5 billion, but for the transit authority, it may be the most difficult task yet.

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 drgridlock@washpost.com .