Commuters are seen along the Red Line at Metro’s Gallery Place-Chinatown station in this file photo. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

In the first of this month’s rush-hour messes on Metro’s Red Line, commuters were delayed for up to an hour after hydraulic fluid leaked from a piece of track-
maintenance equipment, forcing trains headed in opposite directions to share a single track for four hours.

Six days later, a corroded cable fell from the tunnel ceiling near the Woodley Park station, forcing three hours of single-tracking.

The next morning, a train disabled by brake trouble caused more single-tracking, followed by a rail switch problem that led to additional delays.

Some passengers perceive the entire underground transit network to be dysfunctional: “A complete, rickety mess,” as the founder of the blog Unsuck DC Metro put it in an interview.

After the troublesome stretch, the transit agency apologized and refunded some fares, and General Manager Richard Sarles sat for an interview, explaining why Washington’s subway hasn’t been exactly a miracle of efficiency lately.

He seemed to choose his words carefully.

“I hate to ask customers to be patient,” the man in charge said. “I won’t do that.”

Yet he said he hopes that they understand. The rail system, born in 1976 and still growing, is being rebuilt in a $5 billion improvement project that Sarles said previous Metro administrations unwisely put off, allowing the subway’s infrastructure to decay. Until the upgrades are finished in three to four years, he said, riders can expect more moments — or hours — of exasperation.

“I think intellectually people realize we’ve needed to step up repairs, and they know there’s progress being made,” he said. “But, yeah, all that gets lost when you’re caught in a delay. We realize that. I get mad, too, when I’m stuck in a delay.”

Sitting in Metro’s headquarters, Sarles, in his fourth year as general manager, smiled wanly. “I come in here, though, and at least I have someone I can yell at,” he said.

Commuters are always howling at officials of Metro — in phone calls, Web posts, e-mails and tweets. Complaints about service disruptions — like the big Red Line delays that occurred Nov. 7 and again Nov. 13 and 14 — are the most common gripes that Metro hears from rail patrons, who annually lodge 8,000 to 10,000 complaints.

And then there are the legions of unhappy customers who suffer delays silently or grouse only to their cubicle mates when they finally arrive at work.

Although Sarles and other Metro leaders acknowledge the validity of the gripes, they said America’s second-busiest subway, averaging 750,000 passenger trips every weekday, is regaining its strength after an extended period of maintenance neglect.

For years, beginning in the mid-1990s, “Metro was kind of coasting, because there didn’t seem to be a lot of problems with the system,” said Ben Ball, chairman of the transit agency’s volunteer Riders’ Advisory Council, a liaison between customers and Metro’s top brass. “They kept deferring a lot of things in terms of major improvements. And so now we’re in a position where the bill for all that has come due.”

As a decade went by without Metro investing in wholesale upgrades, Sarles and others said, subway ridership increased from an average of a half-million passenger trips per weekday in 1997 to 700,000-plus in 2007, requiring Metro to operate many more six- and eight-car trains. As a result, miles of track laid in the 1970s and ’80s began wearing out fast, especially on the Red Line, the system’s oldest route.

Other components, both mechanical and electronic, also deteriorated, including communications cables and rail switches, Metro officials said. As for the cable that fell near the Woodley Park station, causing delays the morning of Nov. 13, Sarles said: “That cable was for our old radio system, VHF. We’re nearly complete with the switch to digital. Then all that kind of cable will get pulled out, and we won’t use it anymore.”

In June 2009, the aged, track-based electronic system that monitors the locations of trains failed, leading to the Red Line crash near the Fort Totten station, which killed nine people. “In my mind, that was the triggering event,” Ball said. “It forced everyone to realize we’ve been sitting on these problems for too long. Now it’s time to address them.”

The transit agency is about halfway through the six-year capital improvement project, repairing or replacing myriad elements of the rail system, typically during off-hours and weekends. By now, Metro’s frequent warning of “delays due to track work” is familiar to anyone who regularly rides the subway on Saturdays or Sundays.

“The whole ‘track work’ thing is just another riders-be-damned approach,” said the Unsuck DC Metro blogger, a 45-year-old federal worker who created his Web site in 2009, a month after he began commuting on the Orange Line.

His site is a virtual town square where Metro customers gripe about escalator outages, balky train doors, rude transit employees and, of course, delays. “I don’t think Metro cares about riders,” said the blogger, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his privacy. “And people in this area with power, who can affect changes at Metro, I don’t think they care about Metro. And so Metro just operates in this vacuum.”

Sarles countered: “We’ve seen the results of the improvements we’ve made so far. Our on-time performance has increased, especially on the Red Line.”

The transit agency uses complicated formulas for determining its on-time rail performance. In each Red Line station in the District’s core, for example, a train is due to arrive every three minutes during rush hours. And a train is considered to be on time as long as it rolls up to a platform no more than two minutes behind schedule.

In terms of percentages, Red Line on-time rates in recent years “have gone from the high 80s to the low 90s, and that means there are less delays,” Sarles told reporters at Metro’s board of directors meeting Thursday.

“But,” he quickly added, “that’s of no comfort to you if you’re sitting on a delayed train or waiting to get on a delayed train.” And while “we’ll continue to improve,” he said, “it’ll never be perfect.”

Although Metro said that on-time rates throughout the system have been about 90 percent, that still means a fair number of late trains for a subway system used by more weekday riders than any other in the country except New York’s. And these days, with the megaphone effect of social media, complaints sound louder than ever.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said he understands the anger. “The rebuilding process is about clearing out a backlog of work that accumulated over many, many years, getting us in this hole,” he said. “Getting us out of that hole is not an immediate thing.”

Consider just rail ties — the heavy slabs of wood stretching between tracks.

There are a quarter-million ties along outdoor parts of Metro’s subway lines. If the system were in ideal condition (a “steady state,” as experts call it), Metro would be replacing about 12,000 ties annually. But Metro’s state is far from steady. Two years ago, 87,000 ties needed replacement. The transit agency said that after months of work, the backlog was reduced to 55,000 last year.

“You can see why it takes a while to catch up,” said Stessel, noting that many rails are also being replaced. “And the system doesn’t stop aging or deteriorating all the while.”

After more than 35 years in the public transportation field, working for Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Sarles, 68, became Metro’s top manager in April 2010, almost a year after the Fort Totten crash.

“We’ve been trying to tell the story of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “And what I’ve noticed is, now I think customers recognize the need to do all this maintenance.”

Just as long as their trains aren’t late.

“Because,” said Stessel, “you’re only as good as your last rush hour.”