Last August, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s relentlessly chipper exterior began to crack.
Within a one-month period, the Washington region’s transit system had experienced a steady stream of high-profile fiascoes: A train derailed in a high-traffic corridor at the start of the morning rush. A train operator blew through a red light and nearly struck two colleagues. An embarrassing report from federal regulators suggested that Metro officials had known about faulty tracks later involved in a derailment but didn’t fix them.
And earlier that month, as Wiedefeld called hundreds of managers to Verizon Center for a meeting to reinforce his message of safety over service, news broke that a Metro Transit Police officer had been arrested for allegedly trying to aid the Islamic State.
Publicly — with his soft-spoken but no-nonsense demeanor — Wiedefeld vowed to root out the cause of each problem and take swift action.
But privately, over lunch with a longtime friend, he expressed his frustration.
“I just can’t seem to get a break,” he said.
That theme summarizes Wiedefeld’s 14 months at the helm of Metro — and the feelings of Metro riders who were told a year ago that their patience with chronic breakdowns and disruptions would pay off in noticeably improved service.
More than a year after he started the job, exasperated riders are wondering: If Wiedefeld is doing all the right things — fixing the tracks, firing incompetent workers and supervisors, restoring a safety culture — why isn’t Metro getting better?
Compared with a year ago, service is measurably worse.
Stats show that for every month through September 2016 — the most recent data available — Metro’s on-time performance was comparatively lower than the year before, down about 6 percent overall from 2015. Significant stretches of track are pulled out of service during rush hour without warning. An unprecedented number of speed restrictions exist in the system — even outside of zones undergoing work as part of the SafeTrack rebuilding program.
When Wiedefeld unveiled his 2017 agenda, including a service-oriented plan to win back riders called “Back2Good,” many sneered. “When was Metro good?” they asked.
And even as he embarks on that modest goal, the disruptive SafeTrack maintenance “surges,” beset by problems early on and then delayed by summer heat, are now scheduled to conclude in June instead of March.
A bit of positive news came last month, when riders and regional leaders heaped praise on the agency for its handling of service for the Women’s March on Washington. It was Metro’s second-busiest day ever.
But that victory is overshadowed by the challenges ahead this year — a looming budget crisis with a projected $290 million shortfall, a battle for more long-term funding and a rapidly deteriorating relationship with union leaders amid tense labor negotiations.
But while riders and some officials grow increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of change, lawmakers continue to shower Wiedefeld with praise for his efforts to fix the broken system he inherited.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said he worries “every day” that Wiedefeld will get fed up with the onslaught and throw in the towel.
“The Metro board ought to check twice a day what wine he likes to drink, and deliver it in cases,” Connolly said, “because if we were to lose Paul at this critical moment, given the history of his predecessors in management, we’re at risk of regression.”
Beverley Swaim-Staley, a friend and longtime colleague who served as Maryland transportation secretary, said Wiedefeld isn’t planning to step down anytime soon. What he needs most, she said, is time.
“It’s a huge bureaucracy, I don’t think people understand sometimes,” she said. “It’s like turning a freighter around. It takes a long time. Hopefully, he’ll be given a chance to complete the job.”
One problem that Wiedefeld made little headway in fixing his first year: his frayed relationship with Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 689. The tensions stem, in part, from Wiedefeld’s no-excuses attitude toward discipline. For example, when a train operator ran a red light in July, resulting in a “near miss” with two track workers, Wiedefeld sent a clear message by immediately firing the train operator instead of giving him a warning.
He recently fired about one-third of the agency’s track inspection department for allegedly falsifying documents, an apparently pervasive problem that did not come to light until deteriorating track conditions led to the derailment of a Silver Line train last summer. The investigation is ongoing.
Metro and the union are negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement — the previous one has expired — and union President Jackie Jeter has said that Wiedefeld and other Metro officials have been unresponsive to issues raised by union representatives.
Metro has not included any wage increases in its financial projections for fiscal 2019 and 2020 — and that will be a major point of contention. Workers are legally barred from striking, and stalled negotiations will result in binding arbitration.
Jeter said that she was more hopeful about Wiedefeld at the beginning of his tenure and that she agreed with several of his early decisions. But recently, she said, the termination of track inspectors and his plans to cut 500 jobs next year have made her question whether he is committed to collaborating with workers.
“Right now, I don’t have a passing score for him — let’s put it that way,” Jeter said last week. “To say that I am upset with him right now is an understatement.”
Jeter said she believes that some of Wiedefeld’s decisions have been made with the intention of impressing members of the board, members of Congress and even the vocal Metro detractors on Twitter — and that he is trying to craft a tough-guy image for the public. Instead, she said, he is glossing over systemic issues by publicizing firings of “bad apple” workers, rather than addressing the root cause of the problems that continue to plague the system.
“I believe that this is a response to the pressure that he is receiving, and I think he is receiving it from a lot of different places,” Jeter said. “He’s succumbing to some of the pressure that’s being put on him, and that is disappointing.”
Two days before he made the unprecedented decision to shut down the subway for an entire day for emergency inspections, Wiedefeld slipped on a hard hat and safety vest and ventured into the bowels of McPherson Square. The conditions alarmed him: debris-clogged tracks, third-rail infrastructure that lacked protective components, frayed power cables that could trigger an episode like the 2015 Yellow Line smoke incident that resulted in the death of one rider and injured scores of others.
Wiedefeld looked to track workers surrounding him. He had questions: Where else in the system was the electrical system linked by these “jumper cables?” Did they all look like this one, a mess of components and exposed wire? No one knew.
Metro board chairman Jack Evans compared it to buying a house thinking all it needs is some modest remodeling, starting work and then finding it has a bad foundation, mold and asbestos.
For example, federal regulators have cited 13,954 outstanding defects logged in Metro’s track defect management system, but the number is essentially meaningless. The software is so riddled with outdated, redundant or inaccurate entries that it offers little benefit to managers trying to prioritize problems.
Wiedefeld hired an outside consultant to redo the data — starting from scratch by going out onto the tracks and creating a new, standardized assessment of what needs fixing.
But it’s not just numbers. Wiedefeld continues to struggle to get clear answers from managers and rank-and-file workers about the system’s problems and practices.
It’s one reason that he has regularly reached out to former colleagues and transit officials from other agencies for advice.
And, it’s partly why he hired two top-tier, outside transit experts for his leadership team: Joe Leader and Pat Lavin, the chief operations officer and chief safety officer — both transplants from New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The pair, who had worked together closely for years before arriving at Metro, immediately demonstrated a dynamic that some observers have described as good-cop-bad-cop: Leader, the affable and cheerful one; Lavin, stern and steely-eyed.
As Metro faced a slew of crises over the summer, Wiedefeld was not alone in facing the barrage of questions and criticism. Lavin and Leader were at his side, jumping in with frank assessments, clear acknowledgments of wrongdoing and a detailed sense of what needed to happen to fix problems, observers said.
After one particularly tough board meeting-cum-inquisition, member Leif A. Dormsjo said he noticed a stark difference from previous management. “These guys are not running away from the problems,” Dormsjo said then. “They seem to be running toward them.”
“I give [Wiedefeld] really strong marks for the hires that he has made,” said Kathryn Thomson, whom former U.S. transportation secretary Anthony Foxx appointed as special adviser on Metro. “They are very knowledgeable people, and they seem very committed to getting to the core of Metro’s issues and finding solutions.”
Even so, the arrival of Lavin and Leader came too late to stop the flawed launch of Wiedefeld’s signature project — SafeTrack — which was billed as a year-long intensive maintenance program aimed at helping bring the system to a “state of good repair.” Once work started in June, Wiedefeld discovered that the system’s problems were much worse than he had anticipated.
“If I knew then what I know now, I would have started SafeTrack on November 30,” Wiedefeld told an audience at the National Press Club on his first anniversary. He was referring to his first day on the job in 2015.
Wiedefeld acknowledges that his haste to act in response to the deplorable track conditions may have led him to start the project with less than optimal planning. Track workers weren’t clear on all the standards for the work they needed to perform; federal inspection reports showed that some track problems were ignored; other repairs needed to be redone weeks later because the work had been done incorrectly the first time.
“I think it could have been — and should have been — better planned in advance,” Thomson said. “Some of the challenges and problems they faced in implementing SafeTrack could have been avoided, or better planned for, if they had more time on the front end to think it through and set out a plan.”
The speed with which Wiedefeld launched SafeTrack also irked some local elected officials who thought they should have had more say in the planning. For example, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other city leaders pressed for changes to the plan to lessen its effect on the District. Wiedefeld refused, arguing that the pain must be shared equally.
Members of Congress praised Wiedefeld’s quick, decisive action in ordering an unprecedented emergency 24-hour shutdown in March because of serious safety concerns. But many local leaders received official notice from Metro only after the news hit email inboxes around the region.
Bowser was among those said to have been especially angered at being left out of the loop — although, publicly, she insisted that she understood the pressing safety concerns.
As the head of the region’s transit agency, who had observed the alarming conditions firsthand, Wiedefeld said the decision was his to make — not something to hand down to regional leaders for debate.
“They don’t have the technical background,” he said in a recent interview. “They had not been part of what I’d seen, what I’d heard, what we had looked at. It wouldn’t be fair for them, it wouldn’t be fair to put them in that spot.”
A similar scenario played out four months later when Wiedefeld rolled out his proposal to suspend late-night weekend service indefinitely and close the system early on Sundays. When alerts about the proposal blew up their phones, Bowser and several members of Metro’s board were sitting together at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
They’d never heard Wiedefeld mention the idea before.
Asked last week for her assessment of Wiedefeld, Bowser said: “He has certainly instilled a sense of accountability at the authority that was missing, and that’s good to see. I am interested, as we all are, in seeing the metrics related to the success of SafeTrack, and I think that will say a lot about his first year.”
Dealing with the politics of a primarily operations-focused job has always been one of Wiedefeld’s biggest challenges, said John D. Porcari, a former Maryland transportation secretary who hired Wiedefeld to head the Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, where he served from 2002 to 2005 and again from 2009 to 2015.
“He has a fairly low tolerance for B.S., which I consider an attribute,” Porcari said. “And that can happen with elected officials, it can happen in the course of your job. And he generally works around it.”
Wiedefeld’s decisive actions are somewhat at odds with his communication style: Naturally soft-spoken with a penchant for mumbling, Wiedefeld often answers questions in as few words as possible and deflects entreaties for sweeping statements or his reflections on serving in one of Washington’s least-coveted jobs.
When asked about how he celebrated after a banner day of service for the Women’s March on Washington, Wiedefeld employed his characteristic briskness: “I slept.”
“Paul doesn’t have one of those stem-winding personalities,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). “You don’t see him standing up on a stump and getting everybody all fired up. But . . . his kind of quiet peacefulness may be more of what you need in this job.”
Coming into the job, he told friends, his primary concerns weren’t the long hours or the intense public scrutiny, but whether the board would support him enough to allow him to make the kinds of tough decisions needed to improve the system.
“Paul wanted to make sure that he was able to work with his board to really directly take on the issues that WMATA was facing and that he would be able to work in partnership with the board so that they were directly confronting the issues,” said Neil J. Pedersen, executive director of the Transportation Research Board and a longtime friend of Wiedefeld’s.
Wiedefeld’s hiring coincided with a new board eager to flex its muscle and show it would not be a rubber stamp for management — as its predecessors had been accused of doing.
In addition to Evans, who is a D.C. Council member, there is a Federal Railroad Administration official, a former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board and Dormsjo, who is director of the District’s Department of Transportation.
Emboldened by the expertise of new members, by the raised profile of the agency in the wake of disaster and by Evans himself, the board has taken an increasingly vocal role in questioning Wiedefeld’s decisions. Evans even moved meetings to a smaller room so board members would sit closer together, encouraging debate.
Whether the changes in the board’s approach have been good for the system are open for debate.
“There’s a difference between undermining and second-guessing, and the board is clearly second-guessing the general manager,” Connolly said. “Is that undermining the general manager? Up to a point, they have to second-guess because they’re concerned. But is that moving a step further than second-guessing — taking action that would reverse or preclude his decisions? . . . I think the jury’s out on that.”
Despite the hardships he has faced with the board, with politicians in the region, and with Metro’s parade of operational and financial problems, Wiedefeld said he is committed to seeing the system restored to its former glory — mostly.
At the National Press Club speech, he was asked whether, if he could go back in time, would he take the job again, knowing the challenges it would bring.
It took him 12 seconds to muster an answer to the yes-no question, punctuated with nervous laughter and stuttering.
Finally, he took a breath:
“This has been the greatest job that I’ve ever had the opportunity to do, both in terms of the people that I’m interacting with, in terms of the challenges that we’re up against, in terms of what it means,” he said. “To basically be able to touch, in effect, over a million people or a million passengers a day, that’s a pretty unique opportunity. You don’t get many of those in your lifetime.”