“It feels like the system is falling apart,” Miguel Lopez said after scaling a busted escalator at Dupont Circle. And the Red Line rider wasn’t alone.
Stalled escalators, broken-down trains, track problems were taken as signs that Metrorail needed major refurbishment.
During the height of an evening rush at Metro Center, a Glenmont-bound Red Line train broke down, and hundreds of passengers had to get off and join an already crowded platform. “What is wrong with Metro?” and “What now?” could be heard as the crowds grew thicker.
So read the front-page story in The Post, on June 24, 2000.
Feels like only yesterday, doesn’t it? Or was it today?
On Sunday, we marked the fifth anniversary of the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people. It was the rock-bottom date in our transit system’s history. The crash led the federal government to urge many safety improvements, and it set the stage for Metro’s $5.5 billion rebuilding program, set to continue into 2017. For many, that was the defining day in the Washington area’s transit history. There was Metro before the crash, and Metro after the crash.
Many things did change. For safety reasons associated with the crash, the trains were removed from automatic operation, and the oldest, least crash-worthy rail cars were embedded in the middle of the trains. Under the new general manager, Richard Sarles, Metro launched a $5.5 billion program to rebuild the system and comply with the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations on tracks and trains.
The safety programs are crucial for the survival of the transit system — and its passengers. But when riders assess the state of Metro, they tend to look at more mundane issues than survival. They look at what did happen, rather than what didn’t happen.
As Metro continues its journey back from the despair of 2009, it is drawing support from safety officials and government leaders. But many of its customers aren’t along for the ride.
That’s what so striking in the story from 14 years ago. The routine service problems that riders said they were fed up with then are the same ones they say they’re fed up with today.
“We’re just basically in a slump,” Richard A. White, the general manager, said 14 years ago. That was the week White changed management in rail operations, installing a trusted deputy with a “take-no-prisoners” attitude to oversee the operations control center, as Lyndsey Layton reported in her story. But White also told her that the recent slump had little to do with Metro’s long-term and more difficult problems. To partly address them, Metro had launched a $120 million, five-year program to overhaul its escalators and elevators and cover the exterior escalators with canopies. At that point, Metro also was in the middle of a $97 million project to rehabilitate rail cars, tracks and stations.
“It’s not going to get better overnight,” White told Layton in discussing the rebuilding program for escalators, elevators and trains. “It’s going to be a long climb out of this situation.”
White was right. His successor, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, often says that the transit authority dug itself a huge hole over many years by delaying maintenance and rebuilding. The spending on rebuilding in 2000 sounds like pocket change compared to today’s $5.5 billion program. For that money, Sarles can point to legitimate improvements: During the week in which Layton wrote her story, 17 percent of Metro’s escalators were out of service. According to today’s Metro service report, 6 percent of the escalators are out of service.
She cited another statistic: During the first three weeks of June 2000, 130 Metro trains broke down.
That’s bad, and the riders of that era certainly noticed. But I looked back at Metro’s daily service reports for the first three weeks of June 2014. By my count, 175 trains were either offloaded because of equipment problems or did not enter service in the first place, creating delays for riders.
Riders are most certainly noticing that, too. On Tuesday morning, just one busted Blue Line train near Stadium-Armory was enough to jam platforms and trains on both the Blue and Orange lines. Riders reported lengthy delays. Some said they had to allow several trains to go by before they could find room to board.
Metro officials have noted that, when delays occur these days, the source is more likely to be the aging rail cars rather than the tracks and switches, which have been under intensive care in the rebuilding program. New rail cars are scheduled to arrive starting around the end of this year.
But when track problems do occur, the impact on riders can be severe. The third rail problem at Rosslyn that required trains to share tracks during the afternoon rush on June 13 also hit the Blue and Orange Line riders hard.
The thing is, they don’t care so much what the source of the problem is. They care that there’s a problem.
“This is always a work in progress,” Sarles said in an interview with Post columnist Robert McCartney.
That statement is accurate. So was White’s statement in 2000 that “It’s not going to get better overnight.”
But many transit riders in 2014 would also consider this statement, made during all the problems in 2000 by a Red Line rider named Carolyn Pomponio, to be accurate: “I don’t know what’s going on, but it bothers me.”