Things should have turned out this way: Richard Sarles would have been the transitional manager who rebuilt Washington’s transit system and handed it off to a successor who — along with the riders — reaped the benefits of that costly and painful work.
Instead, as 2015 draws to a close and Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, starts his first week on the job, a customer survey by Metro shows us just how much rebuilding remains to be done. And this part of the rebuilding program has to do with the rail riders’ faith in the transit system.
These are the findings of the transit staff’s research, which will be presented to the Metro board on Thursday:
The first three quarters of calendar year 2015 saw a precipitous drop in satisfaction among rail riders, from 82 percent to 67 percent. (Bus rider satisfaction was up slightly to 82 percent.)
The research “is clear that the only way to substantially improve satisfaction is through sustained and consistent service delivery,” the report to the board says.
Given that Metro launched a $5 billion rebuilding program in 2011, we should be a long way toward that goal of reliability, but we’re not, and Metro’s own studies show the consequences for the riders, the transit system and the D.C. region.
The staff notes in its presentation that Metro’s quarterly surveys had been showing rail customer satisfaction in a relatively stable range around 81 percent, while bus rider satisfaction hovered around 79 percent.
“That changed this year, when bus satisfaction trended better while a precipitous drop in satisfaction began among rail customers,” the report says. In the first nine months of this year, rail rider satisfaction in the Metro surveys fell from 82 percent to 67 percent. “This drop reflects the impact less reliable service is having on customer experience,” the report says. “It also may explain, in some part, the decline of rail ridership. Customer satisfaction surveys and companion research are clear that the only way to substantially improve satisfaction is through sustained and consistent service delivery.”
For riders who react to the dissatisfaction statistics with a “Duh,” note that these statements from the Metro staff have a very different tone from most of the quarterly reports known as Vital Signs, in which Metro grades its own performance. Those reports fall flat with many riders, and they are couched in language that somehow conveys a sense that “things are looking up.”
So consider that the staff itself is now saying this: “Rail customers are experiencing more problems during their day to day trips. Two years ago, the average customer reported less than one problematic experience during their trip (i.e. broken fare machine, non- operating gate, escalator out of service, unavailable employee). These experiences have increased nearly 300 percent — and now are reported by customers as two problems during an average trip.”
The Metro surveys are tapping into the many riders frustrated by uncertainties about when the trail will arrive and when it will get them to their destinations. This is what the report’s breakdown on the causes of train delays:
- Rail car malfunction prevents train dispatch: 36 percent of delays
- Rail car malfunction (brakes, propulsion, doors) removes train from service: 27 percent
- Track and rail systems repairs: 16 percent
- Rider actions, which could be a medical emergency or a door breakdown caused by jamming something or someone into closing doors: 8 percent
- “Other,” which would include the trains getting bunched up, or police activity: 13 percent
It’s good to know the causes of this pain, but what’s Metro going to do about it? Here’s what the report says the transit staff is doing:
- Working with the Kawasaki company to improve delivery times for the new 7000-series rail cars.
- Revising policies to acquire rail car parts. (A lack of parts has kept many rail cars out of service.)
- Adding overtime for maintenance staffers to speed up rail car repairs on weekends.
- Prioritizing rail car maintenance and upgrades in the capital budget.
- Continuing rehabilitation and repairs to restore normal service at Stadium-Armory, where the power substation fire wreaked havoc with the rush hour schedules on the Silver, Orange and Blue lines.
That’s a good list of goals. Now we’ll get to see if Wiedefeld can turn it into reality.