Metro’s newly appointed leaders talked face-to-face Thursday about the problems plaguing the transit system.

General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld appeared before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, which Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) oversees. Evans was elected chairman of the Metro board last last month.

It was Wiedefeld’s first appearance before the Council since becoming Metro’s chief executive in November. He addressed concerns about the safety of the system in light of a series of recent high-profile attacks, explained recent system reliability issues and responded to questions about declining ridership.

Reliability

Evans told Wiedefeld many of the recent complaints he has received from riders center on the system’s unreliability. Customer satisfaction with Metro fell 15 percent between winter 2014 and last fall, according to recent survey results.

“Somehow our reliability has fallen apart,” Evans said.

Wiedefeld acknowledged recent service issues, including Metro’s inability to reach its target of 954 cars in service during rush hours. Metro was slow to recover from last month’s blizzard after dozens of cars were damaged in the storm, resulting in longer wait times at stations. And this week, Metro announced slowdowns on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines due speed restrictions that were put in place because of  track conditions.

Wiedefeld said many of the problems with reliability revolve around Metro’s aging fleet, and its two-track system that can be choked by a single breakdown on the rails.

“The longer-term solution to that obviously is the 7000-series cars,” he said, referring to the newest model of rail cars in the system.

Metro has 90 of the cars in its possession, including 76 in service, but their arrival has been slowed by production problems with the manufacturer, prompting Wiedefeld to halt production.

“As the purchasers of vehicles that are going to last us 30 to 40 years, we do not want to accept something that on day one we are already repairing,” he said. “We’re drawing the line and we’re saying ‘no we’re not going to do that.'”

Wiedefeld plans to visit the manufacturer, Kawasaki, at its Lincoln, Neb., factory later this month.

Safety

Evans told Wiedefeld at the hearing that questions of physical safety on Metro have become a major concern for riders, surpassing their fears of, for example, “the train hitting another train.” Those fears  have been stoked by a series of recent attacks carried out by youths on the system –many occurring during rush hour.

In December, a 41-year-old man was left with a concussion and broken jaw after at least two youths punched and kicked him in an apparent robbery. The attack came during the afternoon rush hour on Metro’s Red Line, between Union Station and NoMA-Galludet University. In January, a teenager punched a 35-year-old in the face at Gallery Place, prompting retaliation and a large skirmish that spilled onto the platform. And on Thursday, two 15-year-olds were arrested in the assault of a teenage girl aboard a Green Line train during the afternoon rush hour on Feb. 5.

Wiedefeld noted that Metro is investing in yellow vests to make its transit officers more visible and give riders a greater sense of security. And new technology allows detectives and staff with Metro Transit Police to monitor the system in real time. But, Wiedefeld said, the system simply needs more officers.

Metro Transit Police has an authorized force of 491 officers.

“We have a class that’s coming out in April so that will give us more bodies,” Wiedefeld said.

Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik Jr. said enforcement in the system is a multi-pronged effort involving law enforcement, surveillance, rider reports, text tips and other avenues. He downplayed the significance of some of the violence that has been cited in news reports.
“Although we’ve had several cases that recently were sensationalized in the media, I’m pleased to report that through CCTV and through text tips, we have closed those cases with arrests,” Pavlik said.

Evans was blunt about the security problems.

“This would be my observation,” he said. “It’s important that we deal with this issue of people feeling safe in our system now, quickly, before it becomes the routine that people don’t feel safe.”

Declining ridership

Wiedefeld was candid when pressed on the system’s declining rail ridership. Council member Elissa Silverman (I–At Large) pointed to figures that show weekend rail ridership is down 12 percent compared to last year. She said long wait times discourage riders from using the system in their leisure time.

“We need to basically deliver what we say we’re going to deliver,” Wiedefeld said. “It’s not only the distance or the spread of time and the headways on the weekend, but we’re not even meeting those at times. If it says 25 (minutes) and it’s coming (in) 35 that basically compounds the issue.”

Wiedefeld added that Metro also should more effectively communicate with riders when service issues arise.

“We have to be very clear to people what we can and cannot do,” he said. “And to be upfront about that. We cannot pretend like we can deliver something we cannot deliver. And if we need to make hard decisions, then we need to let people know these are the challenges we are facing.”

Silverman fired back that even 25-minute wait times are too long.

“I would just say 25-minute headways are very discouraging,” she said. “I can say as a Red Line rider when I see a 25-minute headway I walk back out the faregate.”