Metro’s ridership has been on the skids for some time now — an 11 percent drop in the final quarter alone this year, compared with the previous year. Despite sunny predictions by Metro officials and mass transit advocates that they’ll be back, some of these former riders say: Don’t count on it.
If you listen to their stories, you hear them sounding off familiar frustrations that Metro’s management kissed off for years. But their stories also speak to the adaptability of the modern commuter — and the challenge that Metro’s leaders must meet before ex-Metro riders return. Here are some of their stories, collected from interviews, emails and written submissions to Tripping:
Amanda Johnson built her life around Metro when she moved to Washington about six years ago. Johnson — who lived in the District, Silver Spring, Bethesda and now Rockville — always looked for housing on the Red Line. She liked taking the subway to and from her fundraising job at the D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that provides meals for low-income people.
“To be able to take a train was pretty cool, and certainly it was convenient,” Johnson, 30, said in an interview.
Then came the fatal Red Line crash at Fort Totten in June 2009. That was, she said, “the first sort of warning shot” for her about Metro.
The final indignity came when a passenger who was obviously mentally ill and agitated boarded her train and took the seat beside her. Johnson, who was then eight months pregnant, found herself trapped in the inside seat, pressed against the window while the person ranted beside her. She said she felt vulnerable and frightened that he might go off on her if she so much as asked if she could exit.
“I realized in that moment I had absolutely zero faith in getting help from the car operator or Metro Transit Police if he got aggressive and something happened,” Johnson said.
In November 2015, she gave birth to her first child and soon found that she also couldn’t rely on Metro to be on time to pick up her child at day care. And then there was Metro’s cost. She found herself laying out $15 a day to park at the Glenmont station and ride to Union Station.
So Johnson began driving to work downtown from her home in Rockville. It forced her to ask her employer to readjust her hours, and the commute took about an hour or so each way. After a while, when sizing up all the wasted time she spent in her car, she decided to change more than her mode of transportation. She found a different job, this one in Montgomery County.
“My personal safety and my ability to get to my family is of utmost importance,” Johnson said. “It was a tough decision for me to pull the plug not only on the way I commuted, but ultimately a job I really enjoyed.”
These days, Johnson works for the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology in Rockville. She doesn’t ride Metro as she used to, but finds herself watching the system’s struggles from afar — and rooting for Paul J. Wiedefeld, who has been trying to reform the mass transit system since taking over as general manager in November. Johnson said she felt like writing to him to commend him for his efforts and wish him luck.
“I’m very sympathetic to him, in understanding what a mess he has to sort through,” Johnson said. “You know it’s not just the safety stuff, it’s a culture he has to change.”
When Stephen Clermont at last had enough of Metro, he became a slug — which, he admits, felt a little strange, at first.
“It is sort of weird going up to people’s cars and soliciting a ride,” Clermont, 45, said. “The first few times you feel like a prostitute approaching cars. But it’s just one of those things that you get over very quickly.”
How did it come to this?
Before he joined the distinctively D.C. ranks of people who wait on line to carpool with strangers, Clermont had been a contented Metro rider. Clermont, who is a political pollster, rode the subway now and then after arriving here from California’s Bay Area in 1993.
“My initial impression was that it was fine,” he said. “But I think it’s sort of skewed, to look at it now, because there were just far fewer people here in 1993. ….The Metro is just so much more crowded now because the region has transformed so much.
After moving to Virginia in 2005, he soon learned the transit pain that comes with that: incessant delays, crowded trains, mysterious blockages in darkened tunnels on the way to Pentagon station, and then buses that were missed or buses that never came.
“It was just one more time where I would get to McPherson, get in a train and then the train would stop between stations for five or 10 minutes. And it always seemed just long enough so I would miss my bus and have to stand for another half-hour,” Clermont said. “And I just couldn’t take being in a crowded space without even having any sort of idea when I would get to my final destination.”
So Clermont quit riding. He hopped on the slug line instead, and he hasn’t looked back. Besides slugging, Clermont also uses Uber. Or he drives.
“I rearrange my life to avoid Metro, unless I am desperate,” Clermont said. “The improvement to the quality of my life is immeasurable.”
Besides discovering that the slug lines are efficient, Clermont said he’s also discovered a side benefit. It turns out slugging is educational.
“You get a greater appreciation — if you’re shopping for a car — of the kind of car you want, because I ride in so many different cars,” he said.
Charles “Chuck” Watkins had ample reason to stop riding Metro. As a former employee, Watkins said, he saw firsthand how inadequate training was, how shoddy some of the maintenance was and how unwilling management was to do anything about it.
Watkins, 50, who lived in Alexandria and then outside of Baltimore, rode Metro from time to time from 1998 until 2015. After working for Amtrak in California, he signed on in 2014 as a rail traffic controller in Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center. He said he was disturbed by what he saw there.
“The training materials we got were totally outdated. And then we had railroad background, and we could tell stuff wasn’t right,” Watkins said. On field trips, he couldn’t help noticing all the debris that accumulated in the rails or parts of the track that had degraded.
But even worse than all that was management’s response when employees spoke up with their concerns, Watkins said. He found them to be indifferent, sometimes retaliatory.
“If you complained, they put a target on your back,” Watkins said.
Before the fatal January 2015 incident at L’Enfant Plaza — in which a train became stuck in a smoke-filled tunnel, causing the death of one passenger and sickening dozens of others — Watkins said he and other workers had specifically asked for additional training on what to do when there was fire or smoke in Metro tunnels. But Watkins was told there wasn’t enough time to run such drills. He said he was told he would learn soon enough from real events while working inside the ROCC.
“That’s what we kept hearing a lot: ‘You’ll learn when you get on the floor,’” Watkins said. He said it also was not uncommon — as the National Transportation Safety Board has asserted — for train controllers to tell operators on passenger-laden trains to proceed into tunnels where smoke was reported to see whether those reports were true.
“You would tell them to go through the tunnel and give a report,” Watkins said. “That’s the way they do business.”
It was not the way to run a railroad, Watkins said, so he quit riding. He now lives outside of Baltimore and commutes to the Big Apple. He wishes Wiedefeld well in his efforts to fix Metro but also feels glad to be watching from a distance.
“I felt and I still feel it’s very unsafe. And I thought every time I got on the train it was on my own risk,” Watkins said.
Steve Kalin knows Metro well. He commuted from his home in Alexandria to his job in the federal government for more than three decades using the Blue Line, often riding gratis on Uncle Sam’s dime.
“It was great. It was just reliable, dependable, clean. Not jam-packed,” Kalin, 66, said.
But that’s all a memory.
Three or four years ago, he felt as if Metro started coming apart. If it wasn’t coming apart, it was just unreliable. There were too many delays with disabled trains. Doors wouldn’t close. There was too much time spent waiting. And, of course, he became stuck now and then. Most exasperating of all were the breakdowns that caused massive disruptions at rush hour. It would take hours to get home.
“There hasn’t been one in a while but, you know, when they happen, they’re horrible,” Kalin said. “I’m kind of stuck in D.C. if I can’t take a train: too far to walk. No buses. Taxi too expensive. Just trapped.”
As service started to decline, he tried switching from the beleaguered Blue Line to the Yellow Line.
“I was forced to sort of make an adjustment to avoid the tunnel delays because when the Silver line opened up, that really sucked,” Kalin said.
Then, about three years ago, he discovered teleworking. Nowadays, he said, he works from home three days a week, sometimes two. If he has to go to the office, he still takes Metro — (“I would never drive to work. Driving is still, to me, worse than Metro,” he said) but he’s glad it’s rare because he thinks Metro’s problems are systemic.
“I think it’s the workforce,” Kalin said. “I really get the idea … that there’s a culture there of just, ‘I don’t give a damn. They can’t fire me.’ … Management has been intimidated by the union. And then for years and years, the top management — the guys who got the big fat bonuses, the big fat salaries — did nothing but just glossed over the problems. I think it’s a deep-seated culture of incompetence, negligence and union intimidation.”
When he does ride, he said, he worries that a train operator might run a red signal, as they have done several times this year. He said he’s happier working from home, even if he misses office camaraderie now and then.
“Do I miss getting on Metro? No, I do not,” Kalin said.
Steve Kaufman is an accidental biker.
It’s not so much that he has anything against Metro; it’s just that he discovered the pleasures of bicycling to work after the transit system’s problems forced him to scout for alternatives.
It was the 2009 Fort Totten crash that led Kaufman to look for another way to travel. Kaufman, who lives in Takoma Park and works for the federal government, said that after that fatal crash, which killed nine, he felt the system had become less reliable, almost skittish. Trains seemed to stop more frequently for the slightest issue and then offloaded, and so he found himself arriving late to work.
Then he borrowed a friend’s bike.
“At the time I didn’t even own a bicycle,” Kaufman said.
But he liked the bicycle route from his home in Takoma Park to Foggy Bottom so much he eventually bought his own. Now that he’s busy pedaling to work, he said he misses the time he had to read when he was riding the train. Would he return to Metro?
“My answer to that is only if I can’t bike ride — and it’s really not anything against Metro,” Kaufman said. “It’s just that I love the exercise.”
Michael Freestone drives to work these days, heading crosstown from D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood to an office in Dupont Circle. But it wasn’t always that way.
Freestone, who was familiar with Britain’s excellent train network while growing up there, remembers being impressed with Washington’s Metro when he moved to the United States as a high school student in 1996.
Metro became his school bus. He rode it daily from his home in Wheaton to the Washington International School in Cleveland Park.
“I thought that the Metro was amazing,” Freestone, 35, said. “My brother put it best when he compared it to a fairground ride. It was never very full, and it was very quick and efficient.”
He moved back to Europe for college. When he returned to the United States in 2005, he worked in Georgetown. Metro no longer had the allure of a fairground ride, however. Trains seemed to run more erratically, especially outside rush hour. It even looked dowdier.
“It was quite evident the trains were the same trains that were there when I was in high school,” Freestone said.
As it was for others, the 2009 Red Line crash at Fort Totten shook him up. Freestone said he and his fiancee (who would later become his wife) had ridden the train from their place in Adams Morgan to see his parents in Takoma Park on the day the crash occurred.
“We had been on that route,” Freestone said. “The sheer magnitude of it was kind of scary.”
His wife began riding in the middle cars afterward. Freestone never quite trusted the system again, either, and gave up riding about a year later. When his law office moved to Dupont Circle in 2013, he decided to give Metro another try. But he found service had become even worse.
Now Freestone drives to work. He leaves home a bit later than most, allowing him to miss most of rush hour, and his firm provides free parking. Yet, he doesn’t rule out trying the subway again.
“I could go back,” Freestone said. “If those bigger improvements occur with Metro, I‘d go back.”