The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Metro then and now

WASHINGTON, DC - May 12: A Red Line train pulls up to the Rhode Island Avenue station in D.C. on May 12, 2020. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Beverly Silverberg was the Metro spokesperson from 1983 to 1992. She also served as assistant general manager for public service, encompassing the offices of planning, marketing and public affairs.

There was a time in the 1980s that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system was touted as being “clean, safe and reliable” and won the American Public Transit Association’s title of America’s top transit system. What has happened?

Headlines blare about safety problems: stations closed for repairs and upgrades, an entire fleet of cars taken out of service, train operators without necessary refresher training and Metro’s own track workers in danger. Sadly, the list of problems goes on, reflected in decreasing ridership and increasing operating costs.

On June 1, the Maryland House of Delegates’ subcommittee on transportation and the environment conducted a hearing on Metro’s safety record. It was an eye-opener, and not in a good way. In addition to Metro top brass, David Mayer, the head of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, testified. This independent committee was set up in 2017 to address Metrorail’s many safety problems. It was given enforcement authority with teeth and the power to “restrict, suspend, or prohibit rail service” if deemed necessary.

At the hearing, Mayer said, “Metro is not following its own safety processes.” He went on to say that Metro has a culture that accepts noncompliance with its own rules and is bypassing its own regulations, endangering its employees and passengers. In responding to questions from the committee members, Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato referred to “organizational complexities” as part of the problem. Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said communications was a problem.

I agree, communications is always a problem; but those problems need to be addressed. Much was said during the hearing about “safety culture” and the lack of it. Culture starts at the top of an organization and is reflected by everyone who works there. Hopefully, the new general manager will give safety the attention it needs.

Carmen E. Turner, the first Black woman to run a major transit agency in the United States, was Metro’s general manager in the mid-1980s, when safety, cleanliness and reliability were top priorities. Everyone who worked at Metro understood safety was paramount. If she were still alive, Turner would be devastated to know how far the system she helped build and nurture has fallen.

The age of the system is a factor. Certainly, the pandemic has been a mighty blow to ridership, but it doesn’t explain away all the other failures the system is experiencing.

I know it’s not easy running a transit system that operates in and is governed by two states, D.C. and the federal government. I know because I had the opportunity to work with Turner when she became general manager. As spokesperson, I was often under fire to explain why it was taking so long to build the then-103-mile system; why the trains failed to run in a blizzard; why there was no dedicated funding for the regional Metro; and why accidents happened. There were certainly communication failures then, too. But there was also a very strong sense of belonging to and working for a special organization that was providing an important community service.

Metro was once the pride of the region and bound it together, literally and figuratively. Now, on some lines, people have to wait 15 minutes or more for a train. Passengers are eating and drinking in buses and rail cars. I recently watched a young man jump the fare gates. Safety comes in many forms, and all require attention in a well-functioning transit system.

Safety culture is real. It’s essential. Turner’s focus was always on the people who made the transit system run smoothly: from the bus and rail operators to the Board of Directors and elected officials. They were all part of the team she enlisted, encouraged and prodded to make the bus and rail system an asset to the region and the nation.

She nurtured a culture of caring for employees and riders.

It is people who care who make any enterprise work well. When employees are valued and consider it to be their job, their duty and their privilege to serve the riders, Metro can again be clean, safe and reliable. With a sense of pride, they can call Metro “America’s transit system."

It was once. Hopefully, it can be again.