PAUL J. WIEDEFELD, installed late last year as Metro’s general manager, described its dizzying array of problems as “worse than I thought” — an assessment likely to resonate with that of plenty of disillusioned passengers. As for what he can realistically do to make the trains (and escalators) run on time, or at all, that remains to be seen.
Having previously run Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport and the MARC commuter rail service, Mr. Wiedefeld seems to have a reasonably sound handle on what ails Metro — admittedly a long list. Striking a blunt note from the outset of a meeting with us, he said the system’s internal communications are lousy; problems get kicked upstairs rather than delegated down; front-line employees are demoralized and disrespected by management; long-term capital projects are prioritized haphazardly; and customer service is an afterthought — or given no thought at all.
“There’s no sense we’re there for the customers,” he said.
As for the relentless emphasis on safety that was supposed to be Metro’s focus in recent years, the new chief said he has not seen much of that either. “We tend to be more focused on compliance, on checking off the box,” than truly incorporating safety into the culture, he said.
Given the range of problems he faces, and perhaps mindful of his predecessors’ tendency to over-promise, Mr. Wiedefeld seemed prudent when he said major service improvements will take time. Nevertheless, within a month he does hope to set out marching orders that will make Metro’s priorities clearer for employees and its goals more transparent for passengers. He said he wants to understand for himself, and to explain to customers, what improvements they can expect from the constant inconveniences of single-tracking and other service interruptions.
Mr. Wiedefeld’s meat-and-potatoes approach complements an evident reluctance to bang his head against inherited problems that he seems to think he can affect very little.
Those problems include an unwieldy and too-large board of directors whose members represent competing jurisdictions; worrying signs that ride-sharing services, teleworking, low fuel prices and other factors are contributing to long-term erosion in Metro’s ridership and revenue projections; powerful and entrenched unions that may encumber management’s ability to deploy personnel sensibly; and the heavy hand of federal oversight, under which Metro was placed in the fall as a result of its glaringly bad safety record and financial disarray.
His attention for now will be on areas he believes are more susceptible to better management: first and foremost, customer service and safety. He said passengers deserve and should expect access to better information, better lighting and better public-address acoustics. Internally, he is determined that front-line employees be treated and recognized by Metro managers as professionals, and that workers regard safety as central to their mission.
A cynic might see the new director’s candor about Metro’s troubles as a way to insulate himself from criticism down the road. An optimist will assume that his clear-eyed assessment will spur an urgency in his leadership that the system badly needs. Metro’s customers will discern soon enough if their daily commutes are beginning to improve.