Nine months into a rail car shortage that has hobbled Metro and the Washington region, the transit agency’s new leader said Thursday that returning to full service is his most pressing priority.
The issues ailing the system come amid the backdrop of shifting commuter patterns and a changing customer base transformed by telework. While a steep ridership drop is expected to lead to difficult budget decisions, Clarke said his most immediate concern is the shortage of trains that has led to reduced rail service, coming as the region is struggling to recover from the pandemic.
“We need to ensure the Metro delivers the world-class transit system that the national capital region needs and deserves,” said Clarke, who previously was chief executive of Austin’s transit system. “And I said that before and I’m going to say it again: This region needs and it deserves it, and we’re going to get it back to the pride of the region.”
Clarke, 45, replaces Paul J. Wiedefeld, Metro’s leader over the past six years, who resigned in May after transit safety officials found nearly half of train operators lacked recertification. The revelation became a final straw for Metro’s board and regional leaders frustrated over safety missteps.
Unlike his predecessor, Clarke said, the public will not hear him stressing safety as publicly as Wiedefeld did. The former general manager’s unofficial mantra and mission for Metro was to put “safety first.” Clarke, who served as the chief safety officer for Boston’s transit system, said safety will be intrinsic.
“You won’t hear me talk a lot about safety, because I actually believe you will never run service that is not safe,” Clarke said. “So they’re not a binary thing to choose between. We are running safe service or the service should not run.”
Board member Tracy Hadden Loh said she needed to hear that safety would remain the highest priority because most of Metro’s problems involve overlooking or ignoring safety.
“I know when you get into a new role, there’s a desire to have a lot of early wins,” she told Clarke. “And I want that for you. I want that for us. But I know that you yourself are a former chief safety officer, and so you probably don’t need me to tell you this but, just to reiterate, safety first.”
Since starting the job this week, Clarke has boarded trains to talk to passengers, toured Metro’s facilities and met with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). He has commuted daily on the rail system into Metro’s offices at L’Enfant Plaza, which he pledged to do after being hired in April.
Thx you @MayorBowser for meeting w/ me to discuss @wmata and how it’s the lifeblood of the city that we need working well for residents and visitors. I appreciate your long term support of Metro & your leadership on advancing our multimodal partnership. pic.twitter.com/FEvtVj72bS— Randy Clarke 🚌🚊🚍 (@wmataGM) July 27, 2022
He said he planned to go Thursday evening to Metro’s Greenbelt rail yard to watch wheel inspections be performed on the agency’s 7000-series trains. Metro’s train shortage was created by the suspension of the series, which makes up 60 percent of the agency’s fleet. They were sidelined in October after a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into a derailment uncovered a defect in several of the cars’ wheels.
In June, Metro’s oversight agency, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, allowed Metro to return 64 of the 748 suspended cars on a given day if their wheels were checked for signs of the slow-progressing defect. Clarke was also expected to be briefed on an automated wheel measurement system Metro is testing that should allow for faster wheel checks, which transit officials hope will allow for the reinstatement of all suspended cars.
Clarke also is a frequent user of Twitter. His comments Thursday came one day after he apologized to a woman who had uploaded a video to social media saying she had been sexually harassed at the Foggy Bottom station — an incident Clarke said transit police are investigating.
After hours of conversations with riders and regional area leaders this week, Clarke presented the board with a presentation from his orientation tour, saying the top three issues riders want addressed are service frequency, fare policy — including fare evasion and fare structure — and customer communications.
He told board members the transit agency is making progress on opening the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, adding that Metro should be ready to seek accreditation from the safety commission and the Federal Transit Administration in October. Accreditation is one of the last hurdles to opening the line, although Clarke said he wasn’t ready to give a possible opening date.
“That is another really, really important milestone to get [the] Silver Line up and running,” Clarke said.
In the meantime, Metro is taking steps to reduce wait times on all six of its lines. Starting Monday, Metrorail waits between trains during weekdays will shorten to 10 minutes on the Red Line and 15 minutes on other lines. Current waits are up to 20 minutes on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines, although trains arrive more frequently at stations served by multiple lines.
Metro is planning to bring those same frequencies to Blue, Orange and Silver lines on weekends beginning in September.
Clarke said the increased availability of rail cars is allowing Metro to run additional trains. Trains from the Yellow Line will be moved to other lines when it is shut down this fall for an eight-month bridge and tunnel project.
The biggest boost to service, transit officials acknowledge, would come from the reinstatement of the 7000-series trains. Clarke said getting those cars back will help Metro to tackle other issues, such as looming funding problems and rising crime. After surviving on federal pandemic relief funds, the transit agency expects a budget hole of more than $300 million next year.
Without operating at full service, transit officials say they aren’t sure about the size of their customer base — and fare revenue — as society continues to reemerge from the pandemic. Officials acknowledged Thursday that some riders are avoiding the system because of long waits.
“We have to get our bread-and-butter issues resolved, in my opinion, before we can get to the larger conversation,” Clarke said. “Now, that doesn’t mean they don’t start running in parallel at certain points, but I think a lot of the issues we’ve just talked through — we have to get better service, we need more frequency, we need people back on the system.”