Metro’s mes­sage to rid­ers got lost in trans­la­tion — and that was Metro’s fault

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - ROBERT THOM­SON Dr. Grid­lock also ap­pears Thurs­day in Lo­cal Living. Com­ments and ques­tions are wel­come and may be used in a col­umn, along with the writer’s name and home com­mu­nity. Write Dr. Grid­lock at The Wash­ing­ton Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Wash­ing­ton, D.

Last sum­mer, Metro got the Sil­ver Line. This sum­mer, rid­ers on the Red, Or­ange and Green lines get the bill.

The tran­sit author­ity is launch­ing a rail car main­te­nance pro­gram to make up for the stresses that the new ser­vice added to the old sys­tem.

There was a time in the Sil­ver Line plan­ning process when Metro hoped to have a bunch of the new 7000 se­ries rail cars in ser­vice for the grand open­ing. When it be­came ap­par­ent that the new cars wouldn’t ar­rive in time, the tran­sit staff re­vised its plan. That meant stretch­ing the ex­ist­ing fleet.

One of the ways to ac­com­plish that was to limit the time cars spent in the shop for rou­tine checks. But rou­tine checks are a way of dis­cov­er­ing prob­lems with brakes, doors and air­con­di­tion­ing be­fore the trains en­ter ser­vice for the day.

With new lim­its on th­ese rou­tine checks, it be­came more likely that a prob­lem would be dis­cov­ered only af­ter a train be­gan pick­ing up pas­sen­gers. When more than 100 trains are op­er­at­ing, one brake prob­lem on one car messes up a rush hour for thou­sands of com­muters.

By now, many Metro­rail rid­ers are aware that the tran­sit author­ity will sharply cut back on eight-car trains on three lines this sum­mer so that the rail fleet’s worst-per­form­ing cars can spend more time in the main­te­nance shops.

They also may have heard that most eight-car trains van­ished this past week for a sep­a­rate rea­son: an emer­gency in­spec­tion of all 100 of the 4000 se­ries cars af­ter the doors on sev­eral opened while trains were mov­ing. (The cars may be back by Tues­day.)

But Metro chose an odd way to an­nounce all of this. Many rid­ers I heard from got it from the train op­er­a­tors over the loud­speak­ers as they went to work.

While it’s al­ways good for the tran­sit sys­tem to com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with its cus­tomers, this par­tic­u­lar choice was weird, lead­ing to con­fu­sion and con­ster­na­tion among rid­ers.

Dear Dr. Grid­lock:

On Mon­day dur­ing the morn­ing rush on the Red Line, the op­er­a­tor said that Metro is lim­it­ing ser­vice to six-car trains on “Mon­day, Wed­nes­day and Fri­day” be­cause of low rid­er­ship.

I get on at Shady Grove, and by Rockville, all seats were filled— and by Twin­brook, the aisles were crowded. Clearly, there were plenty of peo­ple try­ing to get to work Mon­day. And maybe af­ter the schools close it might make sense to elim­i­nate eight-car trains on Mon­days and Fri­days, even dur­ing rush hour. But Wed­nes­days?

A side note: This was one of the few times that the op­er­a­tor’s an­nounce­ments could be un­der­stood.

— Joseph An­tos, Gaithers­burg

Rid­ers are used to hear­ing train op­er­a­tors say things like, “Stand clear. Train mov­ing for­ward.” His­tor­i­cally, the train loud­speak­ers are not the rid­ers’ pri­mary source of in­for­ma­tion on strate­gic changes in safety, main­te­nance and cus­tom­erser­vice pro­grams.

As An­tos noted, many peo­ple hear only gar­bled ver­sions of those speaker an­nounce­ments. And if they did hear this brief an­nounce­ment and wanted more in­for­ma­tion, what were they go­ing to do? Line up at the in­ter­coms and pep­per the train op­er­a­tor with more ques­tions?

This is no way to run a rail­road that moves peo­ple rather than freight.

Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, Metro put out a state­ment an­nounc­ing what was ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing, and Deputy Gen­eral Manager Rob Troup elab­o­rated at Thurs­day’s Metro board meet­ing. But Metro should have got­ten the word out to rid­ers be­fore Mon­day morn­ing com­muters started to no­tice the eights be­ing re­placed by sixes on the next-train mes­sage boards.

And even if rid­ers then heard a clear an­nounce­ment aboard their trains, the mes­sage they took away didn’t match what Metro was say­ing by mid­week.

The cut­backs are not “Mon­day, Wed­nes­day and Fri­day.” Cut­backs to in­spect the 4000 se­ries cars went on through the week. The sum­mer­time cut­backs for ad­di­tional main­te­nance time will be on Mon­days and Fri­days.

The cut­backs are not oc­cur­ring be­cause of low rid­er­ship. Metro spokesman Dan Stes­sel said the sav­ings from run­ning six-car trains is neg­li­gi­ble.

Com­muter rid­er­ship does dip dur­ing the sum­mer. And through­out the year, rid­er­ship tends to be 10 per­cent less on Mon­days and Fri­days, be­cause of the way peo­ple sched­ule their work­weeks. The rid­er­ship pat­tern was a fac­tor in se­lect­ing the week­days for cut­backs, but the over­all strat­egy is about main­te­nance and not about Metro’s fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

But es­sen­tial mes­sages that rid­ers didn’t pick up— even in gar­bled fash­ion— were that the im­me­di­ate cut­back stemmed from the need to check train doors for safety and that the sum­mer­time cut­back is meant to com­pen­sate for months of de­ferred main­te­nance.

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