The story line Metro de­vel­oped af­ter Red Line crash in 2009 has un­rav­eled

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - 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.C. 20071, or e-

This sum­mer, Metro riders will hear a lot about their transit sys­tem’s de­fi­cien­cies, thanks to the many gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try re­views stem­ming from — but not lim­ited to — the Jan. 12 smoke in­ci­dent at L’En­fant Plaza.

Hear­ing about the prob­lems is dis­cour­ag­ing enough. But riders will al­most cer­tainly ex­pe­ri­ence them, as well.

For ex­am­ple, Metro isn’t run­ning many eight-car trains, some­thing that riders no­tice be­cause of the ex­tra crowd­ing this cre­ates. It’s tak­ing longer than Metro man­agers had hoped to get the 100 4000-se­ries cars back in ser­vice.

Also, the worst-per­form­ing cars in the fleet are sched­uled for ex­tended main­te­nance, which means no eight-car trains for the Red, Or­ange and Green lines on Mon­days and Fri­days this sum­mer.

And pile this on: The many find­ings al­ready are plac­ing new re­pair and main­te­nance chal­lenges on Metro crews, so look for ex­tended hours of trains shar­ing tracks around work zones.

This sum­mer, Metro man­age­ment will not look like it’s in a lead­er­ship po­si­tion. It’s go­ing to look like the but­ler an­swer­ing ev­ery pull of the master’s bell. But there are go­ing to be many mas­ters with to-do lists.

How did the transit sys­tem and its hun­dreds of thou­sands of cus­tomers get to this low point?

We were fol­low­ing a tra­di­tional Amer­i­can nar­ra­tive of cri­sis and re­cov­ery. The cri­sis point was June 22, 2009, when nine peo­ple died in the Red Line crash. Mon­day is the sixth an­niver­sary of the worst dis­as­ter in Metro’s history.

The re­cov­ery phase be­gan with a Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board in­ves­ti­ga­tion that found fault with the cir­cuitry that helped con­trol train move­ments. Metro launched a pro­gram to fix that prob­lem and im­prove safety.

Six years later, that prob­lem hasn’t been fixed. Most trains are op­er­ated man­u­ally, rather than un­der the au­to­matic sys­tem they were de­signed for.

That’s one big is­sue in the re­cov­ery nar­ra­tive. It has taken too long to fix one thing.

While Metro was work­ing to re­store au­to­matic train op­er­a­tion, another main thread of the re­cov­ery nar­ra­tive was de­vel­op­ing: the re­build­ing pro­gram. This was re­lated to the theme of mak­ing the sys­tem safe, but it was broader. The Red Line crash had noth­ing di­rectly to do with the con­di­tion of the es­ca­la­tors, or the sta­tion light­ing or the track ties.

The re­build­ing pro­gram was go­ing to fix ev­ery­thing. Or so we thought. That’s how we un­der­stood the week­end track work pro­gram. We knew how the story was sup­posed to come out: pain now, gain later.

For a while, it looked like or­der had been re­stored in our com­mut­ing uni­verse. Metro had a plan called Mo­men­tum, point­ing to­ward a fu­ture be­yond the fixes in which we would ex­pand the rail sys­tem’s ca­pac­ity and make the ride more com­fort­able for ev­ery­one. The Sil­ver Line’s start-up made a por­tion of that fu­ture real, and it was ex­cit­ing for the en­tire D.C. re­gion.

Jan. 12 was a piv­otal date, but the re­cov­ery story didn’t un­ravel all at once. Riders were grow­ing im­pa­tient with the re­build­ing plan. Af­ter a while, they couldn’t sep­a­rate the re­build­ing dis­rup­tions from the ser­vice dis­rup­tions caused by faulty doors, brakes and switches that they thought the re­build­ing was go­ing to fix.

Many riders wrote in to com­plain that things were go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion. In­stead of re­cov­er­ing from years of de­layed main­te­nance, the sys­tem ap­peared to be less re­li­able, no mat­ter what Metro’s per­for­mance sta­tis­tics said.

With the death of a rider in Jan­uary and the re­tire­ment of the gen­eral man­ager, Metro lost con­trol of its own story. The next few chap­ters are go­ing to be writ­ten by out­siders. Many of them — the in­ves­ti­ga­tors — have the best in­ter­ests of the riders in mind. (I’m not so con­fi­dent in the con­gres­sional vul­tures ready to dip into Metro’s fi­nan­cial blood­stream un­less the agency shows more signs of life.)

Metro’s lead­ers will re­ceive the re­ports, re­mind us that safety is their top pri­or­ity, and ex­e­cute the nec­es­sary work plans to ful­fill the out­siders’ or­ders and rec­om­men­da­tions.

For riders, this sum­mer will feel a bit sim­i­lar to the sum­mer that fol­lowed the Red Line crash. It will be a time of dis­rup­tion and un­cer­tainty. But in some ways, it will feel worse than 2009. We were sup­posed to have climbed out of that hole.

The board that leads Metro can’t con­trol what the in­ves­ti­ga­tors will say. It can only fol­low their di­rec­tions.

It does re­tain one im­por­tant power that it could ex­er­cise this sum­mer: It could pick a new gen­eral man­ager to start de­vel­op­ing a fresh, and more cred­i­ble, story line — one that takes back con­trol of the fu­ture.


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