Last night’s blogger roundtable with interim WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles was instructive for where the organization’s focus is right now: it’s all about “back to basics” for the interim GM, who is intent upon shoring up his priorities of Safety, Reliability and Fiscal Stability. The system has, in his view, suffered massively in the last few years, and as long as it took to get there, it will take that long to get it back. That starts, according to Sarles, with a return to the basics.
First up for Sarles was talking about the Forest Glen/Wheaton incident, and while he would not answer any direct questions, he did say that NTSB was not investigating last week’s emergency braking incident, and that Metro would release a report “when it’s ready.” When that will be, Sarles would not directly answer, but that there would be a public report. WMATA has also filled 6 of 12 safety-related positions, according to Sarles, and interviews continue for the rest on a day to day basis. WMATA is focused on delivering improved safety to both riders and employees, and they’re planning to go back to the drawing board for all the appropriate measures. They’re hard at work at a computerized incident tracking system, something I would have thought would’ve existed long ago, to spot trouble patterns well ahead of an incident.
When it comes to Reliability, Metro has a couple of systemic issues that need to be handled. This June, WMATA will be revisiting the Red Line’s schedule, according to the GM, to take into account changes that have yet to be integrated, like longer dwell times at popular stations and stop information for the New York Avenue station, which like the trouble tracking system, I had thought would’ve been done long ago. When asked about Automatic Train Operation, Sarles was distant. They still have too much yet to do, and “rigorous testing” of the new train presence indication system is still far off. Until that is done, and until the as-of-yet-unreleased recommendations of the NTSB related to last summer’s crash, ATO is a distant dream, and once I would venture to guess, we will not see in Sarles’ tenure, sad to say.
Stressing a need for focus not just on train operations, but on station operations, Sarles wanted to be clear that the current state of operation isn’t one of good repair, and the goal of moving toward a state of constant good repair was of paramount important. To further that goal, Metro is going to alter how it assigns elevator and escalator maintenance, dividing the crews into teams that will service individual stations, and be held accountable for the reliability ratings at each of the stations. Sarles is bringing in outside experts who will, as teams are already doing internally with the rest of the system, evaluate the very basic processes at play within the system. They’ll start at Woodley Park and a few other unnamed stations that have had some consistent difficulties (if we could make a recommendation, Mr. Sarles, Foggy Bottom Station is frequently noted to be a charlie foxtrot when it comes to the escalators.)
In the realm of financial stability, GM Sarles says they are making adequate progress. While the board has to approve the final budget, he said last night that they have the funding they need from the jurisdictions to make it through the next few years, but a committed capital budget is crucial to fixing the problems that have been caused by years of disrepair. “WMATA isn’t in as bad a condition [as NJ Transit], but it’s not where it should be,” Sarles said when asked about the challenges that the WMATA job presents. and when asked what a timetable for recovery would be, he was quick to say, “Years. It took years to get here, it will take years to get back [to a state of good repair.]”
WMATA is also working on a public “report card” based on metrics of customer service, system state and other related reference points. It will debut in public, both on the website and elsewhere, in the next few months, and will be updated monthly to reflect the latest data. When asked about citizen concerns, especially with regard to customer care, Sarles was adamant that people inform him when they get responses that either aren’t up to snuff or don’t address their concerns directly. When asked how, he said for people to email him, and while he didn’t give out his address, he did make it known that he’s got one and it matches the rest of the agencies’ addresses (It should be noted that Metro Spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and Metro Spokesman Ron Holzer’s email is email@example.com, so the math isn’t all that hard here…) so if you get a concerning response, or notice a safety issue, he wants to hear about it. I suspect it’s something akin to emailing Steve Jobs at Apple. Sometimes you’ll get a direct response, sometimes not, but you will probably get results from trying.
My impressions of Sarles are that he will make a confident and competent interim General Manager, focusing on the tactical situation that the agency has found itself in, and that his goals are to focus on the problems that have developed through years of misuse. Sometimes, it has to be about the details, and not the big picture, and in that, I think Metro has the right guy. His focus areas are badly-needed parts of the system, especially given the issues of reliability and safety on the system as a whole, and the financial needs of the metropolitan area.
As much as we feel that Metro has a record of letting people down, Sarles is the right guy at the right time, and we only wish that he could see through some of these programs that he’s about to start. A year with someone with his wealth of experience in rail and bus operations is just a good start, and not the shot in the arm that this system needs. We want to love Metro again, and not curse its frustrating behavior and erratic record. With that, I leave you with some awesome breakdancing on the Metro.