Talkin’ Transit: All About Trust

Photo courtesy of
‘Empty Ride’
courtesy of ‘Samer Farha’

“There is no more valuable currency to a transit system than the trust of its ridership. The accident at Fort Totten severely shook the faith of Washington area riders and the millions of tourists who visit this city. WMATA can win back that trust by taking our safety recommendations to heart, and, at its core, fundamentally changing its culture. This effort has begun, but there is still a long ride ahead.” — National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, July 27, 2010

Trust. You can’t buy it. You have to earn it. Without it, you’re going to lose customers, no matter your business. When you get into your car, you trust the manufacturer to have tested all the design elements as well as the car you are in. You trust your mechanic to have kept the car in good working order. You trust yourself behind the wheel to keep you safe. The trust you have in each of these things comes from years of observation (by you, or by others you trust).

When your car fails in a way that should have been detected and was preventable, you lose some trust. Depending on the severity of the problem, you might decide to never buy a car from a certain manufacturer or you might no longer do business with your mechanic. And if it turns out that are unwilling to fix the problems or to get a reliable car or to drive in a safe manner, you wouldn’t expect people to continue to trust you to drive them around, time and again.

But that’s exactly what is going on with Metro. It took years of neglect, years of not caring about safety, for the system to get into a state where a deadly accident was all but inevitable. The NTSB report found that, in the words of chairman Deborah Hersman, “the layers of safety deficiencies uncovered during the course of this investigation are troubling and reveal a systemic breakdown of safety management at all levels.”

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘Samer Farha’

The NTSB hearing last week was a damning indictment of Metro, from the front line, up the ranks through the General Manager, and all the way up to the board. In the days following we discovered that many board members don’t even attend the board meetings regularly. Clearly, there is a systemic problem, and clearly fixing that problem is not going to be easy.

So where does one start? I think Metro has, in Richard Sarles, a General Manager that comes with an impeccable record and a history of being able to tackle tough, institutional problems. Unfortunately, Sarles is here for the short term. Extending his contract or finding someone of equal talent should be among Metro’s top priorities.

After the hearing, Dave Stroup tweeted “Had [former WMATA General Manager John] Catoe stayed, I have a feeling he would have been fired today.” While I agree that would have been an appropriate action, I don’t think the board has the leadership to do that. And that’s a huge part of the problem. Who can hold the board, itself, accountable?

Photo courtesy of
‘209/365: on the Horizontal’
courtesy of ‘Amberture’

In addition to the problems with the train detection circuits, the NTSB said that, “contributing to the accident were WMATA’s lack of a safety culture, … ineffective safety oversight by the WMATA Board of Directors, [and] the Tri-State Oversight Committee’s ineffective oversight and lack of safety oversight authority.” The NTSB minced no words about where responsibility lies, and yet there’s no easy way to wipe the board clean and start anew.

I think the board has fallen down on the job. Not showing up for meetings, not showing any leadership, and being factionalized into supporting only what is good for their side of the river isn’t helping. The root cause of the system failure and spiral into a safety void isn’t that Metro doesn’t have enough caring, conscientious, professional employees. It is that those employees have been told time and again that there’s no money or support to do the right things. And that’s a failure of leadership at the board level.

Unfortunately, we can’t sack the board — not easily or directly. They are appointed by Virginia, Maryland, DC, and the federal government. We should, in the wake of this damning report, be asking our representatives to replace the board. Do I think all the board members are bad? Of course not. But the NTSB report pulled no punches, and the board of directors should all accept responsibility and should resign. They were complicit in causing the problem, complicit in not fixing the problem, and it is time that they go and make room for people who can try and untangle the problem.

To fix a systemic problem and regain the trust of the riding public, you have to show everyone that you are serious. Sacking a general manager, some high level officers, or pointing fingers at line workers isn’t going to do it. The people and institution most responsible, the board of directors, should go. And the local jurisdictions should look long and hard at revising the WMATA compact so that the board is more accountable and the needs of the system supersede the needs of any one jurisdiction.

Photo courtesy of
‘Holding Pattern’
courtesy of ‘Samer Farha’

Changes at the top, aren’t going to be all that’s needed, of course. Money, and lots of it. Luckily, it looks like Metro is getting some help on that front, with a grant of some $150 million from the Federal Transit Administration, and a similar amount from the local jurisdictions. This money is helping to pay for new rail cars that will replace the 1000-series cars, as well as introduce service on the Silver line.

Sarles points out that Metro has “reinforced our whistleblower policy, established a safety hotline to anonymously report safety concerns, and have initiated discussions with Local 689 to establish procedures to encourage reporting of near misses without punitive consequences.” It’s a good start, I think, but the idea that safety is paramount has to be instilled from the top all the way down to the bottom. Just as important, customers need to be conditioned that there will be a lot of pain going forward, in order to eventually fix the problems.

There’s a lot to chew on from the NTSB’s meeting, but everyone — riders to voters, mechanics to supervisors, engineers to board members — has to really take those recommendations to heart in order to make this system trustworthy, again.

“I think everyone can agree that WMATA has serious challenges ahead. Implementing an organization-wide culture of safety won’t happen overnight. It must be top to bottom, incorporating everyone from the Board to senior management, to the train operators and the safety inspectors, to the line operators and administrative employees. When safety is more important than schedules, their organizational culture can be a success.” — National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, July 27, 2010

Born in Lebanon, Samer moved to DC to go to college. A lot of good that did him. Twenty-two years later, he still lives in the area. When he’s not writing for a blog or tweeting incessantly, he wanders the streets (and the globe) photographing whatever gets in his way.

6 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: All About Trust

  1. Who are we kidding? Metro is not any more prepared for the next disaster. We see numerous examples every week with lazy operators, idiotic employees, etc….

    The money is still a huge a problem and the upgrades are non-existent for the most part

  2. I agree that Metro needs new management – the entire Board of Director as you stated. I don’t like the way they run the system such as mixing up rail cars and still refusing to retire the 1000 series. Their communications is poor as well. WMATA needs free faces for a fresh focus on the system.

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  4. While it is true, as you note that Metro’s lack of “caring, conscientious, professional employees” is not the ROOT of the problem, it is clearly part of the problem, and a problem in its own right. Many that deal with the public are uncommunicative, unresponsive, unhelpful and uncaring about whether their job is done correctly. That, combined with the system’s other shortcomings, are why taking Metro is such an unpleasant experience.

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  6. You’re absolutely right about the issue of trust. Metro used to be a reliable transportation system. While not perfect, you knew that it would get you to your destination safely and with a minimum of fuss.

    Now, however, it’s crapshoot. Beyond the prospect of a deadly accident, riders have to deal with broken escalators, farecard machine chaos, out of service trains, overcrowded platforms and a host of other problems.

    The trust that Metro built up over several decades has evaporated over the past couple years. Until Metro demonstrates that it can run the system safely and efficiently, people should think twice before getting on board. I’ve been walking or riding my bike much more often, rather than dealing with Metro.