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Metro opens doors, closes data

Metro used to publish lists of service disruptions online, but soon after I published a post analyzing the data, Metro stopped posting new reports and eventually removed the entire archive. Is this good customer relations?

Photo by Marcin Wichary on Flickr.

Metro officials say that the reports require a lot of staff time, but they already have internal reports that show the same information, just in a more technical way. Metro could, and should, still release those reports to interested members of the press or transit aficionados who can interpret them for the public.

If Metro's performance is getting better, then posting these reports would help advocates write reports or articles about that fact, and boost public confidence in the work CEO Richard Sarles and his team are doing. If the performance is not getting better, then we should be having a public conversation with WMATA officials about what it would take to get improvements, or when the current repair schedule will start to bear fruit.

Here's an example service disruption from a report I received from a WMATA insider:

Other reports are a little simpler to understand:
A lot of this message wouldn't make sense to the vast majority of commuters. WMATA could still post these with a glossary that helps decode even this cryptic report, though there is the possibility that customers would see them and be confused, or call in to customer service about it.

Instead of posting these, WMATA created a "Vital Signs" report, which lists a few high-level metrics like overall rail on-time performance. But one number for rail on-time performance hides a lot of important information. A train can be late up to half the headway and still count as on time, meaning that when trains run every 20 minutes, trains could still be 10 minutes late or early. It doesn't include performance during planned track work, and other factors.

Today, WMATA's approach to public information seems to be to release only a few conclusions, not any deeper information. When the Riders' Advisory Council or others have asked for more, they've been told that it's the job of staff, and nobody else, to analyze data and tell the public and press what to believe about the issues.

But to many riders, this isn't satisfying. WMATA officials say they're aggressively fixing problems, but will those fixes actually lead to better performance, and when? So far, the agency has just cut the on-time performance target from 95% to 90%. It's never met its goal for the frequency equipment breaks down ("mean time before failure") since the data have been reported, and does not appear to be improving.

It's no secret that WMATA's reputation as a reliable transit service is tarnished by frequent service delays and offloads. If Metro begins to publish these reports again, customers could decipher the differences in service disruptions that are the fault of customer behavior like blocking doors, sick passengers, or police activity, and those that are due to maintenance issues like brake, track control circuit, or door problems.

Compare this to San Francisco and Chicago, two transit agencies that have longer histories of reporting service data.

Chicago reports number of rail delays of 10 minutes or more, percentage of track that is affected by a slow zone restriction, miles between rail vehicle defects, percentage of the rail fleet unavailable for service, and percentage of customer complaints not closed out within 14 days.

San Francisco reports how closely they're meeting the schedule (similar to WMATA), how the headways match up against the plan (more useful to customers for frequent routes), the amount of service, late pull-outs, overcrowded vehicles, the number of unexcused absences, mean distance between failures for trains, vacancy rates for service-critical positions, and the complaint resolution rate within 14 days.

San Francisco and Chicago implemented better performance reporting as part of an effort to regain the public trust after a long decline in service. Metro should do the same in a concerted effort to truly move Metro Forward.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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What's not simple about the first disruption report? A train at Vienna had an ATC fault and therefore no propulsion; presumably the overspeed alarm would have been sounding continuously. Because trains with ATP cut out cannot run in revenue service, the train was not dispatched.

Okay, okay. I get that all at makes no sense to most people, but WMATA should still release this data, along with archived train position data from AIM.

by Kurt Raschke on Mar 5, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

Correction: "all at" in my last sentence should read "all that".

by Kurt Raschke on Mar 5, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

@Kurt: This from the man that tweets service disruptions using station codes.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 5, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

Maybe it's time to have a deep house cleaning at Metro? Some Formula 409 sprayed throughout those executive office suites?

by Jack Love on Mar 5, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

Metro used to publish a Daily Disruption report on their website, but it goes discontinued when the new management took over.

I think they should bring it back and make it simple like this:
Blue Line Train #--- Delayed 10 minutes due to door problems
Red Line Train #--- Delayed 20 minutes due to signal problems

by Davin Peterson on Mar 5, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

My inside information is that they spend an inordinate amount of time arguing over whose bucket each failure should be put.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 5, 2012 2:09 pm • linkreport

Does the ATU keep any internal data? Like the MPDC FOP? I would expect the union tracks useful data that I'd love to see GGW analyze...

by @SamuelMoore on Mar 5, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

Not as important or even particularly important but WMATA used to publish their ridership numbers on the website regularly and that practice ended a couple of years ago in the midst of the debate over the last fare increase.

The bus numbers were useless as they were always the same (though did WMATA really not know how many people were riding the bus on a given day?) but the rail numbers were always interesting I thought.

by TomQ on Mar 5, 2012 3:01 pm • linkreport

My inside information is that they spend an inordinate amount of time arguing over whose bucket each failure should be put.

Definitely. There are huge institutional issues at WMATA and transit agencies across the country. The industry has had to feed on scraps for so long that there has been little left over for innovation or ingenuity in how they are structured. There are chain-of-command challenges in transit systems just like there are in any old company like IBM, GM, etc. You need a radical at the top whose goal is to completely reinvent and reinvigorate how the organization works if you want things to change.

As for why agencies feel the need to hide information like this? They are used to getting hammered from all sides. They have no real system in place for dealing with or fixing things they are criticized for (see institutional dysfunction) so they just hunker down and get rid of things that people will criticize them for. I would say it's not a coincidence that the reports stopped appearing after your article - someone probably saw the article or passed it on to someone else.

Someone who's really interested in fixing things would put all the data out there in the public in the hopes that they would get free analysis out of it.

by MLD on Mar 5, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

Public agencies need to make data sharing part of their mission. Kudos to WMATA for at least giving us the GTFS data, which I've used to create an animated map (

What I'd like to see is more usage data. I made a bubble map using 2007 data but wish it were easier to get current data (

by Mystery, Inc on Mar 5, 2012 6:11 pm • linkreport

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