Catoe opens up to bloggers
It was a suprise to receive an invitation to chat candidly with John Catoe, WMATA's General Manager. But it was an event that shows that Metro recognizes the importance of blogs, and the discussion they generate.
After Greater Greater Washington asked for questions yesterday, Metro staff told us, the mainstream media contacted them wondering how they could have been left out. But staffers informed them that this meeting with Mr. Catoe was for bloggers. And it represents a significant and hopeful change in the way Metro deals with information and especially with new media.
For many of us, it was our first meeting, and a chance to put faces to Internet musings. The tone of the evening was light and relaxed. As we went through the magnetometers, someone left a bag. When someone mentioned it, they were quickly corrected: the correct phrase (as anyone who's heard the announcements in Metro stations knows) is "Excuse me, is that your bag?"
In the General Manager's conference room upstairs, Metro maps and photos adorned the walls. Even a miniature pair of railcars sat next to the table, enclosed in plexiglas. The group represented several blogs: Moving Momentarily, We Love DC, iMetro, Unsuck DC Metro, Prince of Petworth, DCist, and of course, Greater Greater Washington.
When Mr. Catoe stepped into the room, he greeted each of us with a warm handshake and a friendly smile. Sitting at the head of the table, he began an opening statement. But we didn't waste any time. Within moments, the man who has defined Metro's image in these last few months was fielding questions. His candor and respect for us was impressive.
Mr. Catoe outlined the budget difficulties Metro is expecting this year and next, and the steps Metro is considering to close an anticipated $40M gap for this year and a $170M gap for the following fiscal year.
He also said that he deeply understands recent rider frustration. As a frequent Metro rider, he has customers come up all the time to vent their frustrations to his face. Recently, those frustrations have become more frequent and more severe. "I'm very aware of how angry people are, because they tell me to my face," he said. "I've always ridden Metro regularly and there has been a change in the comments. It doesn't make me feel good."
He explained for why Metrorail service during the latter half of 2009 has been so frustrating and unreliable. While ridership has decreased somewhat from its high peak during 2008, ridership is very high, and close to the theoretical limit that the system was designed for. At the same time, since the June 2009 accident, Metro has not been able to operate its trains in automatic mode.
Manual mode is not as smooth or efficient as automatic mode, limiting the number of trains that can be run during rush periods. As the trains get fuller, people have a hard time getting on and off the cars, increasing the station time and slowing down the system further. Under crowded conditions, people blocking or holding doors becomes more likely, and with the aging cars in the system, blocked or held doors are more likely to malfunction.
Additionally, while operating trains in mixed configurations (for example, a six-car train made up of 3000, 1000 and 5000-series cars) is safe, differences between the ways the doors operate in mixed configurations makes them less reliable and efficient.
Mr. Catoe outlined a strategy for improving Metrorail service. First, within the next couple months to a year, Metro will be rolling out an additional train detection system as a backup to the system that is suspected to have failed, causing the June 22 accident. Combined with the NTSB releasing its findings of the accident's cause, Metro should be able to return to automatic mode this year.
Metro will also soon ask the Board to approve ordering hundreds of 7000-series railcars, to replace the aging 1000-series cars. As these cars are delivered, the 1000-series cars, which are at the end of their design life, will be retired. Since the minimum time from ordering to delivery of new rail cars is about 2-3 years, this will improve service in the long-term as opposed to right away.
At the end of the meeting, Mr. Catoe also announced a change Metro is making to make its top staff more accountable: managers, from the level of superintendent up to the top executives, will now be "at will" employees, subject to dismissal at any time, without probation, if they fail to meet Metro's high expectations for its people.
The participants were still brimming with questions when Mr. Catoe had to leave for his next meeting, but Metro's PR Director Lisa Farbstein suggested there could be more blogger roundtables in the future. Based on the way the glimpses bloggers received into the more human side of Metro and its General Manager seem to have softened some of his fiercest critics' anger, that'd be a very smart move.
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