Sarles focusing on "basics" of safety, reliability, finances
WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles sat down with bloggers from Greater Greater Washington, Unsuck DC Metro, DCist, and We Love DC last night for an on-the-record chat about Metro's challenges and his short-term 6-month plan to address them.
Mr. Sarles presented his plan (PDF) to improve the system's safety, reliability and financial stability over the next 6 months. He emphasized the importance of getting the system "back to basics," pressing accountability for maintenance and management to responsible people, and getting the funding and resources needed to maintain a state of good repair.
To improve safety, Sarles mentioned a number of actions to improve safety oversight, reporting and worker perception. The safety department got a new manager and increased staffing. They're working to close out audit findings with identified fixes. They're developing a tracking system to make sure near misses and safety problems don't fall through the cracks, and they're improving the ways workers can bring up safety problems, reducing the risk of retaliation from their peers or their supervisors.
I asked him about the finding by the TOC that some workers were getting retaliated against by rail operators for reporting safety problems:
That's all part of getting people to understand, dealing with safety issues is the responsibility of everyone, and that nobody should take any grief for bringing that up. In that area, we've already worked to better communicate what's going on to the train operators, the specific locations of track workers so that [the rail operators] are more aware of that, and also to communicate to the workers out in the field that if the situation isn't quite right for them that they should report it immediately and step back from the work if necessary if there's a condition that they don't feel entirely safe in. So it's a matter of communicating to people that they have the right to step back if they feel it's unsafe.
On customer service reliability, Metro is going to start publishing performance metrics, similar to the performance metrics reported by Chicago Transit. And not just to the Board, to the public too. There will be an annual summary in September, as well as monthly updates starting in June. This is something I've wanted for a long time since I found the CTA metrics. The exact measurements have not been selected, but on-time performance and mean time before failure are likely candidates.
The elevator and escalator division will have help from consultants, performing a top-to-bottom review of the maintenance and repair procedures. Accountability will be enhanced by dividing up the population of escalators and elevators among various teams, and then tracking the reliability of each team to see who is following best practices, and who can improve.
For improvements in Metro's financial stability, nothing new came up that has not been discussed at length here at GGW and in the press.
I asked him about the progress on obtaining an agreement with Google Transit. Previously, a Metro spokesperson had said that the negotiations were progressing but he wasn't able to say how much longer it would be. Mr. Sarles bragged about how he liked the Google Transit service and how his former agency, New Jersey Transit, beat New York's MTA to the punch. He promised to ask his staff about progress and wrote a note to follow up.
I also asked him about whether Metro could release the data collected by NextBus as a public API so other developers could write apps for mobile devices or other ends. He commented that it sounded like something they could look into, and scribbled another note.
I brought up the number of latent failures in the system and how it's affecting Metro's ability to see problems with the system. Sarles declined to comment, citing the ongoing NTSB investigation since that was the context of my comment.
Finally, I asked about some of the customers who have had problems getting an adequate response from customer service representatives, either never getting a response other than the automated initial response. One friend of mine who reported that his bus showed up late with a driver who had to ask the customers for directions. All he got from a line supervisor was a mention that he should be grateful he had a bus at all.
Mr. Sarles shook his head at that one, and said that after they've tried the normal customer service route, if they're still unsatisfied they could email him. He wouldn't directly offer his email address but it's not hard to figure out. [First initial][Last name]@wmata.com is the general pattern.
When asked about whether he's yet ridden a Metrobus, he got a little defensive. He's been a bus rider since he was growing up, and rode the bus with previous transit agencies. He just hasn't had a chance to ride with this agency yet.
Before people recognized his face, he was able to act as a "secret shopper" on the system, observing customer interaction with police, station managers and other employees. Now that people recognize him, he said he often discusses Metro service while riding the train to and from his home in Pentagon City.
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