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Why doesn't Metro post the police phone number?

Periodic announcements on Metro buses urge riders to contact authorities if they see something suspicious, but how many people know the phone number for the Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD)?

This is a sign that was developed in 2007 at the urging of the Riders' Advisory Council, says Dennis Jaffe in a letter from the Sierra Club yesterday. However, the sign was never posted in trains or buses.

Jaffe notes that in several recent incidents, riders didn't know how to contact MTPD. When two riders were recently trapped in Cheverly Metro after the station manager mistakenly closed up before the last train of the night, they called 911 and the county police, not MTPD. They originally tried the Metro phone number, but got trapped in a phone tree and ended up at a recording telling them to call back during the day.

At a December 2006 meeting of the RAC, Jaffe recounts, "Metro Transit Police Department Lt. Brian Heanue indicated that the vast majority of reports received by the police department come from Metro staff to whom the public submits information, rather than from the public directly. Lt. Heanue also indicated that the Department would welcome receiving more reports directly from the public."

After that meeting, WMATA developed the above sign, but it didn't get posted. Why? Jaffe speculates, "One possible reason for Metro's inaction is the ongoing debate over how many phone numbers Metro should provide for the public to contact the agency."

Currently, WMATA's policy is that there should be only a single phone number for riders to contact it about anything. That centralizes the process, which is an understandable impulse from an administrative standpoint, but it reduces the value to riders.

Photo from WMATA.
For example, the NextBus discs give the general customer service phone number, not a NextBus-specific phone. The first time I called, it said "say the service you want," so I named the bus line, not realizing that this was a general phone number. You have to say "NextBus." Why force people to go to that extra work? When I give a link to a page on, I can link right to it. I don't have to tell people how to navigate from the home page.

Maybe some people will call the NextBus number, or the MTPD number, really wanting something else. But if all the numbers go to the same IVR system, just with different starting points, the initial prompt could easily say something like, "Welcome to NextBus for Metrobus. Say the name of the route or enter a stop number. If you want other Metro services, say 'main menu.'" The MTPD number could do something similar.

As Dennis has noted, it's not just on the phone where WMATA over-centralizes customer service in a way that makes it difficult for riders to report problems. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to presentations touting the lack of complaints as evidence that things are working well when they actually reflect the difficulty of giving feedback. Accurate information might lead to a short-term uptick in reported problems, but that will only better reflect reality, and better help WMATA staff do their jobs and prioritize resources.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Shouldn't 911 operators be trained how to handle Metro-related emergencies, or at least be able to direct the call?

Having only one number for emergency services is a Very Good Thing. It's a bad idea to add a new source of confusion.

by andrew on Jul 14, 2010 10:50 am • linkreport

I agree with the idea that there should be a number for each service, with an easy way to get to the main menu of services. Either that, or the main unified number should have the police department as the first option.

Also, stopping the posting of these signs because of a dispute over whether people should be dialing multiple phone numbers is just stupid.

Would those emergency signs be posted in buses too? I think they should be in train cars, buses, multiple locations in stations and possibly in bus shelters.

by Tim on Jul 14, 2010 10:56 am • linkreport

Until this situation is corrected, at least on station platforms, my advice is to use the telephone at the end of ever platform in the emergency trip station box under the blue light. The phone in that box provides a direct connection to the supervisors in central control. The central control supervisor may be able to forward your call to MTPD or at least call MTPD on you behalf. There might even be a unpublished number that one can dial from that phone that directly connect to MTPD dispatch.

by Sand Box John on Jul 14, 2010 11:04 am • linkreport

@Sand Box John:
The problem with that solution is that it requires going beyond a sign that says "no trespassing". It's okay in a real emergency, but it's still an untenable solution. Customers aren't going to think about going into the tunnel to find a phone, and Metro certainly doesn't want customers there.

(Blue light telephone picture:

I personally like MARTA's approach. Of course, their system was installed when the system opened, not retrofitted in.

Throughout MARTA, there are phones. On platforms and in mezzanines. They are appropriately labeled and color-coded.

  • White phones call customer service. Initially, they could be used to remotely unlock customer restrooms and open finicky faregates. They can also be used to assist customers with information.
  • Blue phones call the MARTA police operator.
  • Red phones call the Rail Control Center directly and are ostensibly to be used to report fires. They call the control center because that's where third rail power can be de-energized or trains stopped.

Metro would do well, however, to start by installing the signs as David proposes.

by Matt Johnson on Jul 14, 2010 11:36 am • linkreport

After being thoroughly disgusted early one morning watching a woman messily enjoy her McDonald's breakfast on a nearly empty train (leaving food/trash all over the place), I found and programmed the MTPD # into my phone.

Twice since then I've called them for problems and both times they were very responsive both on the phone and in sending officers. First time was a beggar on the train - they held the train at the very next stop and dealt with the beggar (I assume ejected him from the system). Second time was a man accosting people on the platform and, same response - they sent officers very quickly and escorted the poor soul (I don't think he had all his marbles) out of the station.

Anecdotal evidence for sure but I have only kudos for the MTPD from my experience.

by Anonymous Coward on Jul 14, 2010 11:42 am • linkreport

In a former life, I did crisis response type work at universities (i.e., responding to suicide attempts, domestic violence incidents, fires, floods, etc.). Different universities have different protocol, but there was typically an easy to remember number to reach the university police. Still, many students called 911. The important thing was that they made the call (whether it was to the university police OR to 911). The two agencies need to coordinate, and I believe they do. Yes, the number to contact the Metro Police should be posted (again, preferably an easy to remember number). And, yes some people will call 911 even if the number for Metro Police is posted. That's okay. (1) People making the call when the call needs to be made and (2) a timely response are the things that are really important to me.

by Penny Everline on Jul 14, 2010 11:43 am • linkreport

@ Anonymous Coward- I concur. In my experience and based on what I have heard as well, MTPD handles calls well.

by Penny Everline on Jul 14, 2010 11:47 am • linkreport

On a related note, what should passengers do about sweaty cars? I think Dr. Gridlock said you should use the intercom system at the ends of the trains, but I feel those are more appropriate for emergencies, and I'd rather not use them for that.

by Tim on Jul 14, 2010 11:55 am • linkreport

Isn't the number listed on the system maps posted on the train and in the station?

by Craig on Jul 14, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport

So if we see people eating in the system can we call MTPD?

by Steve S on Jul 14, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport

I once had to call 911 on someone form the parking garage right outside of the Metro station at National Airport. The culprit made a break for it and headed onto the Metro. My 911 call was answered by the Arlington County Police who couldn't connect me directly to the Airport Authority Police. And then they couldn't connect me to the WMATA police. Now my call wasn't as much of an emergency as it might have been, but I thought 911 was the right place to call given where I was a not knowing the jurisdictions boundaries. But the experience wasn't a good one anyway, because I didn't feel reassured of what would have happened if the situation had gotten worse. We have a lot of jurisdictions in the DC metro area and interoperability was supposed to have gotten better post-9/11, but I think there are still some cracks. I think you found another one.

by Kevin on Jul 14, 2010 12:23 pm • linkreport

Mtpd did a good job responding by phone when I reported I witnessed a cell phone theft.

Probably didn't catch the guy, but they took the report by phone and provided info on their theft prevention program.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 14, 2010 12:23 pm • linkreport

@Andrew and Others,

Whether Metro encourages the public to call the MTPD # 202-962-2121, or 911, is not the most crucial issue here.

One big reason why I see the promotion by Metro of *A* number for people to call for police is that when people are on the street corner, generally, they know to call 911, or if they are in a jurisdiction without 911, the local police department # is likely promoted throughout town.

But while on buses and trains and in rail stations, it isn't clear for people who has jurisdiction. While "in transit," it's sort of like a no-man's land.

The advantage, as I understand it from MTPD, of *their number being called instead of 911, is that when you call 911 while you're in the Metro system, I believe the odds are good that 911 will wind up transferring you to MTPD. So, calling MTPD would seem to reduce call response time by at least several seconds.

On the buses, the announcements say "contact appropriate authorities." The announcement is useless. I've been complaining about it since late 2006.

by Dennis Jaffe on Jul 14, 2010 1:38 pm • linkreport

Metro should post another number on the back of Metrobuses for complaints about unsafe driving. Numerous common carriers display a "How's my driving?" number. I have tried on several occasions to register complaints about major unsafe driving incidents involving bus drivers, for example, who sped through red lights when pedestrians were in the crosswalk. Metro police direct people to call the customer comment line, as if the matter involved a late or dirty vehicle. Once, a Metro police officer gave me the phone number of a Metro bus supervisor, but noted that he wasn't supposed to. Never got a return call, by the way.
I think that bus driver safety might improve if there were an easier way to register complaints about unsafe driving.

by Nancy on Jul 14, 2010 1:50 pm • linkreport

When I had my series of unfortunate incidents with the rock throwing kids (near Stadium-Armory, detailed earlier here and at The Hill is Home), coordination between MPD and MTPD proved to be a serious issue.

Briefly, the kids were causing problems along my street and running into the Metro. I'd call 911, MPD would show up quickly, but they'd be already gone.

Numerous attempts to get Metro officials went a whole lot of nowhere. Eventually, Tommy Wells facilitated a meeting between MPD, MTPD, and the various schools we believed to be involved.

At the meeting, MTPD told me that there were no problems at Stadium-Armory. The reason: they had no complaints and no one had called the number listed above. As I had called 911, the incidents were not in their system.

My attempts to draw a distinction between the inadequacies of their reporting system and the presence of real issues ended in abject failure. I really felt like they were trying to convince me the parrot was still alive.

In the end, through a lot of work on my part, MPD, Chief Lanier, Tommy Wells office and others, the kids in question were eventually caught and convicted. To this day I doubt WMATA has any clue of any of this. They probably still show no incidents at Stadium-Armory.

by TimK on Jul 14, 2010 2:07 pm • linkreport

WMATA should also start listing phone numbers other than 637-7000 on their route maps, bus schedules etc.

At the least they should include numbers to

Customer Assistance (202-637-1328)
General Info(202-962-1234)
Lost and Found (202-962-1195)
Transit Police (202-962-2121)
Bus Stops Repairs (202-962-2063)
Service Disruptions and Elevator Outages (202-962-1212)
SmartTrip (1888-762-7874)

on all schedules, pamphlets, maps and receipts distributed to the public instead of making people search their site or call 637-7000 and getting redirected.

by kk on Jul 14, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

@Nancy and @kk -- Great ideas!

@TimK -- Excellent illustration as to the importance of MTPD's # being ***Known.

by Dennis Jaffe on Jul 14, 2010 4:22 pm • linkreport

I'm not much for vandalism, but if GGW printed up a bunch of those stickers, with blanks for car number, I'd be happy to carry them with me, fill them out, and stick them on when I ride the train. We could pick a designated spot or spots in each car (next to the intercoms?) and not put one on if we already see one there.

If WMATA developed the sign and just never got around to posting it, we could help them out with that.

by sb on Jul 14, 2010 4:51 pm • linkreport

One thing I think Metro Police ought to do is to take reports of in-progress crimes and disturbances via text message, and make the number to which text messages can be sent widely publicized.

If you're on a bus or railcar within earshot of an unruly passenger, it could be far less intimidating to send a text about the incident than to try to talk on a cell phone (or go up to the emergency intercom).

I've read about some other transit system doing this--perhaps Tyne & Wear in England?

by thm on Jul 14, 2010 5:22 pm • linkreport

@ thm

One problem with calling or sending a text in a railcar

What if you have GSM cell carrier (Tmobile, Att) which = no service but a few stations and not in tunnels

by kk on Jul 14, 2010 7:20 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson:
I stand by my suggestion. I would not consider using the trip station phone in the event of an emergency to be trespassing. That is what they are there for.

I both of those locked in the station before closing incidents, using the trip station phone would have gotten those passengers out of the station faster then calling 911.

by Sand Box John on Jul 14, 2010 10:02 pm • linkreport

Another vote for 911. Having another number is silly.

by Kevin D on Aug 8, 2011 9:54 pm • linkreport

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