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It's not the (escalator) crime, Metro, it's the cover-up

When WMATA contracted with a consultant to assess its elevator and escalator maintenance, I asked for a copy of the report and was rebuffed. The Washington Post was as well. We were both given the PowerPoint summary of the report that WMATA prepared for its Board.

Photo by Sjixxxy on Flickr.

Yesterday, local blog Unsuck DC Metro got its hands on a copy of the report. Rather than reading the report closely and reporting its analysis, this anti-Metro blog saw warnings in the report about brake issues and drew some damning conclusions.

Unsuck DC Metro reported that WMATA knew about, and ignored, problems that caused the October 30th escalator brake failure at L'Enfant Plaza that injured several people. This prompted much Metro bashing and a PR nightmare for Metro.

The reality, however, is that WMATA didn't ignore brake warnings. Their mistakes were to keep the report a secret, and to continually avoid a real prioritization of safety fixes.

As WMATA's press relations made clear in the comment thread, Metro announced on Oct. 14th that it would test the brake issues identified by the consultant in November.

This showcases the folly of WMATA's consistent practice of refusing to divulge consultant reports that are paid for with taxpayer money, and providing the public PowerPoint summaries instead. This practice creates the appearance of a cover-up, and undermines credible bloggers and journalists who try to produce thorough and fair accounts of Metro activities.

If WMATA had released the report when Ann Scott Tyson of the Post and I asked for it, yesterday's flare-up wouldn't have happened. Instead, Greater Greater Washington would have provided a fair and thorough assessment of the report.

Now that we have it, how is that report?

Quite simply, the escalator report is not well done. It doesn't specify the specific goal of the audit, and ends up being a grab-bag of several findings, many positive and many negative.

It's understandable, as a result, why the escalator issues didn't make it into Sarles' PowerPoint summary of the report. If the brake issues were a real concern to the consultant, the report certainly doesn't reflect that. They are buried between recommendations for better housekeeping and for better training in the Maintenance Management System.

Which of the negative findings contribute to downtime? Which contribute to risk of injury? What priority should be placed on addressing which findings given their relative contributions to downtime or risk of injury? None of these questions are remotely answered in the report.

As we said when the audit was completed, Sarles should be able to report to the Board something like this:

We're at 90% now. We've found these internal issues and will fix them. These contribute to (say) 20% of downtime so that will get us to 92%. If we allocate some of our capital dollars to escalator repair, we can get to (say) 96% by addressing additional causes of 40% of downtime.
But this report doesn't enable Sarles to say anything like this.

This gets to the heart of the real problems facing Metro. As we have repeated on several occasions, Metro's fundamental flaw in both maintenance and safety is its inability to proactively prioritize action items based on how much an issue contributes to downtime or risk of injury.

Instead, Metro creates grab-bags of good ideas, pursues them in no particular order, and then when a major incident occurs reactively spends mountains of money addressing the immediate causes of that incident. Metro is doing the same here, by now testing the brakes on every escalator in the system.

The recommendations in Vital Signs, the NTSB recommendations and the elevator/escalator recommendations in this report are all unprioritized grab-bags of good, yet unvalidated, ideas for improving performance and safety.

If this feels like less of a smoking gun than the negligence that Unsuck DC Metro is claiming, then email your WMATA Board member asking them if they know what the top 10 causes of downtime and injury are in Metro's system. They won't know.

That's a smoking gun. And it also gets to the real problem, which is what we should be trying to do as bloggers.

I would hope that this prompts Metro to start releasing reports that are procured with taxpayer dollars. They can start with the Corporate Executive Board survey of Metro workers regarding the safety culture and the Booz Allen Hamilton assessment of the skills needed at Metro to run a hazard management system.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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Metro knew, People flew.

by Lou on Nov 9, 2010 11:27 am • linkreport

The interplay--or lack thereof--between WMATA's staff, board, and contractors, and the general public, is increasingly reminding me of the NASA's handling of the Shuttle Columbia's last flight, the definitive analysis of which comes from Edward Tufte.

by thm on Nov 9, 2010 11:28 am • linkreport

Hah. thm beat me to linking to Tufte's (fantastic) essay. It's almost uncanny how much this report resembles the one that Tufte discusses.

PowerPoint is a poison to large organizations, and technical writing is a vital, but oft-underestimated component of good engineering practices.

by andrew on Nov 9, 2010 11:37 am • linkreport

Metro is always talking about openness, so why in the first place must they be FOIAed to get reports? Can they not post all their reports to their website? Perhaps the Metro board should pass a measure mandating that all (except those having to do with security procedures or the like) be posted online within 7 days of Metro receiving it.

by Joshua Davis on Nov 9, 2010 11:46 am • linkreport

Conclusion: WMATA is really, REALLY screwed up, and with zero accountability, there is no incentive to ever really improve things.

by James on Nov 9, 2010 11:47 am • linkreport

With all due respect, I don't know how one could come to the conclusion that the audit did not reflect the real concerns with the escalators and that the report consisted of more or less equal positive and negative findings.

The report very clearly referred to "questionable stopping performance" of the escalators, damaged brake systems, failed electrical control elements, and damaged and worn machine components; that the "necessity for well-qualified experienced supervision cannot be overstated"; that the "quality of maintenance being performed is substandard"; that "obvious signs of conditions requiring immediate maintenance service address are being overlooked"; that the escalator machine rooms create an "unsafe working environment"; that the transition of Metro's escalator facilities to its new building "causes major issues" and "was not well thought out". In the areas of cleanliness, operation and lubcrication of the escalators, the observed escalators received ratings of "good" about 1/3 of the time and a "fair", "poor" or "very poor" rating about 2/3 of the time.

That Metro merely covered up this report is nothing compared to "not prioritizing" (tantamount to ignoring, IMO) the issues reported therein. I'm not sure why GGW is sticking up for and rationalizing Metro's glaring negligence.

If an inflammatory post by the "anti-Metro" Unsuck blog is what is necessary to prod Metro into action, then so be it. At this point, Metro deserves very little sympathy for its inaction.

by Scoot on Nov 9, 2010 11:53 am • linkreport

Unsuck is not anti-Metro. It's anti-Metro incompetence.

I think the attitude around here is getting a little hoighty toity.

Guess what? You're both local transit blogs. Your not competing against each other. You both serve the same purpose and the same market. And you share readers like me. And that attitude turns readers off.

by Redline SOS on Nov 9, 2010 12:10 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure why GGW is sticking up for and rationalizing Metro's glaring negligence.

I'm not sticking up for Metro, I'm attacking the real problem.

And the problem is simply not that Metro ignored the brake issues raised in the report. Anyone who subscribes to WMATA's press release feed read the Oct 14th press release stating that the brakes will be tested in November.

By making an unfair attack, Metro is justified in dismissing it.

Do you think everything in the consultant's report should be addressed at the same time? Should we be spending money on larger desks for the supervisors (one of the recommendations)? How about more training in Maximo? All of these recommendations are made in no order, and with no analysis of the benefit to be gained in terms of uptime or safety for any of them.

You are correct that not prioritizing action items is just as bad as ignoring them. But they are different. And Metro is not simply ignoring action items.

There are too many good ideas that would improve safety and performance to implement all of them. The solution is to prioritize them, based on an analysis of the degree to which each issue contributes to safety risks and missing performance metrics.

by Ken Archer on Nov 9, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

"The solution is to prioritize them, based on an analysis of the degree to which each issue contributes to safety risks and missing performance metrics."

Clearly, hire another top dollar consulting firm to tell you which to prioritize....

unless you have someone in your organization who might think failing brake pads and oil leaking is more important than desks....

by charlie on Nov 9, 2010 12:15 pm • linkreport

Clearly, hire another top dollar consulting firm to tell you which to prioritize

WMATA's dependence on consulting firms is part of the problem, as we've argued elsewhere. The Safety Office and Maintenance Dept should be prioritizing the recommendations from all consultants, the NTSB, FTA, TOC and internal analyses against each other.

In fact, a central FTA criticism of WMATA is that just this type of prioritization doesn't happen internally.

by Ken Archer on Nov 9, 2010 12:21 pm • linkreport

Not releasing that report to the public is another example of Metro's culture of "DON'T ask us any questions, because we don't want to have to TELL you any answers" regarding keeping the public informed - exhibited every time a train is stopped on the tracks for more than 5 minutes and passengers not told what is happening.

by Kevin O'Brien on Nov 9, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

I'm actually glad to see this post, because I think there is a real lack of thoughtful criticism of Metro going on. The bulk of what I read is sort of hysterical knee-jerk condemnation of Metro and bitching about the incompetence of its employees.

Unsuck DC Metro is the worst of this - the posts are often amusing (or scary) but rarely insightful. Forget the comments sections - again, amusing but it is rare to see even a single sentence of critical thinking in there. It's just a place where people go to vent, and the website caters to that.

GGW does get a little hoity-toity (especially when defending the honor of pedestrians) but at least the issues are raised with an eye to understanding and dealing with them.

I'm not saying Metro isn't jacked up, of course it is. But I like understanding problems and thinking about solutions, not just getting all screamy and finger-pointy about the problems. The hysteria tends to get in the way of progress (assuming there will ever be some.)

by GDopplerXT on Nov 9, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

I think the auditors went into this project presuming, rationally, that Metro would have been able to prioritize "obvious signs of conditions requiring immediate maintenance" of its escalators over the recommendation for larger desks. That management is too incompetent to prioritize clear action items does not thereby impugn the audit process, in my opinion.

I mean, it does not take much to figure out that "questionable stopping ability" could pose a risk to injury. :-O

Certainly I agree that Unsuck does write some inflammatory posts about issues outside Metro's direct control, like incompetent passengers and bike thefts. And it most likely erred in suggesting that Metro did "nothing" with the report given that the 14 Oct press release identified the audit specifically -- unfortunately the details in the press release are almost laughably cryptic in identifying the nature of the problems uncovered.

by Scoot on Nov 9, 2010 1:04 pm • linkreport

I was on one of the short escalators at Gallery Place last year after a Wizards game, and a similar thing happened. The escalator, which had been moving normally with a capacity crowd, accelerated out-of-control for a few seconds (enough time for people to get piled up at the bottom as they couldn't clear out fast enough), and then stopped completely. I haven't read the report, but this isn't the first time this has been a problem.

by rusty on Nov 9, 2010 1:20 pm • linkreport

This is the kind of trenchant analysis that Metro needs. It seems that Metro is perpetually stuck in overreact mode. When there's a problem, people want an answer: it takes credibility to say, "We'll handle it, but we have bigger priorities first." Metro doesn't have that credibility, so they can't ask people to wait. So they overreact to problems that are urgent but not important, ignoring the important but not urgent problems until they deteriorate and cause an emergency.

by Gavin on Nov 9, 2010 1:32 pm • linkreport

@thm, @andrew
The interplay--or lack thereof--between WMATA's staff, board, and contractors, and the general public, is increasingly reminding me of the NASA's handling of the Shuttle Columbia's last flight, the definitive analysis of which comes from Edward Tufte.
Tufte is a showman, and not a particularly intellectually honest one. He's been known to give two-word responses to academic critics. He offered a trenchant but flawed critique of the loss of the Shuttle Challenger, a decade or so before he commented on Columbia.
In that case, at least, he did not try to understand the decisionmaking process at NASA. Worse, the big splashy graph, at the heart of his critique, cobbles together unrelated data sets. He's essentially making shit up.

The lesson for this case, about WMATA? Be wary of masterful commentators: their apparent lucidity might come from arrogance.

by David R. on Nov 9, 2010 3:25 pm • linkreport

"and then when a major incident occurs reactively spends mountains of money addressing the immediate causes of that incident."

Sounds like everything else in this city. Do nothing until someone complains, then make a big show of addressing the most public "problem" with no regard for whether or not it's actually a problem.

MPD actually has formalized this procedure, for example, whenever a shooting occurs, they set up a floodlight on that corner for a month and station a few cops there 24/7. Then they leave, being sure to drop a note for the residents that says "the corner's yours again, carry on."

This does a wonderful job of mollifying the residents there until the media coverage of said shooting has died down, but has a decidedly negative effect on actual problem solving. Of course stationing several cops with a 10,000 watt light will prevent crime in that area. Unless we can do that on every corner every day, though, it's a total waste of resources. But it gets the heat of MPD! Except for the cops who have to sit under the lights, of course, they are probably hot.

It's your basic government by reaction. It's Grahamstanding 101, and as a city, we excel at it. Of course we are completely unable to solve any root problems because this technique involves absolutely no forward thinking, since everyone's too busy sticking their fingers in the dikes all the time, so the problems keep happening over and over again, but hey at least it shuts people up.

by Jamie on Nov 9, 2010 4:05 pm • linkreport

I guess we should just turn our backs to the culture of no accountability that has overrun WMATA.

The next time a metro employee is actually fired for being an incompetent moron will be the first.....

by J on Nov 9, 2010 11:17 pm • linkreport

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