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Sarles talks safety, escalators, bag searches, funding & more

WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles met with bloggers for a roundtable discussion yesterday. The unfortunately brief conversation covered bag searches, escalators, funding and several other topics of interest to riders.

Photo by HerrVebah on Flickr.

On safety

Sarles reiterated what he's been saying since coming on as interim General Manager: that safety is Metro's top priority. Metro has made several changes that Sarles believes will help grow the safety culture at the agency. They have increased the staff serving under Chief Safety Officer Jim Dougherty and increased safety staff's interaction with field operations.

Safety staff are now "embedded out in the field," Sarles says at bus and rail shops. These staff are now interacting regularly with superintendents, mechanics and other employees, and are participating on the local safety committee. This is encouraging, though it highlights how awry Metro's safety procedures had gone, if its safety officers were not previously working at the local facilities on a regular basis.

In accordance with an NTSB recommendation, WMATA has also put in a safety measurement system to collect data which can analyzed to uncover trends and anomalies. These data can be better used to identify hazards over time.

Sarles also emphasized that WMATA's new focus on State of Good Repair investment will help promote the safety culture with employees at all levels. "The employees see [our state of good repair investments] and that helps them realize that we, as an organization, are making heavy investments in safety. That encourages people to think more about it."

"We had to really rebuild the capital program management capability of this organization, because it had been lost. Because of the feeling that construction was done, so we just have little to do. Well, we have a lot to do, $5 billion in 6 years."

On escalators and elevators

Sarles brought up the work WMATA is undertaking to implement the recommendations of a consultant for improving escalator and elevator reliability.

We've criticized that report, however, for not presenting any causal analysis of actual downtime, but rather a list of a couple dozen standards that WMATA falls short of.

When asked whether he knows the actual causes of escalator and elevator downtime, Sarles agreed that the report did not provide such causes. Such analysis is being done by the new head of the Elevator and Escalator Department (ELES) using data that is now being entered into the maintenance management system.

With this analysis, they hope to know the causes of downtime "in the next couple months". He pointed out that ELES had been elevated in the organizational structure to help problems be addressed more seriously.

Sarles added that the major overhaul work at Foggy Bottom, where the 3 street to mezzanine escalators are being completely replaced and a staircase added, is indicative of the steps Metro is willing to take to get the vertical movement problem under control.

"I'm an engineer by background," Sarles said. "I started out in construction, so my thing is delivering results, not talking about them forever."

On bag searches

Having told WTOP on Monday that the bag searches are more about deterrence than detection, we asked Sarles to explain how exactly these searches could deter a terrorist attack. Instead, he turned to the example of New York, essentially saying that because the NYPD and Port Authority Police have this policy, WMATA should as well.

"You don't want the bad guys to think everything is predictable," he said, reminded the group of bloggers several times that this is not his rationale, but that of counter­terrorism experts. These experts have advised the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and NYPD policies, where, he says, random searches have been successful, though without offering any clarification of what 'successful' means.

When pressed on how much unpredictability is introduced by forcing a bad guy to go to a station several blocks away, Sarles again relied the authority of counter­terrorism experts. These unnamed experts say that terrorists like to plan, and the unpredictability of random searches may force them to go back to the drawing board. Asked what's to keep a terrorist for planning for the event that their first target station has bag checks, he immediately changed the subject.

We asked Sarles whether WMATA had explored any ways to use the TSA grants to implement counter­terrorism measures that also increase the presence of officers within the station, on the platforms. He answered quickly, "Well, these searches are just outside the fare control line," before changing the subject.

On a positive note, Sarles emphasized that he would not allow random searches to be something that caused any riders to stand in line to enter a station. "I don't want customers to be inconvenienced."

On funding

Sarles voiced far more concern over the future of federal funding, given the new Republican-controlled House, than the future of funding from Virginia or Maryland. He said he would be actively lobbying Congress, as well as working to mobilize other supporters much like was done at the end of 2010 to support extending the $230 transit benefit.

When asked what a drop in federal funding would mean, Sarles was blunt about the impact it would have on bringing WMATA up to a state of good repair. "We will not catch up. It's devastating."

On farecard improvements

WMATA has revealed plans to migrate from SmarTrip cards to an open payment fare technology. Sarles said the agency is just in the beginning phases of exploring these technologies, and will not be rolling out a full scale change until it is sure of the reliability and can mitigate the inconveniences to riders.

When asked about the summer revelation that the agency seemed to be running out of SmarTrip cards, he recognized there were clearly some communication issues that needed to be addressed as the agency moves forward with new fare payment programs.

On improving communication

We asked Sarles how he can help break the barriers between the various divisions of WMATA to improve communication within the agency, and between the operating divisions and the public. He said that he is working to instill the idea of "one message" with his leadership team.

When asked if this unifying approach could result in precluding more communication between the agency's divisions and the public, he said that WMATA is trying to open up communication through data reports and other regular releases.

On customer service

Sarles has been talking with riders at downtown stations over the last couple weeks, asking them what their biggest complaints are.

While the most common complaints he's heard deal with the disrespectful way in which many riders treat the trains and buses, leaving newspapers and trash behind, he acknowledged that the agency needs to make improvements in customer service.

WMATA is having an independent group assess the agency's customer call center, and how quickly and effectively it responds to customer issues. Sarles also plans to reintroduce a "secret shopper" program to get feedback from riders.

On increasing capacity

Major capital investments will be consumed by safety and state of good repair projects. In the near and medium term, Sarles acknowledged that the agency has no plans for major increases in capacity. Instead, WMATA will be concentrating on ways to improve the bus system, working with the jurisdictions to implement priority measures such as traffic signal priority and bus lanes.

On the 7000 series

The new rail cars, expected by 2014, will be 4-car sets, instead of married pairs, eliminating two cabs on each four car set and making more room for riders. The cars will have cameras throughout as well as automated station announcements and electronic information boards very similar to the New York Subway's new FIND systems.

While the "transverse" seating arrangements of the current cars, with forward and back facing seats, will remain, the cars we be built to allow reconfiguring the seating to "longitudinal," where seats face the center, if crowding becomes a problem and the agency decides to make the change.

Sarles said he would be happy to host blogger roundtables in the future, and we also discussed briefly the possibility of having chats with other members of the leadership team who can speak to more specific questions.

Although our time was short, and there were some dodgy answers regarding bag searches, the conversation with Sarles was informative and encouraging. We hope this engagement with the community continues.

Sarles is also appearing on TBD NewsTalk starting at 10 today.

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. 
Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 


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"While the "transverse" seating arrangements of the current cars, with forward and back facing seats, will remain, the cars we be built to allow reconfiguring the seating to "longitudinal," where seats face the center, if crowding becomes a problem and the agency decides to make the change."

Isn't crowding already a problem?

by Max D. on Feb 3, 2011 10:07 am • linkreport

Glad to hear of the seating change. Slow process I understand but badly needed.

How much would it cost to have some unemployed people clean out the cars at the end of the line. The cars just sit there waiting for people. Can't do it during rush hours but not difficult otherwise.

How much cutting the federal benefit hurt WMATA? How many federal workers use the full amount on WMATA -- as opposed to other commuter systems?

WMATA lost the capital management side? That's funny, because what I remember hearing is it never transitioned from being a construction organization to a maintenance one. Makes me wonder what is there....

Let's not blow the bag thing up. It is stupid and pointless, but is a federal grant.

by charlie on Feb 3, 2011 10:21 am • linkreport

@Max D. agreed, crowding is already a problem. The seating arrangement has been a problem for the 10+ years I've ridden the system. Metro ain't Amtrak, it doesn't hang out at the stops for as long as it takes. I've seen plenty of times where operators start "doors closing" while people are still trying to get off the cars.

I don't understand why they're so committed to this type of seating. As a compromise, put inward facing seating on one side of the cars, and that way commuters riding for longer distances can still use the forward/back seats on the other side.

by Bob See on Feb 3, 2011 10:37 am • linkreport

Well, three of the experts who testified that the NY bag searches are effective were David Cohen, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence, Michael Sheehan, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Counter-Terrorism, and Richard C. Clarke, former Chair of the Counter-Terrorism Security Group of the National Security Council.

But what do those guys know?

by jcm on Feb 3, 2011 10:49 am • linkreport

While we are (hopefully) improving the rail system, we should look carefully at best practices used for decades by other systems:

1. Escalators that turn off when nobody is on them.

2. Showing passengers where the train will stop - signs for 4 car and 6 car.

3. Stop the time-wasting hopping up and down by the drivers. Stop all trains at the end of the platform (as is now being done temporarily) and install mirrors and video monitors for the drivers to see the platform.

by Dan Gamber on Feb 3, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

@ Dan Gamber; a lot of that is dependent on ATC and computer controlled braking.

by charlie on Feb 3, 2011 11:08 am • linkreport

@Dan Gamber

(1) Are there any US-based systems that do this? I was under the impression that stop/start escalators were generally prohibited in US building codes.

(3) The stopping-at-the-end-of-a-platform severely exacerbates the crowding at Gallery Place for Shady Grove-bound trains. The large bit of the mezzanine at the east end of the platform, which previously could hold quite a few passengers, is now nearly useless, because the 6-car trains stop so far away. So the exit for alighting red line passengers is overwhelmed with transfers from the green/yellow lines.

And also for (3), for stations like Anacostia where the platform escalators are at the ends of the platforms, and not somewhere in the middle, there's now a huge gap between the escalators and the nearest car of a train, for bus to Greenbelt-bound-train transfers.

by thm on Feb 3, 2011 11:10 am • linkreport

So my impression of Sarles is that he's competent, and cleaning up WMATA. Still waiting for a vision though.

I think you're too harsh on him for the bag searches. Clearly, the man is no terror expert. He has to rely on what DHS (I guess) tells him. My guess is that he does not want to oppose the searches, because he can not win this. If he fights them, he pisses of DHS, if he doesn't he pisses of customers. I think he'd rather use his political capital for different causes than on fighting DHS. As much as I hate these senseless searches, I think that's a correct assessment.

by Jasper on Feb 3, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

Crowded trains are a sign of a well used system, they are not the problem.

The problem is that metro is hemorrhaging money running nearly empty trains the rest of the time, staffing stops that are completely unused on the weekends and running late night trains so that a couple of hundred drunks can avoid a taxi fare. Similarly the bus system duplicates many of the functions the metro already provides, but at a lower cost, eating away from the fare box when it could be expanding the 'last mile' coverage to get new riders into the system and eliminating the MetroAccess boondoggle.

Metro needs to completely rethink the pricing and network strategy that it provides and charge fees based on what it costs to run the system when it's being used. Instead of providing a subsidy on top of a subsidy on top of a subsidy for low income riders, metro should charge what it needs to be healthy, and make the cities and counties subsidize the riders who they feel deserve a reduced rate.

Oh, and start taking petty crime and simple assault seriously before it gets totally out of hand NYC 80's style.

by RegionalTrain on Feb 3, 2011 12:04 pm • linkreport

The problem is that metro is hemorrhaging money running nearly empty trains the rest of the time, staffing stops that are completely unused on the weekends and running late night trains so that a couple of hundred drunks can avoid a taxi fare.

This seems backwards to me. You have a huge capital investment in the system, it enables you to provide a high quality service at all hours, I think it is penny wise and pound foolish to cut back on off-peak operations just because the off-peak farebox pays 20% of operating costs while peak operations pay 40%, or whatever.

I do not believe that off-peak ridership is as low as you state, nor that the people who ride off-peak are less deserving human beings on average.

by David desJardins on Feb 3, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

Is metro in danger of turning into a "ghetto?"

by Jack on Feb 3, 2011 12:25 pm • linkreport

Long term solution for off-peak hours - complete and full automation, like Vancouver's SkyTrain or Paris's new Line 14 and retrofitted Line 1.

by Alex B. on Feb 3, 2011 12:40 pm • linkreport

I was disappointed at the questions that both the bloggers asked and the RAC asked at the meeting, although the bloggers seem to have done a better job.

RAC seemed to get lost in specific detail. An example was Mr. Alpert's question about the 7000 series cars. It's an important point. I agree with Mr. Alpert on the substance of the issue. However Mr. Sarles should have been questioned on priorities, metrics, and timetables. Not to pick on Mr. Alpert, but his question stuck in my mind. Others were guilty of this "trees instead of forests" to an even greater extent. The question about what RAC and others can do to pressure jurisdictions to pony up the money was good, though.

The escalator/elevator and safety sections of this post showed reasonable questions. I hope those of you who interact with Metro management continue to pressure them on both performance and target metrics and related disclosures. It would be great if they had a quarterly or semi-annual "earnings call" to discuss progress on their priorities. Hopefully the bloggers and RAC will be able to keep up the pressure if this doesn't happen.

On the bag search issue, I think RAC and most of the public have this dead wrong. Mr. Sarles is the CEO and absolutely has to have leeway here. Trying to get the Board to stop the program shows the limitations of a policy-operations divide for a CEO. The division between policy and management is never clear in reality. In this respect, I strongly believe the MWCOG/BOT report had it right and RAC wrong. The CEO cannot be presenting options for an executive board to OK or shoot down. They need to work together, but the CEO should have the responsibility here.

I hope we have learned that Metro's CEO HAS to have the freedom to make decisions like this. I am reluctant to say this because I think the program is stupid, ineffective, and pisses people off for no good reason. But that's the CEO's decision and if we don't like it, our recourse should be removing him. I hope Mr. Sarles is picking his battles wisely, though.


As a somewhat frequent off-peak drunk rider, I value their off-peak system quite a bit. I'm certainly open to hearing that off-peak service is causing Metro significant losses. I would like to see evidence.

Perhaps Metro could alleviate the problem via late-night fare increases? Would running 2-car trains be possible? I've NEVER seen a true drunk train fill up even half-way, but my experience isn't representative.

by WRD on Feb 3, 2011 1:10 pm • linkreport


I would say that the problem about entering and exiting the subway car isn't the seating as it is the doors itself. Most major transit systems like New York, Seoul, or Hong Kong (those are the ones I am most familiar with) have four doors on each side of a car. Here, the Metro only has 3. What ends up happening is that no one wants to move in because they might be too far to exit; and as someone mentioned earlier, the doors do shut on people who are trying to exit.

Does anyone know if Metro has added an extra set of doors to each car for the 7000 series?


I agree with someone that Metro needs start/stop escalators. I've seen these work in the Seoul Metro and they not only are energy efficient, I'm sure they also cut down on the wear and tear of the machinery itself.


I've seen workers constantly picking up newspapers and what not from subway cars. The one thing I noticed though is that they never end up on the floor from passengers because there is a rack above the seats that passengers can leave bags on; they're just rods of metal in the shape of a rack. Here, people will just throw newspapers on the floor which made it a lot messier. Given that the seats have open space underneath it and in rows, it makes it hard to clean.


Again, I'll have to compare with Seoul. There, they use what is known as T-money cards. They come in various shapes and sizes from credit card sized to a charm that can attach to your phone. T-money can be used and reloaded not only in the subway, but every major convenience stores (i.e. 7-11, FamilyMart). These cards can be used to pay for everything transit related (with free bus-rail transfers) and also in cabs and to pay for purchases at convenience stores. It is by far the most advanced transit fare system I have seen.


Again, I will compare to Seoul. They have bus only lanes in the middle of the roads (without curbs) and for some reason, I hadn't seen violators of the lanes when I lived there for half a year. The buses were always very punctual and fast and many times, it would be faster to take the bus than the subway. I've heard that many metropolitan areas around the world have visited Seoul to see the bus system in action. I think it might be worth checking out as well.

Their bus numbering system also divides Seoul into 10 distinct districts. If a bus number was 412, the first number 4 would denote that the start of the route was in that district, the end of the route was in district 1, and the 2 would note that it is the 2nd line for routes that go from 4 to 1. Also, along the side of the buses, major landmarks along the route are displayed so a passenger will have a general idea of which route the bus will take.

Metro can definitely do more and I think if they were to go on fact finding missions around the world, it would definitely be helpful to improving our system.

by Pathfinder on Feb 3, 2011 1:57 pm • linkreport


Have you used Metro during off-peak hours lately? Headways are 15-20 minutes, and trains are often PACKED thanks to the long waits. The late-night Friday/Saturday night trains are cash cows for the agency. They're not held to any sort of schedule, and riders pay rush hour fares for them.

If anything, it's the off-peak daytime trains that are the most wasteful/empty, or the "against the flow" rush hour trains (for which riders pay the same PotP fare as everyone else). Trains to Glenmont are almost empty once they pass Union Station... (Of course, they still need to run, so that there are enough trains at the end of the line to meet the inbound demand.)

by andrew on Feb 3, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport


The MBTA red line in Boston uses cars with either three or four sets of doors. Someone I know studied how long it took passengers to board/alight, and surprisingly it took LONGER for passengers to board/alight the four-door cars. I don't know the cause, but things are never as simple as they seem.

by mattxmal on Feb 3, 2011 4:55 pm • linkreport

WMATA has revealed plans to migrate from SmarTrip cards to an open payment fare technology.

What does the text highlighted in boldface mean? Does it mean that you need not buy a farecard or SmarTrip card and can instead, for example, swipe your credit card when you enter and again when you exit (similar to the way some automated parking garages, like the big one on Union Street in Old Town, let you do)?

by Rich on Feb 3, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

an open payment fare technology

I suspect this just means a system which is based on open standards rather than a proprietary system and protocol. You would still have to buy the particular cards from WMATA, it's just that the technology would be more modern and maintainable and perhaps available from multiple vendors.

by David desJardins on Feb 3, 2011 5:04 pm • linkreport

@RegionalTrain: Sure, crowding is a sign of a healthy, well used system, but it is a problem if there are ways to alleviate it that are being ignored.

@Pathfinder: Seating layout is a problem. When a person in a "window seat" needs to disembark, the person in the "aisle seat" needs to move out of the way as well, so that's two people that need to maneuver instead of one. Further, longitudinal seating doesn't present physical intrusions into the aisle nearly as much as the current transverse seat structures do, so this seriously impacts the fluidity of how people can move in the available space. It's a no-brainer that I'm surprised is even being contested. Sure, 4 doors would be a great, but the cars have 3 whether we like it or not, so at least the seating can be improved.

by Bob See on Feb 3, 2011 11:31 pm • linkreport

MetroRiders.Org supports full discretion for WMATA GM/CEO to continue random bag inspections for security purposes at Metrorail stations. WMATA’s GM/CEO needs maximum discretion in shaping a comprehensive system of protections against possible terrorist activity, including Random Bag Inspections – even if passengers are somewhat inconvenienced.

by KevinM on Feb 4, 2011 7:33 am • linkreport


That's definitely an interesting study. I used to live off the Orange line in Boston and would frequently take the Red Line up to Cambridge as a grad student there.

The one thing that I wonder about with the study is how far apart is each door placed and the length of the cars. If three doors are closer together than 4, then I could see how having only three doors will make boarding/exiting trains quicker.

From my own personal observation of taking rush hour trains here in DC for the better part of a decade as an undergrad and now as a working man here in the city and comparing it to the rush hour of Korea, I would definitely say that their 4 doors are placed much more closer than Metro's 3 doors and definitely made boarding quicker.

@Bob See

I definitely agree with you on the seating. When I was an intern in NYC and when I lived in Seoul, rush hour trains were packed to the gills but because the seating runs the length of the train, boarding and exiting was a very efficient process. Additionally, most places in Asia will actually make markings on the platforms where 4 lines will be formed for each door; 2 lines on each side. When the doors open (including platform doors!), exiting passengers have no problem getting off quickly. One thing to note: Seoul actually numbers all of their cars and doors so the first car, third door would be 1-3. These are marked at every single platform so passengers know exactly where they should board the train.

I think Metro has a lot to learn from other transit systems on efficiency, particularly from those in Asia (at least in Seoul).

by pathfinder on Feb 4, 2011 11:12 am • linkreport

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