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Transit


Cell service in tunnels, junking old rail cars, getting finances in order. Here's what's in Metro's Back2Good plan.

On Wednesday, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld unveiled "Back2Good," his road map for getting trains running safely and reliably during 2017. There isn't all that much by way of new information—most of the efforts the plan mentions are already underway—but it does group ongoing projects together so it's easier to understand what Metro is up to and verify that it's making progress.

It's no secret that plenty has happened with Metro since Wiedefeld became the GM/CEO last November: the rail system shut for the snow storm; all trains were halted for a day to check for faulty power cables; there was a derailment; SafeTrack started; the delays continue.

Wednesday's announcement focused on looking into the second year of Wiedefeld's leadership, hoping to build off of the stepping stones put into place during 2016. Back2Good (unrelated to the Matchbox 20 song, I'll note) basically lists out how Metro plans to continue addressing the three key things Wiedefeld has stressed since he first came aboard: passenger safety, the actual service Metro provides, and financial management.

Looking broadly, the new plan looks to be a break from the past and is hopefully a continuation of Wiedefeld's goal of increased transparency. The majority of the goals listed include deadlines or other ways that both Metro and the riding public can monitor and keep track of. Below, there's more detail on the plan for each area along with my take.

Back2Good stresses following through on plans for making the system safer

Wiedefeld's goals for the upcoming year include making the system safer for everybody and try to make sure there aren't any more major issues. One big goal is cutting down red signal overruns, which are when a train enters track it isn't supposed to be on. The plan to do this is to change train software as well as make signal lights brighter.

Another goal included in Back2Good is continuing the effort to bring new cell service into the system's tunnels. That'd mean more than just cell service for passengers who want to watch videos and listen to music (with earbuds, of course) during their commute; it's also a critical life-safety issue so that riders can call for help in emergencies.

Cell service is a long-running issue that includes one bankruptcy, but it looks like Metro is finally going to be able to start installing the cabling needed. Some sections on the Blue/Silver/Orange lines should start being activated throughout 2017.

Another pilot that Metro already announced will have track workers wearing armbands that'll alert them to when trains are nearing so that they can be standing clear of the tracks in time.

The plans and solutions laid out here aren't all new; most of these have been publicized before (the tunnel cell cable installation is a long time coming, for instance). What Back2Good is doing is simply grouping them under the umbrella that is Wiedefeld's second year. The fact that there's a consolidated list of known quantities in the pipele that have staff, project managers, and deadlines bodes well, though.

More reliable service is the best way to bring riders back

If service isn't reliable, riders aren't going to use the system; Metro has seen a ridership decline over the past few years corresponding with less-reliable service than in previous years. Wiedefeld is hoping to begin turning this around in 2017 by focusing on the rail cars - the 1000, 4000, and 7000-series cars, specifically.

Because of previous crashes and incidents with the 1000-series cars, the NTSB recommended they be removed from service as soon as possible; Metro wants to finally be able to finish this process in 2017. However, since the 4000s are so much more unreliable, they want to remove these at the same time, which would do the most to increase train reliability.

In the remaining "legacy" cars (2000s/3000s/5000s/6000s), Metro says it will perform "complete component fixes" on subsystems like the HVAC, propulsion, and brakes, which can cause train delays or offloads. Since the agency will no longer need to belly the 1000s or 4000s ("belly" means only running cars in the middle of trains), they can go back to operating same-series trains, which should in turn help increase reliability. They would operate as the six-car trains, while the 7000s will operate as eight-packs.

GGWash contributor Alex Cox had this to say about the railcar focus:

I'm glad that Metro is placing an emphasis on repair of its rolling stock, since disabled trains cause over half of rider delays. It's high time that the unsafe 1000-series and unreliable 4000-series cars finally be retired.
The goals set out for reliability are certainly doable; Metro is already in the process of removing 1000s from service and could start the 4000s if the NTSB allows it. By making sure shops have the people, training, and equipment needed to fix railcars and targeting the worst-performing subsystems, the 25% reduction in delays should be doable. The other projects listed in the Back2Good plan for cleaning and updating the stations have their own schedules and deadlines and reflect what riders see day in and day out.

Metro's working off the financial baggage

As Mr. Widefeld said in his GM's Plan almost a year ago, "Metro is doing less with more." Back2Good notes plans to cut 1,000 positions at Metro, ensure money dedicated for capital projects is spent as expected (Metro has had an issue with proper project management, so money gets left on the table), and to get a budget approved for the FY2018 year.

Metro finally received an on-time and acceptable financial audit for the past year, after several that were late or which the auditor had objections with. The agency could even be taken off a program in which they have to spend time justifying money spent to the FTA.

Showing that the agency knows how to handle it's money well and is not spending unwisely sends a message to the local jurisdictions that when Metro says it needs money, it really does. It also shows riders the agency is serious about controlling its costs.

There's more focus on riders, and Metro's progress is becoming easier for us to track

Alex, again:

It's nice to see WMATA putting a specific focus on improving the rider experience; most importantly by increasing service reliability, but also through more immediately perceptible changes like cleaner stations and cell phone service in the tunnels.

One of the major criticisms that Metro has faced over the last several years is a lack of transparency and poor communication with the public, but this plan looks to continue the agency's recent trend towards being more open about its problems (especially flagrant safety violations like red signal running) and letting its customers know how it intends to solve them.

In addition to the focus on the rider, the plan sets out goals and deadlines, which the agency and riders can verify later in time, including the promise to "cut delays due to train car issues by 25% in 2017." Through data Metro puts out in the daily service reports and the data given to third-party developers, riders can check to see how the system is running in almost real-time.

The lack of the publicizing specific projects and deadlines is something that I've criticized Metro for in the past, so some of the clarity in this plan is welcome news.

While it's goal isn't to fix every tiny thing that's broken in the Metrorail system, Back2Good should be a step in returning the system to one that's more reliable and more able to fulfill it's main purpose of moving riders from A to B.

Pedestrians


A "no cellphones" express walking lane appeared on a DC sidewalk. What's the story?

A curious thing appeared on a downtown DC sidewalk this week: Dedicated lanes for pedestrians talking on cellphones, with an express lane to the side for everyone else.


Photo by Rob Pegoraro on Flickr.

The lanes aren't a half-baked experiment from DDOT. They're actually a stunt from National Geographic.

National Geographic workers added the sidewalk lanes on 18th Street NW between K and L streets, with permission from DDOT, to film people's reactions for an upcoming TV show about human behavior.

Film crews recorded pedestrians' reactions for several hours yesterday. The most common reaction seemed to be curiosity, but according to Yahoo! Tech columnist Rob Pegoraro, the new lanes did inspire many people to move to one side or the other.

This might have drawn inspiration from a "tourist lane" New York-based group Improv Everywhere painted on a Manhattan sidewalk in 2010.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Will WMATA get cell service online or lose funding?

Since late 2008, WMATA has been working to deliver modern wireless phone service throughout the underground portions of the Metrorail system. It faces a deadline to finish by October 16 or possibly lose federal funding, but it's unclear whether they will get the project done in time, and have not shared any news of their progress with reporters or riders.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Unlike some mass transit systems, WMATA did not undertake this project simply out of a desire to improve passenger experience; they did so because of a few short sentences in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (hereinafter PRIIA), enacted on October 16, 2008:

No amounts may be provided to the Transit Authority pursuant to the authorization under this section unless the Transit Authority ensures that customers of the rail service of the Transit Authority have access within the rail system to services provided by any licensed wireless provider that notifies the Transit Authority (in accordance with such procedures as the Transit Authority may adopt) of its intent to offer service to the public, in accordance with the following timetable:
(A) Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, in the 20 underground rail station platforms with the highest volume of passenger traffic.

(B) Not later than 4 years after such date, throughout the rail system.

WMATA met the first deadline, turning up a new distributed antenna system and signing on the four major carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon). But the second deadline has proved thornier. A recent Washington Examiner article described the contractor installing the system as being in "dire financial straits." Anecdotal reports from riders have shown that cellular service has been spotty, even at stations which initially had good coverage.

With October 16 just over a month away, you might think that WMATA would be forthcoming with status updates. Unfortunately, WMATA has responded to the situation with its usual opacity.

What does WMATA stand to lose if they miss the deadline? As PRIIA states, "No amounts may be provided," and the amounts authorized under the act are considerable:

There are authorized to be appropriated to the Secretary of Transportation for grants under this section an aggregate amount not to exceed $1,500,000,000 to be available in increments over 10 fiscal years beginning in fiscal year 2009, or until expended.

Clearly, this is not a deadline that WMATA should take lightly.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, like WMATA, is in the midst of wiring its rail system for wireless service, and they, too, have experienced delays. However, they've been more up-front about the situation; an article published earlier this year distinguished between delays attributable to the MBTA's contractor and those attributable to the cellular carriers.

Even if WMATA and their contractor manage to pull through and meet PRIIA's October 16 deadline, there are still best practices they can and should adopt. In New York City, the contractor deploying wireless service on the subway, aptly named Transit Wireless, has established their own presence, rather than lurking in the shadows like the contractors deploying systems in DC and Boston. Through their Web site and Twitter account, Transit Wireless reaches out directly to riders, taking questions and helping them understand what services are available, and where.

By contrast, WMATA refers questions to the carriers, who tend to either deny knowledge of service in the Metro, or refer questions back to WMATA. After WMATA's initial announcement of service at underground stations, updates have been spotty at best—and there's no list of covered stations or timetable for future service rollouts.

Roads


As employers ban phone use while driving, long car commutes mean lower productivity

More and more companies ban employee use of cell phones while driving. Will these companies begin to view employees with long car commutes as less available and productive than other employees? Will this push more workers to take advantage of transit options?


Photo by bjosefowicz on Flickr.

Some companies still have a 9-to-5 culture and don't expect employees to be available outside those hours. With the ubiquity of cell phones, however, many people see commute time as potential work time. When conference calls go long, it's not uncommon to hear participants announce, "I've got to leave, but I'll rejoin this call from the road." Email-enabled smartphones have only increased this trend.

But driving while on the phone can be very dangerous, studies show. And juries have found corporations liable for traffic crashes caused by employees using cell phones for business purposes, even when neither the car nor the phone were issued by the company. Some awards from judges and juries have exceeded $20 million.

This started a trend of corporate bans on employee cell phone use while driving, which shows no sign of going away. Such bans could catch a lot of employees by surprise who count on working while driving. Many workers in Northern Virginia, where my software company is headquartered, justify long car commutes by the work they get done on the phone while driving.

When car commuters suddenly fall off the grid for 45 or 60 minutes each way, unable to notice urgent calls or to continue conversations from the road, will they be viewed as less flexible than their transit-commuting colleagues, especially as Metro finishes its project to add cell phone service for all carriers in all tunnels?

Drivers banned from using cell phones will find transit a better option to stay productive. When I'm on the Fairfax Connector bus and the Orange Line, I flip open my laptop and tether to my phone for internet access. Conversely, the few times I have driven to Tysons Corner, I have been frustrated by the time I wasted in the car.

We are considering a ban at our company, and fortunately my colleagues don't attach a stigma to transit commuters. But that could be because I am a co-founder of the company, and play a greater role in defining our workplace culture. Bosses and coworkers at other workplaces are known to roll their eyes at leaving during a meeting to catch a bus, while considering car breakdowns and traffic jams valid excuses.

Bans on phone use while driving could also affect decisions on corporate office locations, and on home purchases by employees and executives. Buying a home 45 minutes away from one's workplace will take on new consequences when you will lose 90 minutes of productivity per day.

Northrup Grumman selected a car-dependent suburban office park over Ballston for its DC-area headquarters in 2010, over the objections of younger employees who prefer transit. As corporations increasingly ban cell phone use while driving, the inability to communicate with employees immediately before and after work could discourage suburban, auto-dependent office relocations.

How would stereotypes be affected by such a ban at your workplace? Do you feel that your colleagues attach value judgments to car commuting vs transit commuting? Is the stigma on transit commuting limited to bus commuters in the suburbs?

The ability to stay connected on transit presents a clear advantage over isolated drivers. You might wish Metro would ban people who yell into their cell phones, but transit commuters can use their time on trains and buses to work safely.

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