Posts about Service Disruption
Many major transit systems offer a "service guarantee" policy where riders get a free trip or a refund if there are severe delays, but WMATA's policy is much more limited. After repeated rail delays, some riders are demanding a better deal.
Rockville resident Dave Tucker recently complained to WMATA on Twitter after his train was evacuated due to brake problems. Officials replied that they were "prohibited from providing fare adjustments for delays caused by mechanical problems and other conditions beyond [Metro's] control," Tucker reported, but as a "gesture of goodwill," they gave Tucker two free one-way passes.
WMATA's current "service guarantee" policy falls short of best practices in other cities. During major delays, you can leave from your original station without paying, but only if station agents allow it. Metro should make its policy more flexible.
If you get trapped behind a stalled train for an hour halfway to your destination, you have two options. One is to stay put and hope you get there, all while paying full price. The other is to try and return to your origin, maybe be able to exit without paying, and then try to get to your destination another way.
Plus, are mechanical problems really beyond Metro's control? Only if they're caused by "acts of God" or by customers jamming the doors. More often than not, mechanical failure happens because of insufficient maintenance or sloppy inspections. Those are WMATA's fault, and when they result in delays, customers deserve refunds.
Other major transit systems offer customers a free future trip if they are delayed for a certain length of time. Philadelphia's SEPTA offers a free trip to riders after 50 minutes, while Boston's MBTA will give you a free trip after just 30 minutes.
Transport for London's service guarantee program goes even further, giving refunds to any customer after a 15-minute delay. Arlington resident Samer Farha explained his experiences during a recent trip to London, where he used Oyster card, their equivalent of SmarTrip. According to Farha, when his trip was delayed, Transport for London (TfL) emailed him to apologize. TfL told him the refund would go back on his card the next time he entered the system. Farha could even log in to TfL's website and choose which station he wanted to credit to go to.
With Metro's current state of repair, a 15-minute window might be a little aggressive, but the agency could at least allow customers to request a refund for delays of 30 minutes or more.
Metro should also let customers leave from the station they entered from, without having to wait for officials to declare a "major delay," as long as they leave within 30 minutes. If you bail out because the train is taking too long, what does it matter how long the delay is? You haven't used Metro for transportation, and shouldn't pay anything.
If WMATA has to refund customers when it's at fault, that could give employees and officials alike an incentive to start making the system more reliable. The number of customer refunds could become a performance metric which goes in reports to the WMATA board.
Metro promises its riders a safe, reliable means of transportation, though it doesn't always deliver. A service guarantee would acknowledge that they make mistakes and respect their customers' time and money.
asked passengers not to open emergency doors. One did on a recent Green Line train at Shaw, creating delays. Reader Bitter Brew posted more details of what happened, and says the biggest problem was incomprehensible announcements and no other information from Metro staff. Here's Bitter Brew's comment:
What should you do [on Metro] when the crackling, incomprehensible intercom says something that sounds like "evacuate"?
My girlfriend was in the car where they opened the doors. She said the intercom and speakers, as with so many Metro cars, barely worked.
They stood there in the dark for over 20 minutes, with the typical semi-comprehensible Metro announcements. First "**static** be **static** momentarily," which we can all translate as Metro's favorite lie. Then "***static** hold **static** control ***static***." Five minutes later, "**static** something brakes **static** apologize **static** delay."
Then a Metro employee came through the car from one end to the other, saying nothing, and not responding to anyone's questions. A couple more minutes of silence. Then "**static** evacuate **static** train **static** something safety."
At that point, a buzz went up through the car. "Did he say 'evacuate'?" someone asked. That's when a knot of passengers by a door began to discuss whether they should open it and evacuate. Why? Because Metro told them to evacuate.
After another minute or two with no more announcements and no sign of any Metro personnel, they began to open the door. And just after they opened it, someone from Metro finally came in from the front of the car and began giving instructions to offload that way.
If Metro is unable and unwilling to communicate with passengers during its frequent lengthy breakdowns, or is going to make unclear announcements with words like "emergency" and "evacuate," it can't blame passengers for following the instructions they do have. And it shouldn't
Yesterday evening, a derailment snarled the Green Line. A colleague and I both commute from Silver Spring to Greenbelt. His trip took 2.5 hours, mine took 52 minutes. What was the difference?
Part of the difference was simply luck, but most of the difference was due to having a Plan B.
My colleague and I both work in Downtown Silver Spring and connect to a (different) bus at Greenbelt station. Normally, we walk to the Silver Spring station, take the Red Line to Fort Totten, change to the Green, and ride the train to Greenbelt.
Normally, this commute takes about 30 to 35 minutes. Yesterday, it was a bit longer for both of us, and everyone else affected by the derailment.
My coworker left the office at about 5:00. At this point, the Green Line had been blocked by the derailed train for 15 minutes already, though neither of us knew that.
The news of the derailment, apparently broken by the Prince George's County Fire Department over Twitter, was first reported at about 5:08, probably about the time my colleague (we'll call him "B") was getting on the Red Line.
Slightly earlier, at 5:00, Metro tweeted that passengers on the Green Line would experience "significant delays" due to a disabled train near West Hyattsville. Following along on Twitter, it was not immediately clear to me that this was a different event from the single-tracking around a disabled train at Fort Totten (the next stop south of West Hyattsville).
Metro sent out an email to Metro Alerts announcing the derailment at 5:25, 40 minutes after the derailment. I don't know what announcements they were making in the stations. But by then, B was probably amidst a sea of unhappy, ill-informed riders at Fort Totten.
According to Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel, the first shuttle bus arrived at 5:20, but bus bridges take time to set up. By 8 pm, Metro was using over 40 buses in the shuttle operation.
By this time, it was probably apparent to everyone at Fort Totten that the commute was not going to be a smooth one. My coworker, B, stayed with the mob of passengers, hoping for a shuttle bus toward Greenbelt.
I was stuck at the office. I had to finish working on a few things before I could leave, but I was monitoring the Metro situation. I knew that my commute was going to be rough.
Finally, I finished my tasks, checked Metro's trip planner, and left the office at 6:43, 1 hour and 43 minutes after B. I walked down to the nearest Metrobus stop on route F4, and caught a bus bound for New Carrollton.
The bus was crowded, though based on trips I've taken in the past, not by a whole lot more than usual. At Prince George's Plaza, I hopped off and headed for the train platform.
A train was sitting on the platform normally used for Greenbelt trains, but WMATA workers were directing everyone over to the Branch Avenue platform. The transit police officers on the Branch Avenue platform didn't know why we were all being directed there, but eventually discovered that another Greenbelt train would be arriving there shortly.
Risking it, I rushed back up to the mezzanine and then down to the Greenbelt platform, I managed to cram myself onto the first train just before the doors closed, and we headed off to Greenbelt.
I arrived at Greenbelt at 7:35, only 52 minutes after I'd left my office. While waiting on the 7:40 bus to my apartment, I saw B walking by. He'd just gotten off the same shuttle train I'd been on. He stopped for a moment to chat, and recounted that he'd been commuting since 5:00, and still wasn't home.
My trip from the office to Greenbelt took 1 hour 43 minutes less than his. What was the difference? I took a regularly scheduled bus instead of fighting for a spot on a shuttle.
In fairness to B, he was already at Fort Totten before he discovered the snafu playing out a few miles up the Green Line. But what it suggests is that if he'd gotten back on the Red Line and ridden to Silver Spring, he could have caught the F4 (it runs about every 20 minutes) and gotten to Greenbelt much earlier than he did.
In my experience, waiting on the bus bridge is almost never faster than finding an alternate, regularly scheduled service.
But it's not always that simple. The F6 bus runs from Fort Totten to Prince George's Plaza. But because of the mass of desperate commuters at Fort Totten, it would have likely been swamped, too.
The real trick is to go to a station not full of displaced riders. Know the alternatives for getting to your destination, not from wherever you got offloaded. It may be faster to get back on the train and head to a different station.
For example, you can get to Greenbelt station on Metrobus routes C2 (from Wheaton), R12 (Deanwood), G12, G14, and G16 (New Carrollton), and also on TheBus routes 15X and 16 from New Carrollton.
For me, the F4 proved to be a huge time saver. I saved over an hour and a half simply by having a Plan B.
No matter how hard Metro tries, something will go wrong sometime; it's inevitable. If you take a few minutes right now to figure out some alternate routes home, you may save yourself a lot of pain one day in the future.
Metro will suspend all service on the Red Line for the next 8 months to allow repair crews to finish work on the line more quickly. Shuttle buses will replace trains between Shady Grove and Glenmont.
According to Metro spokesman Stan Dessel, Metro is tired of the constant weekend track work. "Frankly, we're just as sick of the slow trickle of repairs as the customers are. We decided it would simply be faster to just fix everything at once," Dessel said.
Dessel said customers should also consider alternative commuting methods, like driving. Customers who drive or take the shuttle buses should expect to add an additional 60-120 minutes to their travel time.
Riders from Shady Grove can also drive to Vienna and take the Orange Line.
Governors Bob McDonnell and Martin O'Malley announced plans to spend $10 billion to build a new freeway across the Potomac River in order to accommodate the Metro riders, but added that funding is too scarce to contribute more to speed up the Metro repairs. "We think this is the best way to use our state transportation dollars to help commuters," said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Proaughton.
In addition, MARC will add new service on the Brunswick Line. CSX announced that it would allow MARC to run more trains and actually tell its dispatchers to give priority to passenger trains on the line, as opposed to previous times when they claimed to have done so but dispatchers did not actually follow through.
Metro is launching a new public relations campaign around the closure, called "Red Line: Deal With It." Customers will see construction walls at Red Line station entrances with slogans like, "8 Months Isn't So Bad, Is It?" and "No More Delays. No More Red Line."
Organizers of large national events are also being informed. A national tea party convention has already modified its website to inform attendees driving to the region from points north on I-95 to take the Beltway to Vienna instead of driving to Glenmont or using any other station.
Metro will suspend all work on other lines, including Silver Line construction, in order to complete the work in 8 months. "We hope that by the time the Red Line reopens, we'll only have to single-track twice a month," said WMATA CEO Richard Snarles.
Dessel said Metro is working with Mayor Gray to hire thousands of unemployed District residents to help with the 24-hour repairs. The program is part of a new employment program called "One City, One Line."
A social media component of the program, called "Metro Fast Forward," will equip track workers with helmet video cameras and editing software so that they can produce videos of the work in real time.
This concept has actually been in the works for over a year. Previous WMATA spokesperson Lisa Dystone planned not to tell riders about the closure, arguing that nobody would notice. However, Michael Perkins noticed an obscure footnote in a WMATA Board presentation and encouraged officials to mount a larger campaign to inform riders.
Some have already criticized Metro's plan. The critical blog DeCrapify DC Metro said 8 months is far longer than needed to finish the work. Another blog and popular Twitter account, WTF WMATA, wrote that customers deserve better treatment and vowed to hold Metro accountable.
How will you adjust to the Red Line closing? Let us know in the comments.
Metro used to publish lists of service disruptions online, but soon after I published a post analyzing the data, Metro stopped posting new reports and eventually removed the entire archive. Is this good customer relations?
Metro officials say that the reports require a lot of staff time, but they already have internal reports that show the same information, just in a more technical way. Metro could, and should, still release those reports to interested members of the press or transit aficionados who can interpret them for the public.
If Metro's performance is getting better, then posting these reports would help advocates write reports or articles about that fact, and boost public confidence in the work CEO Richard Sarles and his team are doing. If the performance is not getting better, then we should be having a public conversation with WMATA officials about what it would take to get improvements, or when the current repair schedule will start to bear fruit.
Here's an example service disruption from a report I received from a WMATA insider:
TRAIN GOES TO B4 AT POINT OF POWER, HAVE TO CUT OUT ATP TO MOVE, NOT DISPATCHED, K08, CMD, ATCC, 918Other reports are a little simpler to understand:
NO ALL DOORS CLOSED CUSTOMER POSSIBLY HOLDING THE DOORSA lot of this message wouldn't make sense to the vast majority of commuters. WMATA could still post these with a glossary that helps decode even this cryptic report, though there is the possibility that customers would see them and be confused, or call in to customer service about it.
Instead of posting these, WMATA created a "Vital Signs" report, which lists a few high-level metrics like overall rail on-time performance. But one number for rail on-time performance hides a lot of important information. A train can be late up to half the headway and still count as on time, meaning that when trains run every 20 minutes, trains could still be 10 minutes late or early. It doesn't include performance during planned track work, and other factors.
Today, WMATA's approach to public information seems to be to release only a few conclusions, not any deeper information. When the Riders' Advisory Council or others have asked for more, they've been told that it's the job of staff, and nobody else, to analyze data and tell the public and press what to believe about the issues.
But to many riders, this isn't satisfying. WMATA officials say they're aggressively fixing problems, but will those fixes actually lead to better performance, and when? So far, the agency has just cut the on-time performance target from 95% to 90%. It's never met its goal for the frequency equipment breaks down ("mean time before failure") since the data have been reported, and does not appear to be improving.
It's no secret that WMATA's reputation as a reliable transit service is tarnished by frequent service delays and offloads. If Metro begins to publish these reports again, customers could decipher the differences in service disruptions that are the fault of customer behavior like blocking doors, sick passengers, or police activity, and those that are due to maintenance issues like brake, track control circuit, or door problems.
Chicago reports number of rail delays of 10 minutes or more, percentage of track that is affected by a slow zone restriction, miles between rail vehicle defects, percentage of the rail fleet unavailable for service, and percentage of customer complaints not closed out within 14 days.
San Francisco reports how closely they're meeting the schedule (similar to WMATA), how the headways match up against the plan (more useful to customers for frequent routes), the amount of service, late pull-outs, overcrowded vehicles, the number of unexcused absences, mean distance between failures for trains, vacancy rates for service- San Francisco and Chicago implemented better performance reporting as part of an effort to regain the public trust after a long decline in service. Metro should do the same in a concerted effort to truly move Metro Forward.
San Francisco and Chicago implemented better performance reporting as part of an effort to regain the public trust after a long decline in service. Metro should do the same in a concerted effort to truly move Metro Forward.
Metro suffered a complete system failure last night around 11:30 pm. The failures were so extensive that all communications, including track circuits, were out of service.
Customers on Twitter were reporting that rail operators had to leave and walk to the next station to get permission to move. WMATA's website was down, no communication came over any of the alert systems.
Former DCRA tweeter Mike Rupert wrote in the Local Gov blog that he thinks the complete lack of communication killed months of goodwill.
This wasn't Metro's only problem yesterday. In the morning, a cracked rail forced single-tracking between Van Ness and Friendship Heights, and then one train single-tracking stopped for 15 minutes due to door problems, forcing long delays for all riders trying to traverse the area.
With Metro's 30-plus year old system and a long backlog of deferred maintenance needs, some problems are going to crop up, but many riders and the Riders' Advisory Council have repeatedly faulted inadequate communication during crises.
Meanwhile, while Metro has launched a detailed campaign to explain its need for maintenance work, it has been tight-lipped about more specifics, such as timelines and costs for various aspects. Riders frustrated by multiple overlapping outages of lines, escalators and more may well tire of just hearing entreaties to be patient for a period of years, with little more to reassure them that the delays are leading to actual change.
Were you stuck in either of yesterday's problems? Looking constructively, what level and type of communication do you think Metro needs to achieve?
Metro released a complete calendar yesterday for all their major trackwork over the next 12 months. It relies much more heavily on closing stations and connecting them with shuttle buses, rather than single-tracking.
WMATA believes the closures and bus bridges will affect most passengers less than single-tracking and will allow them to get vital work done faster. Many of the closures allow installing new "track circuit modules" that prevent the electronic systems from losing indication of trains, as happened in the Fort Totten crash, or "guarded #8" switches which guard against trains derailing as they change tracks.
The first of this work, coming this weekend, is related to the Silver Line. The Orange Line will be closed between East Falls Church and West Falls Church stations to enable crews to work on the connection between the Silver and Orange Lines.
While closing stations and forcing passengers to use a bus may be disruptive for those passing through the work zone, they actually worked quite smoothly last time, Metro used them, on Memorial Day weekend. Many readers reported using them.
Metro also carried more passengers that weekend than the previous year, even with the shuttles. Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel said that over the Memorial Day weekend in 2010, Metro carried around 70,300 riders on the Blue and Orange Lines between Federal Center SW and Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road.
This year, the line was closed so that the interlocking at Eastern Market could be replaced. Passengers had to ride shuttle buses between Federal Center SW and Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road. Despite that, Metro carried 84,600 riders on the bus bridge.
It appears that the line closure and bus bridge did not deter riders from taking Metro. Hopefully, as closed segments and shuttle buses become a regular sight on Metro, they will continue to run as smoothly.
This morning, a bomb threat caused Metro to close its Rockville and Shady Grove stations during the morning rush. Many riders were delayed or stranded while Metro worked to recover.
These unexpected closures are, luckily, few and far in between. But by learning all your options, you can be prepared for them.
Metro was able to establish shuttle bus service relatively quickly, but hastily set up bus bridges are often disorganized, hard to find, and slow. Your best option may be to take a regularly scheduled bus service.
If your station were to be unexpectedly closed, would you know which bus would get you around the closure? If you're a regular transit rider, you might want to have that piece of information handy.
Let's take Rockville, for example. With that section of the Red Line closed, riders had several options to get around the closure.
Perhaps the best alternative would be Ride On route 46, which would take riders as far as Medical Center. Route 46 runs on Rockville Pike, parallel to the Red Line. It runs every 15 minutes, and covers the distance from Rockville to Twinbrook, the next open station on the Red Line, in only 10 minutes.
The "Q" Metrobuses are another alternative. They run every 10-15 minutes during rush hour between Rockville and Wheaton along Veirs Mill Road.
Rockville also has a stop on MARC's Brunswick Line. Since this closure happened during the morning rush, riders had the chance to board the last few inbound trains of the day. These commuter trains take riders to Silver Spring and Union Station.
Riders who knew about these regularly scheduled buses/trains may have been able to get around the closure even before Metro's bus bridge was set up. Knowing your alternatives can save you lots of time and frustration.
If you haven't done so already, take the time today to find alternate transit options to/from your home and work stations. You never know when something could cause a closure. If you know your choices, you don't have to be at the mercy of crowded bus bridges and overburdened station managers.
It would be great if Metro could get some alternate routes out via twitter and email during these closures, though their communications department is likely pretty busy during unforeseen closures. So don't wait. Be proactive and find your Plan B today.
- Latest Metro map drafts add Anacostia parks and other tweaks
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too
- DC Council makes major policy changes overnight
- Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
- Parklets give every block a little park
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools