A new plan published Sunday by WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld outlines how he intends to right the agency ship and bring back riders. Wiedefeld hopes to restore Metro’s pride and customer trust, which requires confronting its various flaws and addressing them head-on.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Wiedefeld’s plan focuses on three tenets: safety/security, reliability, and financial housekeeping. These “hard truths” need to be dealt with, he says, and failures in the past have “shaken confidence in the operational safety of the rail system.” He said Metro’s safety culture is “not integrated with operations, nor well-rooted at all levels.”

Service reliability is riders’ top complaint, he notes. Rail on-time performance dropped from 92% to 85% in 2015, largely due to maintenance issues. This has significantly frustrated riders and caused some to seek other ways to travel.

Financially, Wiedefeld identified mismanaged/underspent capital projects, doing less with more employees, and unstable long-term finances as some key issues holding the agency back.

Here’s the plan:

Stating the problems is, perhaps, the easy part. But Wiedefeld also laid out a plan to move forward so that Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess customers can take pride in and trust WMATA. In what he’s calling a Customer Accountability Report (CARe), Wiedefeld outlined how he intends to start turning things around:

  • Begin installing the new public safety radio system and cabling for new underground cell service.
  • Be transparent about the agency’s deliverables to the NTSB and the FTA; show what issues have been fixed, and when.
  • Publish and implement a new rail service reliability plan to cut down on train breakdowns and crowding.
  • Be clear on the status of track and infrastructure projects; show how far along projects are, and what their impact is.
  • Improve the stations: more/better lighting, signage, etc.; trial a “Metro Volunteer Program” to help visitors in the stations.
  • Cut agency overhead; eliminate positions that may not really be needed or are redundant.
  • Get better about planning and executing large infrastructure projects so funds are properly spent and customers know what is happening.

…the list goes on and on. I would encourage you to read both the letter and the Customer Accountability Report to see what all Mr. Wiedefeld is planning for the agency.

Customer Accountability Report (CARe). Image from WMATA.

Will this time be any different?

That this letter was even published marks a shift in tone for WMATA, and is even a nod towards increased transparency. Mr. Wiedefeld’s pivot from learning and analyzing the agency towards implementing and carrying out change is progress. This letter should be the start of customer-focused moves to win back riders.

Of course, the key is now putting the plan into action, which will require buy-in from management, the Board, and front-line employees. Additionally, the big-picture questions around finances will require effort from civic leaders to help determine a viable long-term path.

Transparency plays a significant part in the new plan. Actions in the CARe include publishing when cell signal is turned on in tunnels, publishing and implementing a new track quality improvement program to best work on track while attempting to minimize delays and frustration, and posting the status of major capital projects in a routine manner.

While the action plan primarily addresses the overall issues, the small details are the important ones. An action plan to “strengthen command center operations” needs to be able to resolve the small yet critically important details such as wording and readbacks between the rail operations control center and Metro Transit Police, procedures and protocols used during service and in emergencies, and more.

Dotting the Is and crossing the Ts may take the longest, but is important to get right.

Paul Wiedefeld will not be able to do this alone; he’ll need support and feedback to know that the right things are being done. Front-line employees will need to be ok with the changes; management will need to make sure day-to-day actions have the end-goal of improving the customer experience; and the agency’s executive team needs to be on board and willing to carry out the changes. Dictating how a 13,000-employee agency is run may not work, but leading by example can.

Time will tell if customers see the changes that this report kicks off, and ridership will show whether the changes have been taken to heart.

Read the letter:

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.