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
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.