Metro has announced a new pilot program that will wrap the exteriors of older train cars in vinyl sheeting to mimic the look of the newer 7000-series trains. Additional changes will include the removal of the interior carpets for non-slip flooring and new blue seat covers to make the older trains look like the new ones.
This pilot is part of Metro's Back2Good program that aims to create a "safe, reliable and customer friendly transit system." Improving the rider experience when using Metro is a worthy goal and I am glad that WMATA is actively looking to make enhancements to help win back customers.
However, some of Back2Good's initiatives make me question Metro's priorities, and these wraps are the latest example.
Vinyl wraps are not a great use of Metro's resources
What problem are the vinyl wraps trying to address? If customers felt the train exteriors look dirty, then perhaps Metro could wash them more frequently. A vinyl wrap isn't a replacement for regular train washing, because without that, these trains will soon look just as dirty as they did before.
Metro has said the wraps are cheaper and more environmentally-friendly compared to repainting a train. But they offered no cost-benefit analysis supporting this, nor specific detail on the durability of the wraps versus painting. It'd be great if Metro could "show its work" on these potential positives.
Metro has also claimed the wraps will help give the system a sleeker, more modern look which riders prefer. While that may be true, is anyone choosing to ride Metro based on the look of its trains? After all, more people were riding Metro in 2008 (when all trains had the old, brown stripe) than in the years since the new trains were introduced in 2015.
I'm all for a modern look for Metro, but its given reasons don't justify wrapping trains.
Metro has implemented some great ideas
To Metro's credit, there are projects they've undertaken that make a welcome difference. Replacing carpet on the trains with non-slip flooring is one example, as is tunnel cell service and upgrading the Passenger Information Display System (PIDS) to better show train waits and 8-car trains. Other improvements, like new station lighting and more platform markings to denote where to board six-car trains, are in the works.
These are the kinds of small changes that make a big difference. Reliable cell service, new lighting, and non-slip floors all help make Metro safer, and the new platform markings and PIDS changes keep riders better informed.
Other projects are missing the mark
But other Back2Good projects have left me scratching my head, like painting Union Station white. Slapping white paint over still-dirty walls doesn't fix the problem of inadequate station cleaning. Until that is addressed, the station walls soon look just as grimy as they did before.
Metro has also been testing background music at Gallery Place and Judiciary Square. Based on the mixed (though admittedly unscientific) reaction on social media and in comments sections, I'm not sure "more music" was high on riders' list of needs for stations.
Even changing the platform edge lights from red bulbs back to white ones could have waited. For years, riders have complained about dark stations, so perhaps Metro could do more to keep the main vault lighting in good shape before worrying about the less essential blinking platform lights.
Back2Good could be greater
The projects I've outlined here — silver train exteriors, blinking platform lights — are not what the "Back2Good" fixes should be. Instead, here are some ideas that could have a bigger impact:
- Do a better job limiting service disruptions from weekend track work, particularly since off-peak and weekend ridership continues to decline. Metro can, and should, schedule train service to keep disruptions as isolated as possible.
- Instead of painting stations, regularly cleaning them will help Metro improve safety and system reliability. The same is true of railcars. Silver wraps and air fresheners are not replacements for consistent, thorough maintenance.
- Rather than testing background music, Metro could test new station signage so that people can quickly and easily make transfers, locate the elevator, or find their way to the exit they need. Confusing and lackluster signage has been a problem for years, and taking steps to fix it could help minimize station bottlenecks and show that Metro is listening to complaints from its riders.
- The same holds true for lighting. Contributor Payton Chung outlined ideas Metro could test to improve lighting levels at its stations. If ideas like these were successfully implemented, they would go beyond mere cosmetic change and improve a whole host of metrics at once (station safety, lighting efficiency, and customer satisfaction to name a few).
- Finally, the agency must do more with its public communication. This could mean staffing WMATA’s social media feeds whenever the system is open (currently it’s only staffed weekdays from 7am-7pm) or providing detailed information about initiatives the agency is undertaking (for example, a cost-benefit summary on those train wraps). Critically, it must improve outreach during service disruptions. Waiting until the end of rush hour to release a statement about delays, even though Metro staff knew there was a problem much earlier, is an insult to riders.
I'm all for WMATA testing and experimenting with new ideas, but let's make sure they fix underlying problems instead of just improving appearances. The best projects will help create a system that is safer, more reliable, and that keep riders better informed. Let's expedite changes that do those things first.