Photo by HerrVebah on Flickr.

WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles met with bloggers for a roundtable discussion yesterday.  The unfortunately brief conversation covered bag searches, escalators, funding and several other topics of interest to riders.

On safety

Sarles reiterated what he’s been saying since coming on as interim General Manager: that safety is Metro’s top priority.  Metro has made several changes that Sarles believes will help grow the safety culture at the agency.  They have increased the staff serving under Chief Safety Officer Jim Dougherty and increased safety staff’s interaction with field operations.

Safety staff are now “embedded out in the field,” Sarles says at bus and rail shops.  These staff are now interacting regularly with superintendents, mechanics and other employees, and are participating on the local safety committee.  This is encouraging, though it highlights how awry Metro’s safety procedures had gone, if its safety officers were not previously working at the local facilities on a regular basis.

In accordance with an NTSB recommendation, WMATA has also put in a safety measurement system to collect data which can analyzed to uncover trends and anomalies. These data can be better used to identify hazards over time.

Sarles also emphasized that WMATA’s new focus on State of Good Repair investment will help promote the safety culture with employees at all levels. “The employees see [our state of good repair investments] and that helps them realize that we, as an organization, are making heavy investments in safety. That encourages people to think more about it.”

"We had to really rebuild the capital program management capability of this organization, because it had been lost. Because of the feeling that construction was done, so we just have little to do. Well, we have a lot to do, $5 billion in 6 years.”

On escalators and elevators

Sarles brought up the work WMATA is undertaking to implement the recommendations of a consultant for improving escalator and elevator reliability. 

We’ve criticized that report, however, for not presenting any causal analysis of actual downtime, but rather a list of a couple dozen standards that WMATA falls short of.

When asked whether he knows the actual causes of escalator and elevator downtime, Sarles agreed that the report did not provide such causes.  Such analysis is being done by the new head of the Elevator and Escalator Department (ELES) using data that is now being entered into the maintenance management system.

With this analysis, they hope to know the causes of downtime “in the next couple months”.  He pointed out that ELES had been elevated in the organizational structure to help problems be addressed more seriously.

Sarles added that the major overhaul work at Foggy Bottom, where the 3 street to mezzanine escalators are being completely replaced and a staircase added, is indicative of the steps Metro is willing to take to get the vertical movement problem under control.

"I’m an engineer by background,” Sarles said. “I started out in construction, so my thing is delivering results, not talking about them forever.”

On bag searches

Having told WTOP on Monday that the bag searches are more about deterrence than detection, we asked Sarles to explain how exactly these searches could deter a terrorist attack.  Instead, he turned to the example of New York, essentially saying that because the NYPD and Port Authority Police have this policy, WMATA should as well.

"You don’t want the bad guys to think everything is predictable,” he said, reminded the group of bloggers several times that this is not his rationale, but that of counter­terrorism experts.  These experts have advised the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and NYPD policies, where, he says, random searches have been successful, though without offering any clarification of what ‘successful’ means.

When pressed on how much unpredictability is introduced by forcing a bad guy to go to a station several blocks away, Sarles again relied the authority of counter­terrorism experts.  These unnamed experts say that terrorists like to plan, and the unpredictability of random searches may force them to go back to the drawing board.  Asked what’s to keep a terrorist for planning for the event that their first target station has bag checks, he immediately changed the subject.

We asked Sarles whether WMATA had explored any ways to use the TSA grants to implement counter­terrorism measures that also increase the presence of officers within the station, on the platforms.  He answered quickly, “Well, these searches are just outside the fare control line,” before changing the subject.

On a positive note, Sarles emphasized that he would not allow random searches to be something that caused any riders to stand in line to enter a station. “I don’t want customers to be inconvenienced.”

On funding

Sarles voiced far more concern over the future of federal funding, given the new Republican-controlled House, than the future of funding from Virginia or Maryland.  He said he would be actively lobbying Congress, as well as working to mobilize other supporters much like was done at the end of 2010 to support extending the $230 transit benefit.

When asked what a drop in federal funding would mean, Sarles was blunt about the impact it would have on bringing WMATA up to a state of good repair.  “We will not catch up.  It’s devastating.”

On farecard improvements

WMATA has revealed plans to migrate from SmarTrip cards to an open payment fare technology.  Sarles said the agency is just in the beginning phases of exploring these technologies, and will not be rolling out a full scale change until it is sure of the reliability and can mitigate the inconveniences to riders.

When asked about the summer revelation that the agency seemed to be running out of SmarTrip cards, he recognized there were clearly some communication issues that needed to be addressed as the agency moves forward with new fare payment programs.

On improving communication

We asked Sarles how he can help break the barriers between the various divisions of WMATA to improve communication within the agency, and between the operating divisions and the public.  He said that he is working to instill the idea of “one message” with his leadership team. 

When asked if this unifying approach could result in precluding more communication between the agency’s divisions and the public, he said that WMATA is trying to open up communication through data reports and other regular releases.

On customer service

Sarles has been talking with riders at downtown stations over the last couple weeks, asking them what their biggest complaints are. 

While the most common complaints he’s heard deal with the disrespectful way in which many riders treat the trains and buses, leaving newspapers and trash behind, he acknowledged that the agency needs to make improvements in customer service.

WMATA is having an independent group assess the agency’s customer call center, and how quickly and effectively it responds to customer issues.  Sarles also plans to reintroduce a “secret shopper” program to get feedback from riders.

On increasing capacity

Major capital investments will be consumed by safety and state of good repair projects. In the near and medium term, Sarles acknowledged that the agency has no plans for major increases in capacity.  Instead, WMATA will be concentrating on ways to improve the bus system, working with the jurisdictions to implement priority measures such as traffic signal priority and bus lanes.

On the 7000 series

The new rail cars, expected by 2014, will be 4-car sets, instead of married pairs, eliminating two cabs on each four car set and making more room for riders.  The cars will have cameras throughout as well as automated station announcements and electronic information boards very similar to the New York Subway’s new FIND systems

While the “transverse” seating arrangements of the current cars, with forward and back facing seats, will remain, the cars we be built to allow reconfiguring the seating to “longitudinal,” where seats face the center, if crowding becomes a problem and the agency decides to make the change.

Sarles said he would be happy to host blogger roundtables in the future, and we also discussed briefly the possibility of having chats with other members of the leadership team who can speak to more specific questions. 

Although our time was short, and there were some dodgy answers regarding bag searches, the conversation with Sarles was informative and encouraging.  We hope this engagement with the community continues.

Sarles is also appearing on TBD NewsTalk starting at 10 today.

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Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009.  Hailing from the home of the nation’s first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find.  Views expressed here are Erik’s alone.