Early on the morning of May 17, the New York subway experienced a derailment which snarled service in Brooklyn. Instead of trying to cover up the incident, the MTA tweeted about it, including photos of the re-railing:

#SubNews:Workers assess damage to work train during early morning derailment outside of DeKalb Avenue. http://twitpic.com/4z3juxless than a minute ago via Twitpic Favorite Retweet Reply


Hopefully Dan Stessel, WMATA’s new Chief Spokesperson and Director of Communications, can bring some of these best practices here. Social media engagement isn’t simply about one’s successes; it’s about one’s failures, too.

The more transparent a transit agency is, the more riders will trust it when it communicates online. Derailments happen. There will inevitably be more on the Metrorail system. How WMATA reacts to them and other incidents matters.

Creating a “climate of openness and transparency” means tweeting about the good and the bad, acknowledging when things go wrong, and being open about the recovery process. Many transit agencies already use Twitter very successfully; @PATHTweet and @NYCTSubwayScoop are two excellent examples.

WMATA would do well to model its social media initiatives after those of the Port Authority and MTA, and could start with simple steps. Many frustrated riders already report problems on Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess using the #WMATA hashtag.

Knowing that WMATA is listening, and even getting a response back from @MetroOpensDoors would help to improve communication and the public’s perception of their customer service. In doing so, they’ll join @DDOTDC, @DCCirculator, @bikeshare, @DCRA, @mydcwater and other DC-area agencies in providing useful customer service via Twitter.

DDOT’s recent Potholepalooza was a great example of meaningful engagement, as DC residents reported potholes via Twitter (no complicated forms to fill out!) and potholes were filled within a day or two. For WMATA, the complaints might be of hot Metro cars, dirty buses, or bad driving, but the concept is the same.

The next step is to be there to provide information when riders need it most. For example, @MetroNorthTweet signs off every afternoon, just before the evening rush hour starts:

For service status and other info between now and tomorrow morning please call 212-532-4900 or visit http://www.mta.info/mnrless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply


Tweeting for a transit agency isn’t a 9-to-5 job. Whenever the system is open, riders should be able to seek help on Twitter and get a response. Twitter is all about immediacy, and if you’re trying to find out why your bus is late, or report a problem on your train, getting a response the next morning may not help. WMATA may not be able to provide round-the-clock coverage on Twitter, but signing off before the evening rush hour isn’t a recommended practice, either.

In short, Metro riders have been using Twitter for a while now; it’s time for WMATA to come to the party with something more than just automated tweets.

Riders deserve a meaningful follow-up when they report service problems, and when things go wrong, nothing less than the unvarnished truth will do on Twitter. When weekend riders have to endure disruption and delays for upgrade work, show them the work that is being done, and explain how they benefit.

Today, WMATA has neither a reputation for transparency nor for effective communication with riders, but that’s something they can change, starting with simple, effective steps.

Kurt Raschke is an information technology professional and transit enthusiast interested in how technology can improve the usability of transit systems.  A car-free resident of Silver Spring, he is a frequent user of Metrorail and Metrobus.  He also blogs at Raschke on Transport. All views expressed here are his alone.