Dr. Gridlock

Feb 03, 2014

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Welcome, travelers. My guest today is Metro General Manager Richard Sarles. Readers have submitted many questions already. Some focus on Metro's proposed fare increases, some on service issues, some on the Silver Line and plans to make the transit system better.

Keep them coming during the chat.


Does he [Richard Sarles] ever ride the trains or the buses? If so, how often on the Red Line in rush hour? What about during weekend construction?


Good afternoon everyone.  I look forward to taking your questions this hour.  Before we get started, I’d like to remind you that the 3rd public hearing regarding our proposed FY15 budget & fare proposal is tonight, and there’s a hearing every night this week through Thursday.  Public input is an important part of this process, and I encourage everyone to make your voice heard at a hearing, online, or through written comments.  You can learn more here: http://bit.ly/19MxvZs



Yes, I ride the system six days a week, mostly on the trains, but occasionally buses as well.  I ride the Red Line during rush hours at least once a week, and also practically every weekend.


After the Rush Plus cutbacks, the Blue Line is often dangerously crowded during the morning and afternoon rush, which will only get worse when the Silver Line opens. For many of us, the Yellow Line isn't a reasonable alternative (such as for the many Pentagon to Rosslyn/Foggy Bottom/Farragut West commuters, like myself). Will there actually be 8-car Blue Line trains (not perfect, but better than nothing)? How can you justify charging us for peak service when there is actually no difference in train frequency between rush hour and not?

First, it is important to note that we are executing on a plan that was developed when the Silver Line was approved for design/construction more than a decade ago.  That plan called for base train frequencies of 7 minutes during rush hours on Orange, Yellow, Green and Silver (instead of 6 minutes today), and Blue Line trains every 14 minutes.  We have worked hard to improve upon this original plan by now running the Silver Line out to Largo Town Center.  By doing this, we are able to keep OR/YL/GR/SV trains at every 6 minutes, and Blue will be a consistent every 12 minutes.  We will make every effort to provide additional 8-car trains on Blue to accommodate riders, and we will continue to encourage those who can consider Yellow to do so.  

We will need to advance power improvements (currently called for under Metro's 2025 plan) in order to provide all 8-car trains on the Blue line.

So it's now many years after the 2009 Metro train collision. However, the trains are still operating under manual control. When will the system be repaired to a point where the trains are able to operate on automatic mode?

We have been following a very rigorous plan based on the safety analyses that have resulted in improvements to the signal system and infrastructure.  We are close to completing the system safety analysis, which we will review publicly with the Metro Board this year and set a timetable for going back to automatic train operation, pending NTSB concurrence. 

are trains supposed to make line, destination, and next stop announcements inside each car or is using just the outside speakers acceptable?

My understanding is that trains' PA system does not make a distinction between interior and exterior speaker operation.  An annoucement made by the operator will play both inside and outside the train.

Does Metro plan to charge for parking at the Wiehle Ave Metro station?

Actually, the parking facility at Wiehle-Reston East Station is owned by Fairfax County and will be operated by LAZ Parking.  You can get additional details on pricing on the LAZ parking website.

The Metro supports everybody in the DC area, whether you ride it or not. How are you doing with the suggestion of a dedicated sales tax to support the renewal and expansion of the Metro Rail System?

The jurisdictions and the Federal Government provide the funds to provide capital improvements.  Certainly, a dedicated sales tax is one option to be considered by them.  

How are the tests of the new 7000 Series cars coming along?

The testing is going well so far.  It's only been about a month, but so far so good. 

Why aren't all of the OR and BL trains in rush hour 8 car? Often in Rosslyn you have to wait for 2-3 trains to go by before you can get on in the morning. It's going to get worse when the Silver Line starts and OL service is cut.

We would like to operate all 8-car trains during rush hour, and that's the goal we've set for ourselves under the Metro 2025 plan.  It requires more than just additional train cars, but also upgrades to the power system and additional storage space and maintenance facilities.  Funding is key to advance this project.  More info is available at wmata.com/momentum 

Why is it so hard to fix small things at Metro. The brand new station manager display at Dunn Loring broke within days of being installed (January 2013). I reported it, I tweeted it, I did everything I could to try and get it fixed but all I could get was a response that it was defective. It was finally fixed in January 2014! Totally unacceptable. It's these small details that drive riders crazy. When there are small problems that are fairly easily fixed they really need to be fixed in a timely manner. 12 months is not timely. Thanks

I wasn't aware of this issue or the length of time for repair.  I'll be following up on it with staff.

How do you justify increasing fares yet again when service is still regularly so poor? All many of us want is a reliable commute, yet Metro (at least on the rail side) continually fails to do this. And before Dr G says vote with your feet, many of us have no other options other than public transportation.

We have been making progress on service reliability and on-time performance, which is reflected in our metrics.  That said, I know that there is more to do.  I also know that metrics don't always reflect the experience of individual riders when there are service issues. Our goal is to reduce the frequency of delays.  We've been doing that, and we recognize that there is more to be done.  

Other cities have unlimited monthly fares aimed at commuters. There really isn't anything like that here (ride on any conveyance any time during the month for one price). In exchange for the monthly commitment, there is some discount over the regular price. Because this doesn't exist, and the fact many existing passes don't work with SmartBenefits, it leaves most commuters on a pay-per-ride basis.

Over the past few months we have been piloting a program that allows use of SmartBenefits to purchase passes.  (Metrorail does offer an "unlimited" 28-day pass for $230 -- which is based on max fare x 40 trips.)  The pilot has been successful and we will soon begin notifying employers that they now have the option of letting their employees use SmartBenefits for bus and rail passes. 

Mr. Sarles, thanks for taking questions from the public. Metro has an ongoing PR campaign to highlight the improvements it says are being made to the system's infrastructure (at this point we riders have to take Metro's word about improvements, given the daily train and track breakdowns). But there is no conversation about what Metro is doing to improve customer service. You just gave all Metro employees a big raise. But where is the accountability? I will give you two concrete examples. 1. Metro station managers sit most of the time in their hermetically sealed booths and communicate with the public grudgingly through a hard-to-hear squawk box. And 2. when one calls Metro's customer service phone number for information, many of the people on the other end are surly. Do you know that Metro's employees are its face to the public? Is this the type of image of your organization you want to send to the public? If not, why aren't you doing something about it?

Metro's front-line employees are our face to the public. We have taken steps to improve our customer service, and there are additional steps on the way.  Specifically with regard to your comment about station managers in their kiosks, we now require station managers to be outside the kiosk during rush hours to assist customers. We have provided additional/refresher training to our bus operators and station managers on what good customer service looks like.  

Customer service will get more attention because I recognize how important it is to our riders.

As a Farragut North to Shady Grove rider, the rush-hour trans that turn around at Grovesnor are a major pain. I really wish this practice would end.

Metro 2025 calls for all 8-car trains during rush hours, with all Red Line trains running the full length of the line, from Shady Grove to Glenmont.  No more turnbacks at Grosvenor or Silver Spring.  This requires funding for additional railcars, power upgrades and yard storage/maintenace.  

My bus FREQUENTLY never shows up. I file a complaint every time, but nothing changes. How can Metro so consistently not send a scheduled bus, and seemingly not care? 25% of the time it never shows up.

I am sorry to hear this.  Can you provide additional information about your route, time of travel, and where you board so that I can have staff look into it?

Our future plans (Metro 2025) calls for acquiring additional buses so that these gaps in service happen less frequently.  We are also very interested in advancing our "bus priority corridor" network, which includes traffic signal priority for buses, more express service, and dedicated bus lanes to improve your ride.  

I like the changes to the 29K/N in northern VA but the information provided to riders is poor to awful. The westbound 29N still says "Fairfax Circle" on the headsign even though it doesn't go there anymore; timetables at bus stops are not updated; Old Town bus stops still have "29K 29N" on them even though no such bus goes there anymore. Is anyone in charge of making sure changes are properly communicated to the public? It certainly hasn't been done in this case.

I am glad to hear the change in service is working well for you.  I will have our bus staff look into the issues you raised about the headsigns and timetables.  Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Why are the escalators so utterly unreliable? Why do they take so long to fix?

Metro has a fleet of 588 escalators, more than any transit system in North America.  Many of them are exposed to the elements and operate close to 24 hours a day under harsh conditions.  For years, the maintenance that should have been done on these units was, frankly, not done when it was supposed to be.  We have changed that, and we are seeing improvement in availability.  Current escalator availability is about 92-93% -- the highest it's been in 5 years.   In addition, there are some escalators that are simply in need of replacement because they are worn out and/or their manufacturer no longer exists.  We are in the process of fully replacing 120 escalators over the next several years.  As I type, new escalators are going in at Van Ness and Columbia Heights.  

Why does weekend Yellow Line service frequently only run to Mt Vernon? With weekend headways it can't be THAT hard to set the schedule to allow for turning the trains around at Ft Totten.

We turn Yellow Line trains at Mt Vernon Sq on weekends only when there is work on either the Yellow or Green line that necessitates it.  For example, if the Green Line is single tracking between Fort Totten and Prince George's Plaza, Yellow Line service has to turn back at Mt Vernon.  This weekend, Yellow Line will operate to Fort Totten.  

Metro 2025 sounds really great! But what are you doing RIGHT NOW to make WMATA the transit system this area deserves?

120+ new escalators, more than 500 new railcars that start arriving this year, station/lighting improvements underway now, 150 new buses each year, new MetroAccess vehicles, parking garage lighting upgrades, new fare collection system (contract awarded last month)... and most important, continuing to advance our rebuilding program to make the system safer and more reliable.

In this time of budget constraints, I presume Metro has not been immune to those constraints. While much of what Metro does involves labor, it's labor costs are still relatively high and are the driver of its personnel costs. Is there any effort underway at Metro to rein in those costs, including reexamining some employee fringe benefits? Or engage in competitive contracting to lower costs of other parts of Metro's operations?

For the first time in decades, Metro's recent collective bargaining agreement includes pension contributions from our employees. This will have lasting positive impact on our financial outlook.  I would also say that we have recently contracted out competitively our MetroAccess service, following a new business model.  In addition, a portion of our escalator/elevator maintenance has been contracted out.

With your perspective as the general manager, what area do you think Metro performs the worst at right now?

We have been focused on improving the safety and reliability of the system, and that will continue to be our top priority.  In addition, as I said earlier, we are giving increasing attention to customer service and planning for the future expansion of capacity of the bus and rail systems to meet increasing demands.  

Mr. Sarles, I'm glad to hear that increasing the frequency of buses is a priority for Metro. I hope the S1/S2/S4 is one of the priority corridors. Metro added a few more S2s during the morning rush last year which did alleviate some crowding, but buses are still frequently so full that they routinely skip stops. In particular, while attention has been paid to the S2, I hope Metro will consider adding at least one or two S1s to the morning and evening rush - it's not uncommon to see a half empty S2 in the morning, followed by an S1 that is so full, it doesn't stop. This has been especially difficult to bear when the weather was below 0. Thank you.

Sixteenth Street service continues to be a focus for our bus planning and operations staff.  We recently placed additional street supervisors along the corridor to better manage the flow of buses and do what we can to prevent "bus bunching."  This being said, we are constrained by the number of buses that we have.  Under Metro 2025, we anticipate acquiring more buses to alleviate crowding, providing the funding is available.  

Often inside metro cars the electronic signs above the doors display only the line, when they should display the upcoming station and which side the doors will open. Why is this not consistently displayed on all lines in all cars? As a rider has already boarded, he or she know which line they are on.

I know what you mean.  This is the result of having older cars somewhere on the train.  The data that drives the signs runs through the cars in a series.  If you have old cars, the data does not transfer.  This will get better with the retirement of all 1000-series and 4000-series cars as our new 7000-series cars arrive.  The first 7000-series train is expected to enter service later this year.

The new 7000-series cars, by the way, feature dynamic LED and LCD screens that will show you the stations ahead, along with automated announcements to improve the delivery of information.

I transfer at L'Enfant plaza daily. Often 2-3 yellow line trains whiz by, followed by 1 extremely packed green line train. Why the imbalance in train frequency and length when ridership is so heavy on the green line? Is there a fix in sight?

There has been an increase in the number of Yellow Line trains.  These are former Blue Line trains that have to be rerouted over the bridge in anticipation of the arrival of Silver Line.  During rush hours, the southbound frequency should be: Green to Branch Ave every 6 min, Yellow to Huntington every 6 minutes, and Yellow to Franconia-Springfield every 20 minutes (will be every 12 minutes once Silver Line opens).

Mr. Sarles, one question riders often ask about the rebuilding program is whether this could have been done differently.

Did you consider other strategies that might have reached the "state of good repair" more quickly, such as shutting down an entire line or a segment of a line till all work was done?

Shutting down a line for an extended period of time has serious consequences for our customers and economic impacts on area businesses.  I believe that such a shutdown should only be considered under extreme circumstances where there is no other way of accomplishing the work in a reasonable time.  Each city is different; some have express tracks or other transit options nearby. By choosing to use shutdowns on weekends, many riders have other options available because the region's transportation system is not congested during those periods. I recognize that there are those who are transit dependent and rely on Metro.  That's why we always provide alternate transit service.

Riders know the rebuilding program has been underway for several years. Many also are aware that Metro's quarterly "Vital Signs" reports show broad improvements in service and reliability.

But they don't see the quarterly statistics matching up with their daily experiences. This morning, for example, thousands of Red Line riders found the platforms and trains jammed and travel delayed when several trains malfunctioned.

Should they consider that normal for a rebuilt system or expect things to get better?

When the system is rebuilt and the cars have been replaced, things will be better.  

I wonder why announcements of the next station are not automated on Metro trains (as they are on Metro buses). It would promote consistency and allow operators to focus on more important things, such as safety.

I agree, and that's why the new 7000-series railcars will feature automated announcements, along with other communication improvements.  We have 528 cars on order, with plans to order 220 more next fiscal year (funding permitting).  If that happens, more than half of our fleet will be 7000-series cars by the end of this decade.

It's been a pleasure being with you this hour.  Thanks for riding Metro!

Thanks to Mr. Sarles and thanks to travelers for submitting their questions. We got to two dozen in the hour, but I know many more of you submitted. Some duplicated questions that the GM addressed, but on others, I'll look for followup opportunities.

In This Chat
Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
Richard Sarles
Richard Sarles was appointed Metro's general manager and chief executive in January 2011, after serving eight months as interim general manager following the resignation of John Catoe.

Sarles has more than 40 years of experience in the transit industry. In addition to his service at Metro, he was an executive with New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
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