DC Metro: General Manager discusses safety, escalators and more.

Jul 14, 2011

Metro's General Manager Richard Sarles chatted in an hour long discussion about safety, the new schedule for weekend track work, new metro lines and escalators.

Good morning everyone.  It's a pleasure to be here to answer your questions.  I'm Richard Sarles, General Manager & CEO of WMATA.  

As many of you know, we're embarking on a massive mulit-year $5 billion rebuilding of the Metro system.  You can get details on that at metroforward.com.

With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

A rider has pointed out to postmetrogirl that there's weekend work that will impact National Airport under your new approach of closing clusters of stations on the weekend before Thanksgiving. Why do it then?

The heaviest travel for Thanksgiving starts around Tuesday and extends to the Sunday after the holiday.  We looked at the ridership numbers for last year and it shows 8,652 entry/exits for the Sunday before (ranked 287 out of 365 days) and 7,538 for the Saturday before (ranked 321 out of 365 days).  

There's never a good time to do the required maintenance and construction with regard to impact to our passengers, but this is not a particularly bad time to do it.  

There are no "shutdowns" scheduled from Thanksgiving through mid-January due to the holiday season.  

With regard to our entire schedule of major trackwork, we'll be looking at the details, and depending on our progress, we may be able to make adjustments based on feedback.

Can escalator repair barriers take up less space? I use the Red line in the direction of Silver Spring, and the barrier is so close to the raised edge that moving to the walk up escalator while people are waiting for a train is very, very tight. It becomes hard to " utilize all available doors on the train" if it's impossible to stand two deep and allow more than one person to walk by without someone being on the raised platform close to the "granite edge"

We only take up the minimum required space to undertake escalator repairs.

Mr. Sarles: you seem to be a person of high integrity and good intentions. I admire you a great deal for taking on the task of improving Metro. Kudos to your team for tackling the big infrastructure improvements (track repair, escalators, etc.), but the biggest issue is the culture at Metro, specifically the behavior of your front-line employees. Mr. Sarles, do you *regularly* ride Metrorail and interact with the employees? I have been doing so for 20 years, and please believe me that the attitude and demeanor of customer-facing staff has become surlier over time. Today, it's unusual to meet a helpful or nice staffer. The majority of them are unhelpful and rude. My personal belief is that this behavior is tacitly condoned by the employees' union; others may disagree. What specific steps are you taking to fix the problem of rude staff that don't pay attention to customer service? Thanks for taking questions today.

I'd like to start out by saying I ride Metro six days a week. 

Our customer service performance is uneven.  I receive commendations and have observed front-line personnel going above and beyond to be helpful to customers.  Our challenge is to have all of our employees reach that same level of quality service.  We will be enhancing training, but I also need the feedback of customers about specific incidents when they are not treated well so we can address that with the particular employee.

Why doesn't Metro specifically put signs in the system advising tourists and others that it is customary stand on the right and walk on the left? As a daily commuter, I constantly experience problems with the escalators. In 1982, I observed people moving into and out of the Pentagon Metro station more smoothly when the practice was followed. When people are not aware of the practice, the (already currently difficult) movement becomes backed up -- like what happens if someone goes below the speed limit on the Beltway -- especially on the left.

If I'm in a hurry, I politely ask people to move to the right and they generally do so.  We also make announcements suggesting people stand to the right.  

Good morning, Mr. Sarles: How would you suggest that passengers handle unruly youths? Press the Help button or confront them directly? Thank you.

Press the help button or call Metro Transit Police at (202) 962-2121.  You can also notify a station manager or other Metro employee.  But don't confront directly.

This makes an untenable situation worse. It's time to go back to Congress and admit that the system is a failure as designed. We need multiple (4) sets of tracks in order to ensure safe service. And yes I know about MTA's weekend issues of late. But we don't have the population of NYC and won't for 100 years. It's time to build the system up, not out, NOW. The system also needs to be put entirely underground. But let's get to an issue you can do something about. Eating, drinking and loud music on Metro. We need a severe enforcement crackdown and we need it 6 months ago. I see people eating and drinking EVERYDAY and WMATA employees refuse, repeatedly to do something about when asked and confronted. DO SOMETHING.

Let's start with the configuration of the system:  Obviously, WMATA has proved more successful than the original designers envisioned.  I agree that we have to look at expansion of the core in our long-range planning, which would be necessary not only for growth of the existing system but also potential expansion of the system.

With regard to food and drink,  we try to educate people as you'll note throughout the system with our "This is not a diner" signage and our announcements.  Also, our police do remind people not to eat or drink when they observe it.

When was the last time a ticket was issued for eating or drinking on Metro? Do you think that enforcement of these basics would improve rider behavior in general (broken windows theory)? Will you make enforcement of these etiquette issues an initiative before or after people start bathing themselves on the train?

Let me say this:  Last year, MTPD issued 6,628 citations for eating/drinking/smoking on the Metro system. 

Mr. Sarles, While performing the accelerated track repairs on the system, has your staff looked into the possibility of performing complete station overhauls while they are closed? Example: Consolidate all ELES (Elevator/Escalator) Service Staff into the closed stations working in shifts 24/7 to rehab the equipment, repair platforms, and high pressure clean stations. Pre order all supplies to be on-site at the time of closing.

When we shutdown a station, we do as much cleaning and maintenance of equipment (including elevators and escalators) as possible.

Mr. Sarles, Can you begin a policy of having train operators announce the detailed reason for delays and off-loads?  Something more than "we will be moving momentarily" & "this train is out of service". Something more along - "Due to a bent rail outside of Silver Spring we will be holding our locations until trains have cleared the opposite track" & "Due to a door/brake problem, and for your safety this train is being removed from service-a Blue line will be arriving on the opposite platform in about 5 mins."

In my own personal experience, I have heard our best operators give announcements similar to what you suggest.  However, there are many who do not rise to that level.  We are enhancing our training with regard to on-board announcements so that it's uniformly good. 

While you seem to be doing better than last year, the issue of hot cars and hot stations continues to be an issue for Metro. What's being done about it? There's nothing worse than stepping aboard a car only to find that the ac doesn't work.

If you step aboard a car where the AC doesn't work, please notify the operator using the intercom and move to the adjacent car at the next station.  We try to shut those cars off as soon as possible.  We have stepped up our maintenance of the system earlier this year so that there are fewer "hot cars."  We need to do better.

At the stations, like much of Metro, the air handling equipment wasn't maintained as it should be -- and we're replacing or rehabilitating that.

What efforts are you making to enforce "crowding" rules and to educate unfamiliar tourists and interns? As an long-time metro rider in many cities, I have found that the key to reduce rush hour crowding and increase safety is: (1) Do not crowd by the doors, and (2) Stand on the right side of escalators. Have you considered the greater use of fold-up seats?

In particularly crowded stations (e.g. Metro Center) we have staff on the platforms to encourage customers to spread out.  With regard to cars, people gravitate to where there are places for them to hold on.  In the earlier cars, those hand-holds were placed near the door openings and that had the effect of causing people to stand there.  

The 6000-series cars were a step in the right direction.  Our new 7000-series cars will further improve on this.

Why is it taking you over twelve minutes to answer a question, from 10:04 a.m. to now, 10:16 a.m.? Do you sort through them and find the easiest ones to answer, or to you have a P.R. person feeding you the answers, so you and Metro will look good?

From the producer: Richard Sarles has answered 11 questions in the past 18 minutes.  Please try refreshing your page.  If the problem persists, then feel free to contact me directly about it at haley.crum@washingtonpost.com.  Thank you!

The 7th Street exit, Glenmont direction, has been a nightmare for months. One stopped escalator to handle all the pedestrian traffic up and down to the Red Line in the direction of Glenmont. Yes, I know there are problems throughout the system, but this bottleneck is particularly bad. In these busy downtown stations, is it possible to reassess resources and get a working escalator back in service faster than the outlying suburban stations?

We have an escalator rehab program going on at Gallery Place.  The nature of the work takes a couple of months for each escalator, and we're rotating through them.  I use Gallery Place 5 days a week and appreciate what we all have to endure in order to get this system back in shape as a result of years of not maintaining escalators the way they should have been. 

When will the Union Station escalator be completed?

Approximately two months.  You can get detailed information about any escalator online here:

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As a daily rider on the 90's line I sometimes feel like I am the only one paying for my trip consistently, people get on with empty Smartrip cards, young people just flat out refuse to pay and won't get off the bus. Bus drivers basically have no choice but to sit there until someone pays somebody elses fare or just let them ride for free. With your budget woes this seems like a significant missed opportunity for revenue, what can be done about this?

We do require customers to pay.  If we see a high fare evasion rate, our police are deployed in uniform and plain clothes to address the issue.

On the Orange line headed toward Vienna, about once a week I find that the trains get behind schedule and the decision is made to express past a station. The station that is always picked to express is Dunn Loring Merrified. This is very inconvenient for passengers who have a bus to catch or need to get off at that station. Why can't the pain be spread to riders that use other stations instead of always inconviencing Dunn Loring riders? If it only happened once in awhile it might be ok but it seems to be about once a week.

I'll look into that.

Following up to the previous question, can you explain what is being done at Pentagon City and when you expect the issue of stifling heat there to be fixed? It was bad all last summer as well as this summer.

I travel through Pentagon City six days a week (it's my home station) and I find that the temperatures, while warm, are not nearly as hot as outside.  The duct work under the platform is being replaced. It has impacted the ability to properly cool the station for several years.  The "piston effect" of trains brings in cooler tunnel air, and we are running the adjacent tunnel fans to help circulate the air.  We expect the duct work to be completed in 2-3 weeks.


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You've mentioned a few times that you need to identify staff members who do not communicate adequately with passengers, but what exactly happens then? Do you know how many disciplinary actions has WMATA taken against employees not following communication protocols?

When we receive specific information about a particular employee who's not communicating up to our standards, we investigate and, if necessary, follow up with training and other action -- up to and including dismissal.  We are in the process of retraining all station managers to enhance their customer service delivery.  

First, my compliments on the MetroOpensDoors Twitter feed - It is now timely and informative. Recently I have seen posts that we should use the on-train intercom system to notify the train operator if we find ourselves on a hot car. Is this correct? It seems that it would be dangerous to distract the train operator. If notifying the train operator is the correct procedure, how is this fact being made public? I suspect only a small minority of riders read the Twitter Feed or Dr. Gridlock. Would you consider putting up small signs around a Metro car to inform people what things we should be reporting and how to report them to the train operator. Better yet, could you perhaps make more public the Twitter address, or some easy method that people might report these things as they happen without distracting the train operator?

Customers should not use the intercoms for minor issues, but a hot car is a potential health issue and we want to know about it as quickly as possible.  This summer we have car maintenance techs strategically deployed throughout the system to quicly address hot cars.  When a customer notifies the train operator, he or she can radio ahead to have techs meet the train en route.  Customers can also tell a station manager as they leave the system.  Please remember to note the four-digit car number. 

With the recent problems in the system with robberies and car thefts will metro ever increase its police staff that has been at its same level of deployment for almost 25 years?

The size of the police force has increased commensurate with ridership.  As a result of crime trends over the last year, MTPD has redeployed resources using the MetroSTAT system and we have seen an overall reduction in crime -- including a 1/3 reduction in serious offences as compared to the same period last year.


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Mr. Sarles: Will the new, or modified, trains (cars) have the capability to know when they are not being detected by the Automatic Train Control system?


I'm one of the lucky 5000 to participate in the Smartrip online enhancement. It's great for adding value via credit card. It's TERRIBLE for the bus passes. If I don't know right away, as opposed to three days later, when my pass takes effect I can't use it well. Please fix the bus-info delay.

SmarTrip is old technology and data is stored on the card, not on a central server.  It can take up to 24 hours for changes to be reflected on Metrorail. With regard to buses, the system for uploading data is not as fast as for rail.   So, I'd allow a couple of days.  This is part of the reason why we are moving toward a new "open payment" system.  


Please create a TEST to show that station managers know how to utilize tools like the online trip planner. I know numerous station managers and supervisors that refuse to use the internet and will hand me a paper schedule. This is not timely and it is clear that they are embarrassed because they simply don't know how to use a computer.

Station managers are trained on computer use as part of their initial training to be station managers.  They are re-trained bi-annually on all the duties and requirements of that position.  

I encourage you to report occurrences where you encounter station managers who don't meet these standards.  You can use our online form here:

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Also, customers are encouraged to plan their trip online and check service status before starting their trip.

I am mobility disabled, and I have to use a battery-operated scooter/wheelchair. Almost all Metro Stations only have one elevator. When that elevator is out of service, I cannot use that Metro Station. I have found that Metro's shuttle service, between Metro Stations, for people with disabilities, such as mine, are very unreliable, and the people who answer it are unhelpful, uninformed, or rude. I have also found that Metro's elevator outage alert system, ELLEN, by Metro's own admission to me, is unreliable. All of this makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for a person with mobility disabilities to use Metro, to get to a destination, on time, with any predictability. What is Metro doing, if anything, to correct these problems? Thank you.

The older stations on Metro were designed to have only one elevator.  Later, stations were designed with two elevators to address some of the issues you're raising.  I apologize for the customer service that you've received at times.  It should be better than that.  If you would give us specific times and places where you do not receive expected service, then we can address those situations.

The other day during the cracked rail meltdown, our train operator was informative, clear, and encouraging. Hooray!

Thanks for sharing that.

Every week I buy a bus pass and a rail pass. Why, oh why can't they be combined and put onto my SmarTrip card? Yes,the bus pass is on the card now. But PLEASE put the rail pass there too. Mine gets demagnetized nearly every week which is a pain in the tutu.

I'll have to get back to you on this question.

Why during a escalator rehab, I rarely see tech working on the unit?  I know parts can't take that long to get, and if so why not wait until all parts are onsite BEFORE taken the unit off-line. I'm sure passengers would rather have two units to walk on versus sharing a unit when no work is being done...Best Practice idea - perform escalator inspections, order parts, upon parts arrival remove unit from service and perform 3 shifts of repairs (24-7)?

When the staff or contractor is doing an escalator overhaul, sometimes only by taking apart the unit do they discover all the parts in need of replacement.  Since the escalators are old and a manufacturer may no longer exist, it sometimes takes longer than we would like to get all the parts needed for a repair.  

I'm a frequent rider of the Red and Green lines and have found that during rush hour, trains are extremely crowded, to the point that it becomes a safety issue. While Metro has taken a good first step of operating more 8 car trains, can we expect the addition of more 8 car trains or service increases anytime in the near future?

Our ability to increase the number of 8-car trains is limited due to the number of cars available to us, and the traction power system today cannot support all 8-car service.  

Mr. Sarles, a lot of the maintenance Metro has to do is to clear a sizeable backlog and/or respond to newly discovered equipment problems such as interlocking replacements recommended by the NTSB. When do you project that this backlog or newly discovered maintenance need will be cleared and we will be back to a more "normal" amount of maintenance needed? Can you guys post something on Metroforward to keep the public informed of your progress?

First, I'd say we've launchced a program to keep customers better informed of our progress (metroforward.com).  It took years of not properly investing in this system to bring it to the state that it currently is, and it will take years to recover from it.  Our six-year capital program is devoted ONLY to safety and state-of-good-repair investments.

Buses routinely run red lights in my neighborhood (Capitol Hill, close to Eastern Market station). I must see it at least once a week, particularly at the intersection of 8th and Pennsylvania Ave. SE. What penalties does a driver incur from Metro for violating the law in the manner? When, in your opinion, will the so-called "culture of safety" trickle down to the operators of these multi-ton vehicles? Do we need to wait until more pedestrians are killed?

Please provide the bus number, date and time any time you witness unsafe driving so that we can take approriate action with the operator.

This week due to the heat a rail on the red line developed a kink, which I totally understands happens and better to single track than have a derailment, however the way Central Control handled train movement did more harm than good. Why not just have had trains heading to Silver Spring turn back on the Northbound Takoma platform and single track trains to Glenmont??? Do the controllers even regularly ride the system or segments they are responsible for instead of looking a computer screen a triangles moving?

In fact, we did turn some of our trains back at Takoma to reduce congestion through the single track area.

First I must commend you for your courage and competency for taking on Metro. I know you are faced with gargantuan mess left by your totally inept and incompetent predecessors. I have noticed improvements in the morning commute - where previously there were delays 2-3 times a week. Now my complaint. There are only 2 elevators there and one is usually out 2 weeks in a month. They finally fix it only for it to break down again. What is the problem?

I'll have to look into it and get back to you.

I ride the 52, 53, and 54 busses and have noticed that busses frequently come in pairs. Is this intentional? It seems you would want to spread them out for more consistent service. This problem is compounded by the fact that there are so many out of service busses operating in Columbia Heights heading northbound on 14th Street. What are your plans to fix this and make Metrobus more reliable?

We've tried to limit the "bunching" through schedule adjustments -- and in the last few weeks we've seen an increase in on-time performance as a result. 

The empty buses are due to the fact that the facility they're returning to is located on 14th Street.

Dear Mr. Sarles, As a daily metro commuter, I find one of the things that makes my commute most unpleasant is the loudly blasting headphones of my daily commuters. In addition to the campaign you have against eating in the metro, have you considered something to urge people to consider being considerate about their music? Sometimes I think they don't realize how much they're disturbing other passengers - probably because they've gone deaf from blasting it so loudly!!

You're probably right about the deafness.  It's something we can look into.

At Gallery Place on the Red Line heading to Shady Grove due to all trains pulling to the 8 car marker, when a 6 car train pulls in that leaves a 150ft. gap at the rear of the train, right where the green/yellow line is. Can you start having 6 car trains stop at a point where the trailing car is closer to the tunnel, or if not have ALL trains enter at 15 MPH (drop speed commands). It's only a matter of time before someone is struck by a train due to crowding.

I understand the crowding issue.   For safety reasons, the policy was enacted when we went to manual train control to have all trains pull to the 8-car marker to ensure that all doors open on the platform at all times.  

We have staff at Gallery Place during peak periods to encourage people to spread out.

Ultimately, when we return to automatic train operation, we'll be able to return to the previous practice of centering trains on the platform.

How should we report the red-light running by buses? Is there a phone number to call? Should we call DC police, Metro police, or Metro HQ?

You can use our online form here.

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I want to thank everyone for their participation this morning and look forward to doing this again soon!

In This Chat
Richard Sarles
Richard Sarles was appointed General Manager and Chief Executive Officer by the Metro Board of Directors effective January 2011. Sarles has more than 40 years of experience in the transit industry with WMATA, NJ TRANSIT, Amtrak, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He was appointed Interim General Manager of Metro in April 2010 and in his short tenure at the helm of the Authority, Sarles has set the agency on a course to improve safety, reliability and financial stability. He has led dozens of actions to improve safety including strengthening the safety department, expanding training agencywide, establishing a new Roadway Worker Protection program, creating a safety hotline, enhancing a Whistleblower Protection policy, as well as establishing a new employee safety recognition program. He has spearheaded the replacement of buses and MetroAccess vehicles, and the acquisition of new rolling stock -- 7000 series rail cars equipped with advance crashworthiness technology. Under his leadership, Metro has a $5 billion six-year capital improvement program dedicated to improving safety, customer reliability and state-of good repair. To enhance transparency and public accountability, Sarles also established a new online Vital Signs performance measurement system.
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