June 22, 2009 was the day the Washington D.C. Metro died. That was the day when a Red Line Train heading for Shady Grove left the Takoma Park Station during rush hour and plowed into the back of a train that was stopped on the track, waiting for another train to leave the Fort Totten Station. The NTSB investigation revealed that a faulty circuit had disabled one of the train’s Automatic Control System, essentially making it invisible. Nine people, including the driver, were killed.
Now, in a sane world, they would have picked up the pieces, learned from their mistakes, and then moved on. But not Metro.
I mean, a plane crash at National Airport wouldn’t bring the place to a screeching halt for months on end. Service would be restored the next day and life would go on. People need to fly. Fix the damn problem and get on with it.
A horrific accident on the Capital Beltway does not shut lanes down for days on end while they sort things out. They clear the debris, assign blame, and reopen the road.
Oh, but Metro would tell you that running a subway system is much more complicated than highway or airport systems. Really? Well, if that’s the case, then I would say that’s a fatal flaw. (no pun intended)
After the deadly crash at the Fort Totten Station, Metro initiated a new system, a system based on the premise that the computers could no longer be trusted. Trains crept down the tracks and drivers were instructed to stop before every blind turn, or when entering a station, and then lean out the window to visually confirm that the coast was clear. You can’t make this stuff up. And that’s how Metro operated for – well, I don’t really know, because after being late to several shows while stop-starting and sitting on the tracks for god knows how long, I simply stopped riding Metro. When it costs you more in time and needless aggravation, you bail.
But like Linus and Lucy with the football, I would, over the course of the next few years, give Metro another chance. And EVERY time I rode it, they managed to make the trip a pain in the ass. Like the time I got on at New Carrollton, waited for thirty minutes for the train to leave before it stopped about 200 feet from the next station down the line at Landover, sat there idling for about twenty minutes and then finally pulled into the station so that everybody could disembark and catch a bus to Potomac Avenue. Was there a sign posted anywhere at the New Carrollton Station letting riders know what was awaiting them? And did they make an announcement over the PA when we arrived at Landover, telling us to get on the bus? Of course not. That would have involved customer service. And Metro does not do customer service.
Walk up to one of the command center kiosks in any station and you will find a station master either reading the paper or nodding off. They will scowl at you as if to say, “What the hell do you want?” Their responses are usually unintelligible. In fact, it seems like Metro’s business model is predicated upon the principle that no news is good news, so keep everyone in the dark. Other than the maps in each car and at the stations, you are essentially on your own.
Stand by the rather confusing fare machines in any station, especially the busy tourist areas like Smithsonian, and watch the out-of-town visitors trying to figure out how to buy a ticket. And then see what happens if they have the gall to ask a Metro employee for some help. Or try asking a Metro worker when a train might leave, or just start moving again, and you will often see them walk right on by without even responding. Listen to the drivers over the intercom when a train arrives at a station and try to decipher their incomprehensible gibberish.
Metro employees are surly, indifferent, and walk around like they are wearing a big sign that says, “I HATE MY JOB!”
And if you think that I am some disgruntled Metro rider who after endless days, weeks, months, and years of terrible service has finally had enough, I’m not. I live in Annapolis and only occasionally use Metro when I come to D.C. for an evening show or on weekends. And I used to be Metro’s biggest fan. I told everyone I knew how great it was. And when I got my SmartTrip card on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009, with President Obama’s smiling face on the handy dandy credit card, I felt proud and overjoyed. I still carry that card. But I don’t use it anymore.
Lately, there has been a lot of debate about how to fix Metro. It is millions of dollars in debt. Many of the cars need to be replaced. The tracks and stations are in desperate need of repair. Employee morale is at an all-time low. What should be done?
The Metro Board suggested a rate hike and all hell broke loose. Why such outrage? Because Metro sucks in every way and they shouldn’t ask for more money until they figure out how to run their operation like a real business and show some accountability.
So, the Board quickly backtracked, assured the public that fares would remain the same, and proudly declared that the solution to their many problems was to borrow more money. God help us all. We really have gone mad.
This isn’t rocket science. Transportation services need to be efficient and reliable. That’s it. If it should take thirty minutes to get from point A to point B, then do it. Every day. If you can accomplish that mission, people will gladly pay to ride the train. And if there is an accident, or some sort of emergency, the riders will understand. But when riding on the Washington Metro is like tumbling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, you get in your car and drive.