Riders of Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail subway system might feel they deserve a reward for enduring more than a year of what is called SafeTrack. That's essentially a big cut in services so that three years' worth of maintenance can be done at triple the normal speed.
Instead, riders are getting hit with fare increases and service cuts, effective June 25. Perhaps it's what they should have expected. After all, mismangement is a chronic feature of the subway system in the capital of the richest country in the world.
Metro's rush hour fares are going to rise by 10 cents (a $50 annual increase for someone who travels to and from work five days a week, 50 weeks a year). Other fares will increase by up to 25 cents a trip. Despite this, service will decline during rush hours, with fewer trains running on five of the system's six lines, so commuters will wait longer on platforms.
Metro defends the changes, rationalizing the move in a press release as "part of an effort to rightsize service, close a budget gap and provide needed time for new categories of preventive maintenance to improve safety and reliability."
But riders aren't convinced that system failures, some of which cause hour-long delays, will become less frequent. Worse, they worry Metro hasn't gotten any safer. Memories remain fresh of a 2009 crash that killed nine people and a 2015 incident in which smoke inhalation killed one and injured more than 80.
The Washington subway system has been so bad that it derives a benefit from low expectations. Riders are let down so often that higher fares for worse service is what they have come to expect.
Perhaps the best chronicler of this Metro malaise is the guy who runs a Twitter account called @unsuckdcmetro. He agreed to be interviewed for this article on the condition of anonymity. We'll call him Unsuck.
For Unsuck, failures reached breaking point in February 2009. "I had to start taking Metro every day because of a new job. … I just couldn't believe how bad it was ... It felt like a rickety roller coaster. ... It's just completely unreliable, questionably safe, and very expensive."
All that, plus a lack of accountability for Metro's administrators and staff, encapsulate the most common complaints from riders.
They've become world-famous. At the International Transport Forum this month in Germany, Washington's system was used as a cautionary tale.
One transit expert said it is "a hell of a problem," while another said it suffered from "poor governance and poor attention to long-term investment." A third expert called Metro leaders "cowards" for not raising more revenue with fare increases or tax hikes, the Washington Post reported.
Whatever the numbers say, and they don't go quite this far, Metro's riders feel theirs is the worst subway system in the world.
How it got so bad
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 no longer contributes to the re-election campaigns of Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.
Its political action committee gave $7,000 to Connolly's first re-election campaign in the 2010 cycle, but only $1,000 in 2012, according to Federal Elections Commission filings. Since then, the cash flow has stopped completely, even while the PAC continues to donate to other local members of Congress, including Maryland Democrats Anthony Brown, Jamie Raskin and Steny Hoyer.
This might be because Connolly assigns some blame for Metro's failures to the union. "Unfortunately, some of the labor leaders, like Jackie Jeter and the ATU, continue to defend the indefensible, which erodes public confidence in the system," the lawmaker told the Washington Examiner.
Between August 2016 and January 2017, 1/3 of the staff, 21 employees, of Metro's track inspection department were fired for falsifying safety records. Another 14 were disciplined. The union defended the workers, saying they were only guilty of "shoddy paperwork" and that inspectors were given too much work to do.
But Connolly supports the firings. "[Union claims that] ‘You can't hold them accountable for filing a false inspection report' is, to me, something that doesn't pass the giggle test for the public. There has to be accountability and the union ought to be a partner in that, not an enabler for serious misconduct that puts the public at risk."
Metro workers have a reputation for customer service, not just bad safety.
When asked what complaints he sees most often in Twitter mentions, Unsuck says, "It's kind of surprising how often the interactions with Metro workers are negative. … Most Metro workers are fine normally, but there seems to be an awful lot of angry people that don't realize who's paying their paycheck and don't treat passengers well."
Even fellow Metro workers can't believe how bad some hires are. One told Unsuck that new hires "don't even know the business end of [a] screwdriver."
Connolly said, "You've still got thousands of employees who need to step up to the idea that they're there to serve the public, and they need to be customer-friendly. That standard seems to have significantly diminished into this culture of mediocrity."
Metro's union and its employees aren't the only culprits. Administrators deserve blame, too, for letting maintenance problems get out of hand and for failing to create a culture of safety and accountability.
Safety and accountability failures led to the January 2015 smoke inhalation that killed 61-year-old Carol Glover. She was on an early-evening rush hour train that stopped in a smoke-filled tunnel. It took firefighters more than 40 minutes to reach the trains and get commuters out. The smoke was due to an electrical failure, then communications failures made the problem fatal.
This incident and another similar fire triggered a shocking system-wide shutdown that lasted 29 hours in March 2016. Commuters were given just a few few hours notice. But it had been at least six months since fraying electrical cables had been inspected.
In June 2016, Metro introduced SafeTrack to bring maintenance up to date at an aggressive pace. Entire segments of track were shut down for weeks, spread over the course of 13 months. It also mean "single-tracking," with trains traveling in opposite directions having to wait to use the same length of a single line. In other words, either terrible service or none.
Metro seems today to acknowledge that it isn't doing well. In November 2016, it launched an improvement plan. Its title, Back2Good, didn't exactly set high expectations.
Metro and the Washington Examiner weren't able to arrange an interview for this story. Metro referred to audio and a presentation from the March board meeting where the fare and service changes were approved.
Where Metro is now
"All our tax dollars are going into it, and it's not going anywhere."
"Well, that was awful."
"I was coming in from Ballston, two trains come by completely packed…"
These are comments I overheard from Metro riders in the first two weeks of June.
Metro has a reputation for being hated by its regular users, so riders might be surprised that surveys show 69 percent customer satisfaction. Metro's goal is 85 percent. There is an oddity in the report, which says customer satisfaction is undermined by lack of reliability, but also says that reliability (distance traveled between delays) exceeds goals.
Perhaps the most important way to measure customer satisfaction is ridership, not least because Metrorail fares make up more than two-thirds of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's revenues aside from government subsidies.
Ridership has fallen for the past five years in a row, despite the Silver Line opening in 2015 with five new stations and, presumably, access for new riders.
The fact that the Metro is the core commuter system for the nation's capital makes comparisons invidious. People think it should run as well as the subways in Tokyo or London.
"Those are great contrasts to our system, in terms of efficient, clean, safe and reliable systems," Connolly said, having ridden both of those systems in the past year. "It's terribly disconcerting, because this is the capital of the free world. … Surely we can make a transit system work and pull together resources needed to do that."
Connolly rides the Metro as often as he can and says he loves to do so, even though his schedule often doesn't allow it.
Unsuck has lived overseas and in New York, and says his benchmark Metro experience was set in Japan. "I don't understand why there is no system in the United States even remotely close to as good as any system in Japan."
The millions of tourists who visit the Capital region each year might wonder why commuters loathe the Metro. Despite its faults, it's relatively clean and easy to navigate, at least compared to New York.
It generally performs well between the morning and evening rush hours, with waits generally shorter than 10 minutes, at those times, with not much crowding.
If a tourist gets on the Metro at Capitol South around noon after a tour of the Capitol and heads to McPherson Square to go look at the White House, he or she will probably have a pleasant trip. "If you live in a town [with no public transit], it's kind of amazing that there's this train system that runs through D.C.," Unsuck said.
But it's when Metro is needed most, in the morning rush hour, that it fails. That's when Metro is most crowded with regular commuters, and when any delay more than five or 10 minutes will ignite riders' fury.
If you doubt that Metro has earned its bad reputation, consider this: According to its own data, only 69 percent of customers arrive on-time. More than one-in-four trips are delayed, although 86 percent of customers arrive within five minutes of schedule.
A commuter who rides Metro to and from work five times a week, that means, on average, more than one delay each week of more than five minutes.
Metro's path forward
Depending on who you ask, Metro is either poised for growth if it can get its act together, or it's screwed because it can't.
"There's just not much room for it to grow, in terms of passengers," Unsuck says. "I don't know if ridership is going to recover, frankly."
Metro stations are small with no easy way to expand. Stations can handle only eight-car trains. The system has several choke points in stations such as Rosslyn, with its tunnel under the Potomac River. There's no way to add a new rail line or stations downtown without huge public expense and disruption.
Connolly, however, sees residential development along the new Silver Line stations in the heart of his district as a sure sign of long-term growth, and likely in Metro ridership. "You're seeing an explosion in new, high-rise residential development in that corridor. That's going to add thousands of riders."
Then, there are the fare increases, both the immediate one coming on June 25 and the prospect of more in the future. Will they hasten the death of Metro or be its savior?
Higher fares will drive riders away if they don't improve quality. But high quality and capacity could attract more passengers than are lost because of higher fares. So says Richard Anderson, a transit expert at the International Transport Forum.
As for safety and reliability, the federal government is under pressure to get involved.
In a Nov. 1, 2016 editorial, the Washington Post called for a federal takeover of the Metro system. It's not an outlandish idea. Between rail and bus, 1/3 of the federal workforce uses Metro.
More likely in the short-term is a rise in demand for federal dollars and better federal oversight rather than a full takeover.
Connolly criticizes former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a Democrat who served under President Barack Obama. "[Foxx] made a big mistake in putting safety oversight at the [Federal Transit Administration] instead of the [Federal Railroad Administration] as recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board after the last tragedy. … The FTA has got a really spotty record in terms of urban transit systems. It's not their forte, in terms of safety."
Connolly also wants an annual federal subsidy for Metro. "It would not solve all our problems, but it would certainly stabilize financing. … The burden of financing shouldn't solely be on the shoulders of the local governments."
What are the odds of that happening? It might depend on new Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who Connolly is confident can turn around the culture of mediocrity. "He's willing to expend political capital for all the right things. He has a lot of support on the Hill as a result. He's got credibility — credibility previous managers, frankly, did not have, or if they did they squandered pretty fast."
Still, many Metro riders, citing past experience, are skeptical that extra money will be spent well. That includes Unsuck, who cites the MetroForward program in 2010.
Through January 2016, Metro spent $3.7 billion on MetroForward, but "the system actually got worse," Unsuck says. Metro's on-time performance was at its worst point since it started tracking in 2010. The money was spent on new infrastructure, but there was still no accountability and a culture of mediocrity. The fatal smoke inhalation incident happened after all those billions of dollars were spent.
Unsuck asks, if the system actually does get a federal subsidy, or dedicated funding from local sales taxes, "How do you know that money doesn't end up where MetroForward money went?"
Down a Metro sinkhole.
Jason Russell is the contributors editor for the Washington Examiner.