Metro GM announces management overhaul, potential for longer shutdowns

WASHINGTON – Metro needs rapid changes to address major issues, its chief administrator said, as he announced the first major management overhaul under his tenure Sunday.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld acknowledged in a letter Sunday that track work and major delays have frustrated riders, although he says there could be other reasons ridership has fallen. Wiedefeld took over the management of Metro this fall.

“Both planned and unscheduled track work compound customer frustrations on weekdays and weekends. Metro’s approach has been to maintain some level of service during middays and weekends, which has proven to be unpredictable for riders,” he says in the letter.

New recommendations could include weekend, late-night or other complete shutdowns. Those recommendations are due in May from a consultant hired late last month.

Metro says the aim is to “minimize overall adverse impacts to customers,” while also catching up on a backlog of work.

“Turning Metro around requires us to confront some hard truths,” Wiedefeld says in the letter.

“The safety culture at Metro is not integrated with operations, nor well-rooted at all levels,” he says, echoing what has been discussed for years.

Overall though, Wiedefeld recognizes on-time trains and buses are among his top priorities.

He promises every Metro employee will get an annual review, beginning with workers on the bus side.

Wiedefeld is also promising more transparency surrounding financial reforms and major projects like legally mandated radio upgrades and cell phone service in tunnels.

An early test on an initial mile of Red Line track is scheduled to be done in June.

On the financial side, Wiedefeld says Metro can cut back-office staff through attrition and should look into simplifying fares.

He also wants an analysis of whether Metro should sell its headquarters near the Verizon Center and Judiciary Square.

Long term, the system needs a dedicated funding source.

“Unlike other regions’ transit systems, Metro has no clearly defined multi-year operational funding plan. As a region, this issue needs to be addressed head-on to meet both today’s issues and to support future economic growth for the region,” he says.

Wiedefeld is rearranging management of the system, beginning with the top leaders. As Metro continues to search for a permanent chief safety officer, the new, flatter reporting structure will have a chief engineer and other positions report directly to the General Manager.

Metro’s deputy general manager for operations, Rob Troup, resigned last month ahead of the restructuring. He had essentially been responsible for all rail operations.

Wiedefeld says the restructuring  “will improve accountability and efficiency, as well as restore a business-like approach that devolved over time to be more about turf than delivering results for customers.”

To get more results, Wiedefeld says Metro will not only look to partner with private companies like Uber for MetroAccess service, but will also look into privatizing parking facilities. That request for proposals is scheduled to be released by May.

With major union contracts set to expire this summer, Wiedefeld also wants to develop a new framework for collective bargaining agreements “that respects the workforce, is more responsive to customers, and delivers enhanced cost efficiencies.”

Overall, Wiedefeld’s plans to improve safety and security and restore public trust in the system had already been announced.

Metro’s new plans to “improve reliability and win back riders” include publishing and implementing a new rail reliability plan to make sure trains run on schedule, improvements to railcar maintenance, and the track improvement program review that could lead to longer shutdowns or other work changes. Wiedefeld also wants specific staff to have ‘ownership’ of each rail line to create incentives under a review due by the end of August.

Metro is training existing workers and hiring new ones to stand on platforms at L’Enfant Plaza, Metro Center, Gallery Place, Union Station, Anacostia and Rosslyn beginning this summer to provide more information and eyes on the system. Volunteers are being recruited for a program that would help tourists and other infrequent riders at the entrances to some stations this summer.

Metro also plans to “Improve customer complaint resolution through social media”, follow through on existing plans to improve lighting and other issues in some stations, and to implement improvements on major bus corridors.

Wiefefeld says some initiatives may only be experimental, and others could be tweaked later.

As part of transparency initiatives, Metro is rolling out a new prioritized list of the risks posed by each safety issue identified by the Federal Transit Administration following the deadly smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza last year.

While Metro lists none of the 91 overarching orders as unacceptable based on the severity and likelihood of occurrence, 50 are listed as “must be mitigated”, while 41 are listed as acceptable with monitoring.

The 91 items are broken down into 732 total actions that the FTA must approve. Metro says it has submitted 346 of those action items for approval, including plans to improve smoke detection in the rail system’s tunnels.

The plans submitted are just plans for improvements, it is then up to Metro to execute them.

Metro is also rolling out a new “Customer Accountability Report” outlining plans from a new mobile app to improved response from train operators when riders push emergency call buttons.

The report, which will be updated regularly, aims to show Metro is taking actions.

The new emergency call button procedures are being implemented this month, and the mobile app is expected to move forward this fall.

By the end of March, Metro aims to have a new plan to cut down on massive platform crowding and long waits when something goes wrong at rush hour.

“Deploy more ‘gap’ trains on demand, improve platform assistance to customers, install dynamic signage on entrance pylons, replace P.A. system components. Plan to be completed by March 30 with implementation beginning immediately thereafter,” the report says.

Beginning in April, Metro hopes to improve railcar maintenance and track improvement plans to cut down on the number of trains that must be offloaded.

Metro is also developing new software that will more accurately estimate train arrival times.

When trains do not arrive, the Metro Board of Directors is considering a new policy that would allow riders to exit for free within 15 minutes. Right now, riders are charged the minimum fare for entering and exiting a station.

Wiedefeld suggests also simplifying overall fare policies.

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