Friday, January 27, 2012

Last Night's Meltdown Just Another Sign that Metro's Communication Systems Suck

As anyone who was stuck on the Metro late last night during a major communication outage can attest, Metro's communication system is a clunker. It's not robust, lacks redundancy and often just doesn't work. It's aggravating and potentially dangerous to both riders and Metro workers.

The broken radios, etc. are still no excuse for ABSOLUTE silence by Metro's highly paid and lowly regarded PR team who tweeted or communicated otherwise NOT ONCE during the whole event, leaving riders even more in the dark as they wiled away the time--at least an hour by some accounts--stuck in tunnels and stations. Now Dan Stessel tells WTOP the event lasted only 15 minutes. Not much truthiness there.

Here's a sample of last night's twitter traffic. If you want more, go look at my feed.

Here's Metro's Twitter response:

But radios sucking is not new. While last night might have been a more catastrophic failure, the communication system fails every day.

The same source who shared the photos of a cracked brake disk also let me look over their shoulder at some of their WMATA email. What I saw really made it clear just how dysfunctional and dangerous to Metro employees and riders the crippled Metro communication system is.

Every day, there were multiple emails from multiple workers in the field reporting communication/radio outages and problems.

The source explained to me that those who write the emails usually do it for about a month until they realize their efforts to get management to do anything are futile. Then they stop out of frustration.

But it gets worse.

In the debacle that ensued after a brake disk fell off a train last month, Metro issued a press release saying it needed to improve customer communications and that the radios don't really work very well.

Here's the exact wording:
The review also identified two areas where Metro will be focused on after-action improvements. The first is improving customer communications to passengers aboard standing trains and to others before they arrive at the impacted stations, as well as those traveling throughout the system. The second area is radio communications that are challenging in certain underground locations.
OK. That's really sort of backwards because Metro will never have very good customer communications if the radios don't work.

But the whitewash didn't stop there. The press release went on to say:
Signal boosting technology continues to be tested in several locations, and is being conducted today to identify possible solutions to improve radio performance.
The problem is no Metro employee I've talked to said any testing has been done at all, and we're many weeks after the incident.

No testing at all. Nothing. Five sources who rely heavily on radios all confirmed this. Perhaps if Metro had really done some testing, last night could have been avoided.

Furthermore, Metro's statement about radio testing was widely mocked on Metro's own email. No one reported having seen anything resembling testing. The press release was a joke to those who knew what was really going on.

One employee reacted to the Metro press release like this:
Really? Radio communications are challenging? I guess I need a dictionary because I did not know challenging is the same as non-functioning. And they say they are out there today trying to correct it? I have been here since early this morning, and I have not heard a single call for radio checks. I will be here until late tonight, and I can bet I will not hear any this evening either.
A few days later, the same source said the following after asking around:
I never heard any radio checks. Neither did any [of my coworkers]. As far as we can tell, nothing was done at any key stations.
One source blamed the slow evacuation of the people who were stuck for so long on the train that lost a brake on Metro's poor radio system, saying "an evacuation can only be as good as the communication."

Poor communication was also a major contributor to the needless and dangerous chaos at Rosslyn after a jumper incident at Clarendon. Rosslyn is, and has been, a known, and one would assume well documented, problem station for radios.

For the big 8.5 month Dupont shutdown, one source told me Metro is establishing a special radio communication station.
We asked how is this going to work since radio communications sucks there. They said they have installed extra radio antennae in the station. For 30 years we cannot get radios to work, but now they admit that the radios suck and are adding antennae just for this!!! Makes me sick to my stomach.
Metro's poor radio system is probably the biggest complaint most Metro employees have. It causes numerous problems, some are annoyances, while others can put employees and riders at risk.

I've tried to tackle it many times, but nothing ever happens.

Metro management has long known about the issues with the radios, but according to several sources working a variety of jobs in Metro, nothing ever gets done to make them work better. It gets swept under the rug like so much else at Metro.

An Automatic Train Control worker told me there is no reception in many of the train control rooms. Communication is vital for this group of workers who must be in contact at all times so that central knows where they are working.

"We get around it by using our personal cell phones, in effect subsidizing a Metro fail," said one ATC employee.

But it's not just poor reception. It's a lack of consistency. Sometimes the radios work in a certain area, and sometimes they don't several employees confirmed. Sometimes, the radios just go down without explanation, and just as mysteriously, they're restored.

"I think [the radio problem] should constantly be brought to light," said one employee. "Here at XXX a couple days ago the radio communications went down. I didn't notice for an hour or so when I realized the radio traffic was too quiet. I tried to establish radio communications with OCC [the central nerve center of the entire operation] to no avail. A couple hours later, it was restored."

They added:
Working at XXX the other morning. Seems the police radio frequencies were not working in the Red Line from around Gallery Place to at least Woodley Park. I was talking to a police officer who said he had to arrest someone who became very combative. He repeatedly called for back up, but there was no response. In my opinion, there is nothing more important than radio communications here. It is horrible and getting worse every day.
Another source familiar with the transit cops told me the following:
On Halloween, there were all kinds of problems in the system. Fights, crowding, etc. For most of the evening, the MTPD officers could not get any radio reception for most of the downtown area of the system. When will [Metro] admit that their communications systems are simply defective?
Even when the radios work, communications are hampered by employees who simply don't care.

One station manager told me that during the summer, there were two cases of passengers passing out at the station, one in a parking lot and the other on the platform. As stated in the "Metro Safety Rules and Procedures Handbook," in such cases, the employee is supposed to call central and let them coordinate the response.

The station manager took his radio to the scene and called central, but the signal was garbled and central didn't think the call was important, he said. He said central gave him attitude and was obvious about not wanting to deal with the situation. Both times they told the station manager to go to a land line, which is back in the kiosk and, he said, is answered by people other than central. He persisted and was able to get central to relent and call an ambulance after several potentially vital minutes were wasted.

In both cases, no one was injured seriously.

"There's too much reliance on central and bad radios," the station manager said.

Note: I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. I will try my best to update the blog when possible and keep up with Twitter. As always, keep your stories coming. Meanwhile, look for posts from far flung subways.

Other items:
Another 10-car train (Examiner)
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