Monday, January 30, 2012

"Everyone was Aware Money was Going Out the Door"

Three Metro sources recently gave me insight into how Horace Dexter McDade, a revenue technician, and John Vincent Haile, a Metro cop, were allegedly able to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from Metro's revenue stream over years, possibly as far back as 2008.

The first factor, of course, was incompetence. This is Metro, after all.

According to a retired Metro Transit Police officer, Metro knew fare money was regularly being stolen at least two years ago and probably more, despite saying in a press release that an investigation was started last October.

The officer said they reported patterns of missing money to a deputy police chief at least two years ago. They said they told the deputy chief that the missing money correlated with "certain individuals."

The officer's concern triggered an internal investigation, which apparently bore no fruit.

Another retired Metro cop said the investigation was a case of "Metro chasing their tails" despite periodic reports from the investigators that money was still "walking out of Metro" in large amounts.

This retired officer said there was a correlation between McDade and Haile working together and missing funds. Despite numerous people knowing this, the correlation appears to have been either ignored or missed by Metro's own investigators.

The retired officer said another major factor was that the person in charge of the revenue facility, the assistant treasurer of revenue operations, was also incompetent and had completely demoralized his subordinates.

Rather than focusing on regularly missing cash--something most of his subordinates knew about--"the captain of the ship was asleep at the wheel and more concerned with petty offenses such as cell phone violations," they said.

"Everyone [in the revenue building] was aware there was money going out the door," said the source. "I couldn't believe it."

The big break in the case came when a store clerk, annoyed by and suspicious of Haile for buying so many lottery tickets with big bags of coins, alerted the FBI, which quickly discovered what was going on.

In typical Metro fashion, the assistant treasurer, someone fundamentally responsible for the safekeeping of Metro's cash, was escorted out of the revenue building and is now "holed up" in the Jackson Graham Building (Metro HQ) where they'll be allowed to "quietly retire with a full pension," one source said.

Another contributing factor to the long-term theft was a change in policing policy by the Metro Transit Police Department.

According to two sources, there was a reduction in the number of Metro Transit Police officers assigned to what is called "revenue escort" duty, which means escorting the revenue technicians, the people who take the money from the fare machines to the revenue building.

"Exact numbers I’m not sure of, but [MTPD police chief Michael Taborn] changed the system they had been using for years," said one source familiar with how the MTPD operates.

This, other sources said, made it easier for McDade and Haile to work together, whereas before the personnel shift, it would have been more difficult for cops and revenue techs to establish the kind of relationship that could lead to a conspiracy to rob Metro blind.

"The dirty cop would switch shifts to work with the revenue tech," said one source.

Lastly to blame is the archaic system Metro has for handling large amounts of cash.

A source very familiar with how Metro handles money confirmed information in this post that too many people have access to the money (the "chain of custody"), that Metro's system of handling the money is archaic and that Metro seems to accept that a certain amount of money will be lost or stolen.

They were hesitant to get into specifics because "if you worked at a bank, you wouldn't want to give that kind of information out."

They did say that when a fare machine is serviced by a revenue technician, an electronic report is generated, which contains information about how much money that machine took in.

That technology then meets Metro's byzantine accounting system where it's all "paper and pencil," the source said.

"There's just so many machines out there," they said. "It's information overload, and there are thefts that go on daily that aren't reported."

That source said Metro's hiring of forensic accountants, from Deloitte, in the aftermath "is going to cost big bucks."

Note: I am on vacation and without regular email access. There may be a delay in your comments getting published. They will be, eventually.

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)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The New Language of Metro

From CS:
They say language is always evolving, so herewith some suggestions for new lexicon inspired by the continuing dysfunction known as Metro.

MF factor (noun) – Abbreviation for “Metro F*ck-up factor”; denotes change in person’s behavior, or defensive measure taken, in response to continuing erosion of service on Metro.

Suggested usage:

“Man, if I want to get to work on time, I need to leave an MF factor of 25 minutes.”

“If I meet you at Metro Center, how much of an MF factor do you think we need?”

Stessel (noun, verb) – Referring to attempts at spin, manipulation, or deception, by such means as setting up straw men, outright lying, or misleading by omission.

Suggested usage:

“When Metro said it would run later rush-hour service the day the government opened late, that turned out to be just stesseling.”

“Hey, Metro, how much you going to stessel us this time?!”

Jeter (noun, verb) – A colossally screwed up situation; syn. FUBAR. Or, to screw something up royally.

Suggested usage: “It was a complete jeter Monday when they were single-tracking during rush hour.”

“I really got jetered today – off-loaded three times during one commute.”

Door (verb) – Train taken out of service the millionth time for, wait for it – door problems.

Suggested usage: “Sorry I’m late – got doored at Rosslyn.

So let’s hear from you – what other usages can you come up with? What other Metro-morphs of the language are out there?
Other items:
Street cars could spur property boom (Examiner)
Caught in the path of the Purple Line WaPo)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Safety Wild West?

For all the inconvenience of weekend disruptions to "rebuild the system," you'd think there would have been at least some noticeable improvement in Metro's performance and safety.

But it seems to be getting worse. There are delays and breakdowns of one kind or another nearly every day now.

By my unscientific count, there were 24 "disabled train" alerts over the past 30 days and 42 "train malfunction" alerts.

There were also two circuit malfunctions, nine switch problems, and three signal problems.

These numbers come from a search of Metro's Twitter feed over 30 days. There are no doubt many more incidents that went unreported.

Of course, we'll never know the real numbers as Metro stopped posting their disruption reports when the new communications team came aboard. The ever more opaque public transit system is forced by no regulatory body to disclose all of its mishaps to those who pay to ride it.

Ahh, the new transparency.

Even worse, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Va.), and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-Md.) praised Metro because there were no fatalities! Talk about a low bar.

Remember Metro's recent spate of brakes falling off?

One Metro source said "we may not have killed anybody, but it's not for lack of trying."

Then there's a report of a 10-car train that somehow ran an entire Red Line run without anyone from Metro noticing. How does that happen?

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told the Examiner those responsible would receive “strong disciplinary action.” According to WJLA, they were given unpaid suspsensions, which they'll probably fight. They'll definitely be back at work at Metro, just hopefully not with our lives in their hands.

But these 10-car clowns weren't the Metro high achievers. One Metro source tells me Metro recently ran a 12-car train on the mainline that was finally noticed by an operator. That didn't end up on Metro's Twitter feed.

What's next 14? 16? Keep reaching for the skies, Metro!

The same day as the 10-car train incident, one source told me there was another case of Metro incompetence. This time, a 6-car train was coupled with another 2-car set to which it was not meant to be coupled. The two cars were not meant to be moved and had their brakes fully locked. They were dragged by the 6-car train onto the mainline. Of course, that's not a good thing.

From the source:
The Alexandria shop sent a train out for a track test. They were checking the train to see if it would fail after a major problem had occurred. Standard practice. The issue is they sent a junior mechanic to ride the train in case it broke down or failed while on the mainline. The train went down in an interlocking on the Blue Line. The train was down for around 90 minutes! The mechanic was new and useless.

The train was stuck, and OCC [Metro's control center] did not have good radio reception, the operator was not very experienced, and the junior mechanic and his lack of train knowledge and communications skills added to the mayhem.

The OCC controller, Ms. Allen, was taken off the radio because she lost her cool and blew up.

It took a road mechanic who was coming on duty to get the train moved. He had the problem diagnosed in a matter of a couple minutes, and the train was taken into the yard.

Monday morning we came in and checked the incident log for the previous Friday to see the details of the incident. There is no record of the downed train in the system. It was removed. My guess was it was erased to save the OCC controller.
I asked another source about this incident and the super sized trains, and they said "all in a day's work at Metro. It's only going to get worse as the last few competent people retire."

Adding to this is a pretty disconcerting "safety report" Metro is set to present the Board. According to the report, customer injuries are up 35 percent, while passenger trips are down 6 percent. (It should be noted that employee injuries decreased by 24 percent.)

Despite PR spin and a lot of talk, all of this leads me to believe that the wild west "safety culture" of Metro has not been tamed at all.

Other items:
More Dulles rail blues (Examiner)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Monday, January 23, 2012

Did WMATA Fib?

Rude and Ignorant Employees Don't Win Hearts and Minds

I don't know these employees' story, but it's commonly known that Metro often stashes problem employees in station manager and other customer service positions. I wonder if they're rethinking the policy.

From anonymous:
One night, while trying to exit a Metro station after a long train ride that involved a train malfunction, my SmartTrip card just stopped working.

The station manager wouldn’t get off the phone to answer my questions. Even worse, she screamed at me when I continued to ask questions. Instead, she finally just let me, and several others who were having issues, through the gate.

I decided to replace the card.

I was annoyed that I had to pay five dollars to replace something I did not cause to stop working and, since I'm disabled, I had to go through the additional hassle of going to the Pentagon sales office to get my replacement, reduced fare SmarTrip card. Nonetheless, I accepted my fate and was going to be a good sport about it.

When I got to the Pentagon sales office, I was ready. I had read up on the Metro disabled card application that people with a Medicare card and an ID didn’t have to apply for a Metro disabled card. By showing my Medicare card with ID, I got my first disabled Smartrip Card, and that was only a few months ago.

However, the woman employee working at the sales office was rude and argued with me.

She was ignorant enough to tell me that anybody can get a Medicare card. She told me that I had to have my doctor fill out a form to get a disabled card.

I knew this was wrong and asked to speak to someone else.

She wouldn’t let me and was degrading.

I asked to speak to a supervisor, and she gave me a phone number.

I walked off a little ways and called the phone number on my cell phone. It was her!

She continued to be rude, argue with me, and tried convince me she was right. I realized this was wasted energy.

Instead, I called the 800 number on the back of my non-working SmarTrip card.

I explained the situation, and they mailed a replacement to me.

It actually arrived in about three days!

Once I got home, I rechecked the Metro policy on obtaining a disabled Smartrip card. It is right there on the application for a disabled card:
Medicare recipients under the age of 65 automatically qualify for reduced fares and do not need to complete an application. Medicare recipients under 65 years of age can purchase a reduced fare SmarTrip® card or a Metro reduced fare card by showing a valid photo ID and their original valid Medicare ID card at commuter stores or other select retail outlets.
I was right. I filled a complaint online. Metro is, as usual, “looking into it.”
Other items:
Former union president sticks up for Metro's pension plan (WaPo)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Metro: the Venn Diagram

In light of the alleged theft of "in excess of $150,000" over three years by Metro employees, including a cop, I was preparing to write a screed about how Metro was more screwed up than I'd ever imagined, but I instead thought this Venn diagram, suggested by commenter DC Denizen, sums things up far beyond anything I could write.

Apparently, Metro has no auditing system to compare the receipts of the ever-hungry fare machines with the actual take.

A Metro police officer said "Metro is stuck in the Stone Age when it comes to the way they handle funds ... but that's Metro, period! Metro has just accepted the fact that they 'lose' tens of thousands of dollars a month."

That amount, the officer said, is "lost or stolen."

They added "Everything is done [manually]. The chain of people that have access to the money from the time it is taken out of the fare machine to the time it is deposited is insane! With technology the way it is, there is no reason so many people should have access to that large amount of money."

In 2004, instead of getting its house in order, Metro inconvenienced riders and eliminated the ability to pay cash for parking after another skimming incident. Prior to the discovery of the stealing, Metro had been warned for years that theft at its parking facilities could be a problem.

I wonder if they'll decide, in their infinite wisdom, that all of Metro will be cash free--for their convenience, of course.

OK, I guess that was a mini screed.

Whadda Moronic American Transit Authority!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Metro is Accessible?


How hard is it to announce elevator outages in a timely and effective way? There are a lot of people who desperately need this information to travel safely in Metro.

Maybe a study about what if there were no elevators would be beneficial. Of course, it would have to cost at least $200,000 to be worthwhile. Maybe Metro should hire a staff to tweet, and Facebook about elevator outages.

I mean seriously, Metro can already be a pain for the able bodied, but when you hear stories like this, which are becoming all too common, you just have to shake your head.

From Denise, who has written before:
I am a Metro rider who is blind and reliant on a guide dog. The other morning, beginning at 8:50, I was stranded in Metro's Smithsonian station for 45 minutes. I was on the Blue and Orange platform in the direction of Largo and New Carrollton. The platform elevator was broken, as is often the case.

There was no announcement over the loudspeaker that the elevator was broken and no information of where a shuttle bus was being made available for those with special needs.

The station attendant refused to stop an escalator so the guide dog and I could walk up. (A moving escalator can break a guide dog's back feet, and some guide dog users prefer not to ride one.)

In the past at Smithsonian, an escalator has been stopped after rush hour, which, by this time, it was. That would have allowed me to exit the station.

In addition to refusing to help, the attendant actually walked away from me. She said that she sent for a "supervisor," but she did not know when, or even if, that person would arrive.

Fortunately, a sighted colleague showed up and helped.

We took the train to L'Enfant Plaza and finally Left Metro. I then walked seven blocks to work, which I would not have had to do had I exited at Smithsonian.

A commute that takes me usually under 30 minutes took over 90, with no assistance from a Metro bureaucracy that is becoming more and more disorganized and chaotic by the day.

There were two other colleagues who helped me that day. They said they wanted to write to you as well. We believe you do much more good than the Metro ADA Office, which appears to take no action on written complaints.
I did hear from Denise's co-worker:

From Becca:
As this is not the first time this has happened, I thought it was time to bring this to your attention.

I have a blind employee who navigates the treacherous streets of DC with her trusty seeing-eye dog. (Quite brave if you ask me!)

Sometimes, she can get to work with no problem, and other days it's quite an adventure.

The other day, like several other days in the past, the elevator [at her station] was broken, and since moving escalators are too dangerous, she has no choice but to be stuck on the platform until she can either flag someone to get a Metro employee or call someone and ask them to come and [turn the escalator off long enough for her to get out].

This particular morning, she was on that platform for 45 minutes before she could get someone to find a Metro employee.

She could have gotten out of the Metro station if they would just shut off the escalators for a minute while she and her dog walk out, but several times now, Metro employees have refused to shut them off (interesting since they are often off anyway so any claim about inconveniencing multiple customers couldn't apply here).

She has had no choice but to get back on the Metro and go to another station where she can take an elevator and then has to walk (across four lanes of rush hour traffic) or hail a cab (which also isn't an easy thing to do being blind with a big dog) to work.

Often, she has to call a co-worker to come help, which now means that two people aren't at their desks.

As an employee working in legislative affairs, she is counted on for handling urgent and high-level issues, so her inability to get to work for a reason that could be easily dealt with is completely unacceptable.

Metro needs to get some policies in place and make sure all of their employees know how to handle these types of situations.
Related (and here and here and here)

Other items:
Metro employees accused of stealing thousands (WaPo)
Dulles stop could be scrapped (Examiner)
Metro adding $7.1 million worth of cameras to train cars (Examiner)
Metro may install shields for bus drivers (WaPo)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

We Can Put a Man on the Moon, but ...

From CS:
On Metro's western frontier, at Vienna station, is a small construction project that once again shows how calcified the transit system has become.

To ease platform crowding, Metro is adding a stairway to supplement the existing escalators. Good idea. But here's the catch -- workers began the project last summer. It has now dragged into its seventh month, and only in recent days has it begun to resemble something looking like a staircase.

For a long while, nothing happened, and then progress halted for another long stretch after support piers finally got installed. At this rate, it looks like it'll be a year-plus before things wrap up.

By contrast, consider:

-- In New York City, workers have been adding an entire floor per week to the new World Trade Center tower.

-- In Vermont, the state recently took only four months to repair 500 miles of roadways damaged after flooding from Hurricane Irene last year.

-- In DC (DC?!), the school system recently rebuilt in a year an entire school destroyed by fire. (With three stories, the school presumably has a number of stairways.)

This tale is also more than just yucks about another display of Metro ineptitude -- it's about safety, too. With construction fencing surrounding the work site, passengers are forced to walk uncomfortably close to the platform edge. When trains come rushing in, it feels like it wouldn't be hard to get sucked over the edge.

Metro's not-so-transformative general manager, Richard "Dick" Sarles, likes to talk about how years of neglect mean that fixing Metro's problems won't be free. Well, as the Vienna saga shows, it's about more than money, too. It's about management.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe this job isn't such a big deal. But it just shouldn't take a year to build a set of stairs.

(P.S. The other thing that's nice? When workers do show up, they park oh-so-Metro -- on the sidewalk in front of the station.)
Other items:
Arrest sparks lawsuit (WTOP)
Va. considering limiting forced use of union labor to curb Dulles rail costs (WTOP)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More PR?

From J.S.:
I'm so glad Metro is hiring even more PR people. Just kidding.

But maybe the new people will be competent. Lord knows the current ones aren't, although my guess is Metro won't be letting any deadwood go.

The communications team is terrible, even after hiring all those so-called social media "gurus" that were supposed to make us fall back in love with Metro.

How's that coming people?

They barely tweet, and I get much better information from #wmata and @unsuckdcmetro than I do from @wmata. I guess Metro does a little Facebook, but most of that effort makes me shrug. Who cares?

E-mail alerts? What a joke! They come after I'm home, even if there's an hour delay.

I was one of the people stuck in the broken down Metro car when the brakes fell off. We just sat there. Nothing from no one. Just waiting in silence. (Editor's note: That was not that the only case of a communications breakdown in recent months. Riders also blamed Metro PR for poorly communicating the recent changes to the SmarTrip system.)

Metro can't spin its way out of this kind of crap.

Please. MetroForward? I think a slogan like that should only come after the "Metro: Our Brakes Work" slogan has some cred. It doesn't right now, that's for sure.

How much does Metro pay for nonsense PR like this? How many people work in PR there?

Why do they try to float the news about BS hires late on a Friday night on a long weekend like little babies?

That "sneaky" move alone makes me know their reasoning for hiring more overpaid people is weak.
Thanks for writing, Steve.

Here are a few answers for you.

Metro chief spokesman Dan Stessel told the Post the reason for the new hires was:
“We’re doing more than media relations. The whole social media function is new. We’ve started a two-way conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and we’re doing videos.”
Um, yeah.

Anyway, Steve, I thought you might like to know that Metro spends $18.5 million on communications, according to the 2012 budget.

That might not seem like much in the grand scheme of the Metro budget, but it's more than the $17.8 million Metro spends on the SAFETY DEPARTMENT!

Take a look at the PR food chain, which is staffed with the the same number of honchos as the safety department:

All of these people outrank Dan Stessel and undoubtedly make substantially more than Stessel, who made well over $107,000 while at New Jersey Transit. One would assume he got a raise to come here.

But Stessel's a relatively small fish, and honestly, I feel just a little sorry for him having to go on camera to try to constantly excuse Metro. Surely in private he knows he's shilling for a bankrupt organization.

Meanwhile, his superiors rake in big bucks without having to face any music, all the while commissioning $700,000 "mystery rider" programs and $200,000 "no Metro" reports.

Look at this list of all NJ Transit salaries from 2010
. Lynn Bowersox, who was brought to DC by Sarles, made a lot more than Danny boy back in NJ. She reportedly makes $165,000 with a $10,000 bonus here.

Barbara Richardson, an Amtrak flunky and Sarles crony, who sits at the top of the Metro spin pyramid reportedly makes $175, 000.

Here's a list of all the salaries from NJ Transit's communications department in 2010. Looks like Metro pays better overall, but it gives at least an approximation of the kind of money Metro is shelling out to communicate.

Remember, GM Richard "Dick" Sarles makes close to $400,000 when you tally up all his perks.

Meanwhile, Metro says it can't afford to run more 8-car trains because it would cost $5 million a year.

If that doesn't get you steamed, I'm not sure what will.

Thanks again, Metro. When do those fare increases start?

Other items:
LOW BAR ALERT: MD, VA govs praise Metro because no one died (WAMU)
Rider questions police treatment (Examiner)

Friday, January 13, 2012

It's Not Just Phones that get Snatched

Metro Transit Police show off their paramilitary look during a terrorism drill.

From Virginia Ron:
I got on the Orange Line at Smithsonian heading to Vienna at 3:45 p.m. yesterday. I was on the last car. There was a group of rowdy teenagers up near the front of the car.

As we approached Metro Center, they got quiet and then all rushed off the train.

Next thing I witnessed was a gentleman in business attire jump up and run after them.

Evidently, they had grabbed his briefcase.

As I looked out the window, I saw his laptop, and God knows what, spill out onto the platform.

Before I could exit to assist, the train operator closed the doors and moved on, apparently oblivious to what just happened.

I was shocked and yelled to my fellow passengers "That guy just got robbed!"

The sad thing is, no one cared. If they did, no one responded.

When I got to Vienna, I reported it to the station manager. He said he would call it in. However, he did not write any of what I said down on paper, so I wonder if that report really was sent.

This could have happened to anyone. Now, I am seriously questioning my safety while riding Metro.
Other items:
The full, "no metro" report (WMATA)
Green Line corridor to power DC economy, study says (Examiner)
Board mulls fare increase options (WaPo)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Don't Let Metro Fool You

Here's a budget slide Metro will try to float to the Board during today's meeting as a rationalization to hike your fares.

I can hear it now: "Look, it's not that bad, and we've already gone up 18 percent, and we're still near the bottom."

Metro does look cheaper compared to all those other big bad transit agencies, but with the others, BART excepted, that "base rate" is actually a flat rate that will take you as far as you want to go, unlike Metro, which charges you based on distance.

That's a pretty big difference, I think.

This chart compares apples to oranges. It is misleading and dishonest.

But given the Board's lack of knowledge of how the fare system here works, they may just take the bait.

Metro's average rail fare in September of last year, according to this PDF, was around $2.63 ($2.65 for 2011 according to this), significantly higher than those other transit agencies.

Additionally, according to a source, most of these other systems allow free transfers between rail and bus, except LA Metro, which has no free transfers for anything, and BART, which doesn't have a bus system.

Furthermore, the source said, most of these systems, again BART excepted, have monthly passes that reduce your average fare if you are a frequent rider.

Thanks, Metro, for giving us and your own Board the real story.

Read more about using low base fares to mislead here.

Other items:
Could fare hikes be even higher? (Examiner)
Purple Line impact would be greater than previously believed (WaPo)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dumb and Dumber

Yesterday, the Washington Post, in an effort to be relevant, I guess, hosted a "Hangout with Dr. Gridlock" on Google+ featuring Metro boss Richard "Dick" Sarles.

The production quality was about what you'd expect from a newspaper trying to do TV, and the answers from Sarles were as predictable as gravity, but what really stole the show, for me at least, was the question from the one, plain ol' rider on the panel. He was supposed to represent riders and riders' perspectives.

With his big chance to ask the Metro honcho tough question during the rather short 30-minute chat, what did he come up with?
"Why are some stations center platform and why are some stations side platform?"

I'd like Unsuck readers to try to come up with a worse question.

I'll get the ball rolling:

Why do trains have wheels?
Why don't Metro trains have cabooses?
Why is the subway underground?

I'll send the dumbest five to Stessel.

I should warn you that I don't anticipate a response since he still hasn't coughed up the full $200,000 "report" on " what if there were no Metro" even though he said he would and, like all of you, I paid 16 cents for it.

Other items:
Metro hiring 1,000 more (WaPo)
Look at all the Metrobus accidents (WTOP)
Riders say they will abandon Metro (Examiner)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Just Freaking Scary

A source sent me these photos of a broken brake assembly or friction ring.

The crack, which appears white in the top photo, runs the entire way around the inner part of brake disc assembly inside the bolts and a little bit outside of them in the upper left. The center part is separated from the friction ring (the shiny outer part), as you can see in the black space in the upper left, just outside the bolted area.

The source said that after tapping the cracked part with a hammer, it fell completely off into the pieces you see in the latter photos.

It was found Friday morning on car 3273 at Shady Grove during an daily safety test and external visual inspection during which there was an emphasis on looking for things like this, the source said.

Adding to the unease of a brake cracking like this, the source said that since there is no rust along the crack, the failure was probably sudden and not over time. Records show the part was put into service on July 15 and had been last inspected on Dec. 10.

The source said his best guess as to what's going on is that Metro got a batch of bad parts.

The source also pointed to the pocking visible on the cast metal, saying that to him, it looked like bad quality, probably from a low-bidder.

He said that given the amount of parts Metro orders, they are bound to be bad batches from time to time.

Metro seems to contradict this notion, with their flack Dan Stessel telling the Washington Post that the "incidents involve different designs and different manufacturers."

A retired Metro source who used to work in car maintenance said they refuses to ride Metro after seeing the quality of parts that were being put on the trains.

Kind of scary.

The same morning this brake was found, there was another friction ring incident on a train carrying people, and that afternoon, Metro announced an inspection of all 2000, 3000 and 4000 series cars, 464 in total.

Back on Dec. 20, there was another friction ring incident during the commute that sent one of these huge metal slabs flying down the tracks and into the third rail trapping hundreds in the tunnel.

Yesterday, Metro announced the inspections had been completed and said they had replaced more than 290 friction rings.

Other items:

Monday, January 9, 2012

SmarTrip Customer Service or Disservice?

Photo: mr_t_in_dc; shop: Andrew

I've heard from a lot of people about the hang up issue at SmarTrip customer service.

If you've lost your SmarTrip card, or had one stolen, what has been your experience in getting the money transferred?

From @TeganAnn:
Since moving to DC in February, I have had to transfer monies from a lost, stolen or defective SmarTrip card a few times, so I am used to the procedure.

I lost the card in late November, but assuming I just misplaced it in my office, I didn’t think much of it until the following week when I logged onto the WMATA system. Lo and behold, someone in Maryland had picked up my card and was using it.

I was about to call the 1-800 number to get the money transferred, but they had the new system to report your card online, so I did that.

I immediately got an auto generated email which said "your card XX has been reported as lost or stolen." I proceeded to wait for my funds to be transferred to the new card.

The following week, I stopped off at a SmarTrip charge station to try to load my funds, but it didn't work.

Finally, I logged back into the system in December and found the card still in daily use.

This is when the fun began.

Finally, I decided to call the 1-800 number. I had done so in the past, and it had never been awful in comparison to the other joys of WMATA.

I started off around 10 a.m. and got the "all of our agents are busy" message. I was put on hold and then heard "goodbye" and was hung up on.

I tried six more times, and the same thing happened after various amounts of time on hold. The longest was five minutes.

On, my last try, the hold time quoted was 20 minutes. Around 25 minutes later, I was able to reach an agent. To her credit she was calm as we went through the transaction. She had to place me on hold twice to track down my email in the system to verify my story.

She was able to transfer the money from the date I reported the card as lost. I was out $20, and the person with my card had a good month of free rides on the Metro’s dime.

When all was said and done, I had been on the phone for 45 minutes.

I can’t say I'm surprised the online system is set so it an email is generated, but nothing is done.

Metro is really moving forward on this one.
Other items:
Metro's suicide prevention program: Delayed (Examiner)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Too Much of a Given

Original image: Matt Johnson

There are many Metro station managers who are helpful and seem to take pride in their jobs. On the other hand, there are far too many who are not only indifferent to customer concerns, but downright hostile and abusive to the very people who pay their salaries.

The reason? In many cases, the station manager slots are where Metro stores problem employees. One has to wonder about the logic of making your worst employees the face of the organization, but that's exactly what Metro does.

According to a very reliable source, here's the rap sheet on a guy who STILL, UNBELIEVABLY works at Metro as a station manager.
  • Hired as a bus driver and is involved in an accident
  • Gets "fired"
  • Gets reinstated as a bus driver
  • Gets "fired" again for another accident
  • Gets transferred to become a TRAIN OPERATOR! (Safety first)
  • Accumulates enough infractions (wrong side doors, platform overshoots, running signals) to be disqualified from ever being a train operator again
  • Becomes the face of Metro as a station manager and as such:
  • Gets a 5-day suspension for disrespecting a Metro Police Officer
  • Gets a 5-day suspension for using a cell phone while on duty
  • Gets a 5-day suspension for regularly taking 2-3 hour lunch breaks
  • Gets a 10-day suspension for locking someone in the station after closing (This was overturned because Metro lost, or couldn't find, the film from the video cameras at the station.)
  • Gets a 12-day suspension for falling asleep on the job after his picture was posted on this blog. (He apparently successfully fought that punishment off after going to the doctor and afterward claiming he had sleep apnea. The other station manager pictured claimed the same thing and got off as well, the source said.)
  • But none of that mattered because he took several months of disability leave after "spraining" his ankle.
He's back on the job now.

Every time you swipe, a portion of your money goes to him.

Thank you for "choosing" Metro.

Other items:
It has been 50 years since subways (not Metro) were automated (
Cameras alone don't reduce crime in parking lots (Fierce Homeland Security)
Well liked operator unmasked (WJLA)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What's that Foul Smell?

Looking these tweets, it would appear Metro broke into one of the remaining boxes of organic brake pads.

According to a source, Metro, in an effort to reduce brake dust (Metro said), ordered a whole bunch of organic brake pads not too long ago. The source said they recalled 10,000 were purchased, but couldn't be sure of the exact number.

What Metro never bothered to find out before making the purchase was that the pads, when used, caused a horrible odor similar to rotting fish or decaying flesh.

Seriously, when you smell these things, you'll come to appreciate Metro's regular, acrid smokey brake smell for how relatively inoffensive it is.

The source said Metro tried to return the stinking lot of pads when they realized the awful smell they caused, but the vendor would not take them back.

Another source said Metro has been using the odoriferous pads in dribs and drabs so as to "not stink up the entire system."

Yesterday, Metro told the Examiner they didn't know what caused the smell, but that it was nothing to worry about.

So, next time Metro smells like a fish market late on an August afternoon, you now know it's probably not a dead animal, or worse.

Thanks, Metro. Next time, shop before you buy.

Other items:
Get ready for weekend track work (WMATA)
Man struck by train (Fox)
Metro sends armed robbery warning 1.5 hours after it happened (Twitter)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Illustration. Via Flickr

From anonymous:
I took an unexpected trip to L'Enfant Plaza this morning (and wound up being 40 minutes late to work) all thanks to Metro.

I live in Crystal City and work in Rosslyn, so usually I take the Blue Line north to get to work. Today, however, both Blue and Yellow lines were backed up--apparently one of the rails on the Yellow Line bridge between Pentagon and L'Enfant had cracked, so they were single-tracking over the bridge.

As a result, half the Yellow Line trains were normal trains to Ft. Totten, while every other train were "special" trains to Smithsonian, which we were told--repeatedly, by the conductor--would run like a Blue Line train.

Since the platform at Crystal City was packed due to the backup, and I had to wait a ridiculously long time for any train at all to show up, I got on one of those special trains. Again, the conductor repeatedly told us that it was a special Yellow Line train to Smithsonian, so it would run like the Blue Line.

Well, you can probably guess what happened. After a start-and-stop trip through Pentagon City and Pentagon--during which there was a lot of stopping and holding and "moving momentarily"--suddenly we were outside on the Yellow Line bridge. At this point, the conductor told us the train was now a Yellow Line train to Ft. Totten.

If they were going to change the train, couldn't they have said something to us before we left Pentagon, so some of us had the chance to get off? How can they tell us they're going to take us in one direction and then, with no warning, change our destination with passengers on-board?

In the end, I had to get off L'Enfant, transfer to the Blue Line and head all the way back out to Rosslyn. Good thing I have understanding bosses, otherwise I could have lost my job.

You Give PR a Bad Name

From Bryan:
I'm sorry, but is it too much to ask Metro to have someone on its overpaid, oversized communications team take 15 minutes to write up a quick press release summarizing the dramatic changes to SmarTrip/SmartBenefits in 2012?

I mean seriously, these were pretty major changes and left a lot of people scratching their heads. Did anyone else see the lines at the Metro office in Metro Center?

And yes, I realize Metro was forced to make the changes, and I realize this has been in the works for some time, but the communication was terrible, nay inexcusable.

I heard several people at work talk about Metro "stealing" their money, and my employer was pretty good about letting us know what was coming. Apparently, not all were the same as Twitter was lit up with many slamming Metro.

Way to let your rep sink even lower, Metro. And for no reason. Talk about low hanging fruit and a missed opportunity.

I think at least a friendly reminder (press release) about changes to SmarTrip would have been merited-- as well as a tweet or two before the holidays to reinforce it.
Heck, even after the fact, Metro could have linked to/tweeted the Examiner article, which did a pretty good job of summarizing the changes.

I mean Metro goes apesh*t, over the top nutso advertising over track work with those stupid and probably super expensive banners at all the stations, but this was an even bigger change to the status quo and for many, many more people, but Metro was silent. I went back over their Twitter feed--nada. Same on the website. WTF?

Just what are we paying these people to do? Where the hell is "^BA" anyway? Isn't he getting paid some exorbitant amount of money to tweet? Write a press release dude.

A major change how things work, a super suspicious ridership who thinks they're being ripped off, and ZILCH from Metro.

I'm not a PR professional, and I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, I know Metro failed big time with this. It's as if they don't value their riders one bit.

I can almost see the conversation in the Metro PR department now.

Someone: Should we advertise the big changes coming to SmarTrip to our riders again?
Someone else: Nah, F*ck 'em.

Isn't that pretty much the whole Metro attitude about everything?

The whole communications team should be embarrassed, but I know embarrassment is not an emotion many Metro employees are familiar with.
Other items:
Metro, union prepare to face off for contract negotiations (Examiner)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Trapped in Twinbrook

From Dave:
On the afternoon of Dec. 27, I got to my car at the Twinbrook parking lot in Rockville at 6:13 p.m. I know this because I called my wife, telling her I could stop at the store to pick up dinner. I didn't exit the parking lot until 7:01. Why? Because I was held hostage by Metro.

When I pulled out of my space, I drove toward the exit and immediately knew something was wrong. There was a line of 20 cars in front of me, none of them able to exit.

I immediately knew what was wrong.

The SmarTrip reader wasn't working.

I know this because the same problem happened a few months ago, only this time it was worse.

When the SmarTrip reader isn't working, Metro doesn't just open the gate and let you out.

Instead, they make EACH car fill out a form stating that you're unable to pay prior to exiting. This form is meant to be used when someone doesn't have the money or SmarTrip balance to exit a lot.

This allows the parking attendant to take down the drivers information, and lets the attendant open the gate.

It should not and is not intended to be used when Metro's machines are malfunctioning and can't read a SmarTrip card.

The form is long, cumbersome, and takes several minutes to complete. When 50-plus people are trying to exit a parking lot, you can immediately see the chaos that would result if each of those cars had to fill out this form before leaving.

How can Metro justify keeping each car in their parking lot for that long?

Why should the riders be held hostage for so long because of a malfunction of Metro's machines?

I had money on my card to exit. I even told the attendant I could pay in cash.

It didn't matter.

He refused to let us go until I filled out the form.

I asked him what he would do if there was an emergency. He didn't seem to care. He said I should call the police and maybe they'd let everyone leave. But his supervisor wouldn't authorize him to raise the gate.

To make matters worse, the second gate to exit was blocked by the parking attendant's car.

When this happened a few months ago, no car was parked in the other exit lane. When another customer asked what would happen if he just drove out, the parking attendant said "nothing," so he did just that. Seconds later, the other 20-plus cars did the same.

This time, that wasn't possible.

I called Metro's customer service number to try to see if they could do something. I spoke to a representative, and he seemed helpful--at first.

He took down the information I provided about the situation and contacted his supervisor.

What did his supervisor suggest?

He said they'd send another parking attendant out to take down the information so they could speed up the process!


When I asked what else could be done, he told me nothing.

He didn't care about what I and many others were going through. He wouldn't let me speak to his supervisor. When I told him that this is why the agency he works for is failing, he couldn't have cared less.

By this point, I had been waiting for about 30 minutes. Everyone waiting was honking their horns as if their life depended on it. People were getting out of their cars yelling.

I seriously thought a mob might form.

If I had been driving an SUV, I would have driven around the gate, but unfortunately my sedan didn't seem like it could make it, especially with all of the mud around from the rain all day.

By this point I was so frustrated I called the Rockville police's non-emergency number. They were helpful and sympathetic, but had to transfer me to Metro Transit Police, since it was their jurisdiction.

When I spoke to Metro Transit Police, they said they'd send someone over. Whether or not they ever made it, I don't know.

I finally exited the lot at 7:01. When the parking attendant asked me to fill out the unable to pay form, I wrote a few choice words on it, and he opened the gate, and I left.

I was finally free after being held hostage in Metro's parking lot like a caged animal because their machines were malfunctioning.

I've been riding Metro for almost eight years. I've experienced a lot of horrible things done by Metro during that time, but this takes the cake. This is an all-time low, even for Metro.

The parking attendant supervisor who wouldn't authorize the gate to be lifted should be fired, Metro should issue an apology to each person impacted by this incident, and each rider should be able to park for free for a year as a result of this inexcusable action.

This is just further proof that Metro doesn't care about their riders, the customers that pay for the agency to exist.

This might be my breaking point when it comes to Metro. In 2012, I might be exploring other ways to get into downtown DC each day.

At least when you're stuck in traffic driving, you made that decision, where as with Metro they make the decision for you.
Other items:
Dude, where's my SmarTrip balance? (Examiner)
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Site Meter