Thursday, February 20, 2020

Metro's 'Nervous System' Breakdown

Despite millions of dollars invested, bureaucratic tinkering and lots of lip service, Metro's Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) remains mired in dysfunction, sources say.

The ROCC is Metro's nervous system, its air traffic control system. That this crucial organization remains so prone to safety lapses and basic operational problems should concern riders who value their time and safety when riding Metrorail.

For a chilling example of how ROCC failures can be deadly, just look at the smoke inhalation death of rider Carol Glover.

However, it doesn't seem as if much has changed at ROCC since that horrifying day at L'Enfant. In fact, Metro's ROCC has, as recently as December, sent a passenger train into a tunnel to investigate a report of a fire.

One source, commenting on Metro GM Paul Wiedefeld's repeatedly saying "safety trumps service," said "my behind."

How can this be happening? Perhaps it's because Metro tolerates, and even rewards, poor performance.

One source provided me with a list of what they said were "discrepancy memos." They said each is about one superintendent—someone who's supposed to be in charge. (Emphasis mine)

On Wednesday August 29, 2018 at 1610 train 914 experienced a mechanical issue (major air leak) in approach to West Falls Church track #1. The total customer delay for this incident was 48 minutes. A line delay of 26 minutes was incurred due to the Central Control Staff failing to initiate single track operations. You did not ensure the continuity of service and, incident resolution and the mitigation of delays. It is your responsibility to ensure that all customer delays are mitigated in the safest and most efficient manner.

On Tuesday August 21, 2018 at 2033 the ROCC lost remote control of field equipment due an RTU issue. ROCC was unable to set routes in the established Single-Track area between McPherson Sq. (C02) and Smithsonian (D02).  The required ATC support was not on scene and contributed to the delay. Train 901 held at Farragut West (C03) for 45 minutes. No attempt was made to provide customers an alternate way to get to their destination. Shuttle Bus service was requested from the BOCC and no announcements were made to the customers to advise them that shuttle bus service was available. You did not ensure the continuity of service and the mitigation of customer delays. It is your responsibility to ensure that all delays are mitigated, and incidents are handled efficiently.

On Friday, February 12, 2019 at 1759 train 104 reported a loud banging noise coming from under the train. The Radio Controller advised the operator to continue to Grosvenor to allow Car Maintenance XXXX to board and investigate. The Controllers did not instruct the Operator to perform a ground walk around.  As the train entered Grosvenor station, Car equipment XXXX stated “in his nine (9) years of experience he has never heard a train sound like this” Once Car maintenance XXXX boarded, he made a request to cut trucks on 3222 to avoid the possibility of a “drag.” During Car Equipment XXXX inspection and findings there was a separate request for foul time to perform an exterior inspection of the train. Once Car Equipment XXXXX boarded the train and advised the operator to recharge, the Radio Controller in your presence gave the Operator permission to move without verifying it was safe to do so with Car Equipment XXXXX. During the investigation it was also discovered that you were not present on in the ROCC at the start of this incident. You failed to ensure the issue was handled in the safest manner by failing to ensure that the following actions were taken to mitigate the associated risk i.e., offload passengers at the first available station, slow the train by establishing a speed restriction (15mph restricted speed or 25mph reduced speed). Instead, train 104 to operate normal speed while in service with passengers aboard. There were no actions taken to mitigate the safety concerns to include moving car maintenance towards Rockville which is where the mechanical issue was reported and establishing single track operations. There was also a lack of response to safety concerns expressed by Car Equipment XXXXX. CMNT XXXXX requested to perform a ground walk around due to smelling a burning rubber smell. This request was denied. In addition, CMNT requested a 10MPH speed restriction to transport the train to Shady Grove Yard. You instructed the Controllers to ask CMNT XXXXX if it was possible to increase the speed restriction to 15MPH or 20MPH.
Your recent performance regarding your oversight of the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) is of great concern to the RTRA/ROCC leadership.  As a member of the ROCC’s leadership team, you are expected to assume responsibility for the overall control and coordination of the Rail Operations Control Center. Your recent failure to provide adequate oversight over the Rail Operation Control Center and recent failure to make good decisions during emergencies is a concern for me.  As a member of the management team and a Superintendent this failure is unacceptable.

There's more. According to the source, this superintendent remains on the job at ROCC.

And it gets worse: According to two sources, an extremely toxic work environment makes it very hard to hire and retain good workers. Both say the reason for this starts at the top of ROCC.

According to one source, the leader of the ROCC is:

"Another WMATA lifer. They built a team based on personal friendships, not by actual talent. Consistently he and his team are being investigated for sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. This is why people from the outside do not stay. They are targeted and hazed by the existing folks. They see that the managers are not held accountable."

Another person familiar with ROCC agreed with this assessment.

"The experience level in the control center has dropped significantly. The average  [controller] has less than 3 years," the source said.  "The [low] morale and culture will be its downfall. It’s sad when ROCC has 30 something controllers and 30 controllers trying to leave."

Metro has tried to throw money at the problem, offering a one-time $5,000 bonus for new controllers when they get certified and $4,000 per year afterward, sources said. There's a stipulation, however, sources said: New employees must stay three years, or they have to pay back the bonuses. Some left despite the penalties, sources said. The salaries for controllers are $80,000 and up, with some advocating to make the base $100,000.

Hiring got so difficult that Metro started to bring back retired controllers, a source said. That didn't work out well as they, too, clashed with the toxic culture.

Another effort to improve ROCC was to increase staff, but according to one source:

"Promoting [and] adding multiple new management positions took competent controllers and made them managers. You now have new managers in a role that needed to be groomed and mentored. To replace the newly promoted managers you have to recruit controllers. So basically you contributed to the controller deficit that you are mandated by the FTA to resolve.  So from a controller perspective you are surrounded by new managers and new controllers you do not have any guidance in the room."
Until Metro can get a handle on what's going on at ROCC, riders can continue to expect delays and unsafe operating practices.

"ROCC should be the best of Metro, and it's not," one source said.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The YAC (Youth Advisory Council) Makes Me Want to Yack

In 2017 (FY), Metro says it spent $82,615.71 of our money on something called the Youth Advisory Council. Sure, Metro probably blows this amount by the minute, but Paul Wiedefeld, the GM, told taxpayers there was no more fat to cut. Note also the budget does not include WMATA staff hours used to support the YAC.

It's unclear what purpose the Youth Advisory Council serves.

According to its minimalist website:

Metro wants you to weigh in on issues that matter to you, your peers, and our community. This is your chance to share your ideas and help make your transit system a better place to ride. It’s a free, once a month meeting that will bring together students from across the region to make a difference. You even gain community service hours for attending! Register for the Youth Advisory Council today!

 Metro's Twitter account has mentioned the council just 10 times over more than a year.

These monthly meetings are attended by between 50 and 70 kids, based on documents provided by Metro through a PARP (FOIA) request. The events are catered (see below), and at one meeting at least, there was a live DJ, DJ Single Track (JK. That's what FixWMATA called him.). There was yoga at another meeting.

Another account of the May 2017 meeting went like this:

Hosted by Comedian and DTLR Radio Personality Ty Davis & Radio Personality who has us all saying 'Whats poppin!' Deja Perez, the two host focused on their upbringing and the realism of being youth in a city where most count you out.
"We want to create a safe haven for the youth to come and grow and know that we are behind them in every step of the way, it brings us joy giving back to the youth and giving them an outlet to be able to talk about things they are actually going through and we here at WMATA are that listening ear and are here to help in any way we can" - Jawauna Greene (Director of Marketing , WMATA)

There are some photos posted of kids working on what appears to be some kind of model airplane. It's unclear what that has to do with Metro.

One Metro source described the Youth Advisory Council as "very expensive day care."

Here are some other first-hand accounts:

And finally, here's a recording from a meeting.

Here's a breakdown of expenses associated with the council. Below is what Metro sent me.

As you can see, the vast majority of our money goes to "Chit Chat Media."

A search of Maryland businesses reveals Chit Chat Media is registered to Cassandra Vaughn.

After some digging around, I found out more about Vaughn.

Guess who's she's associated with?

Metro's marketing director, Jawauna Greene. Greene is the mastermind behind the swag store.  She's also behind the Youth Advisory Council. She's pictured here above the AD in the banner.

Greene famously called Metro customers "haters" on Twitter.

Is it just a coincidence that Vaughn, the owner of Chit Chat Media, and Metro's marketing directors are associated? These are screengrabs from Vaughn's LinkedIn.

Now, I'm not saying anything illegal is going on, but there's certainly a bad smell.

Especially when you find out that Cassandra Vaughn, also known as Cassandra Vaughn-Fox, was fired from channel 25 (CharmTV) in Baltimore for stealing over $12,000 from the city by abusing her city-issued credit card.

According to the Baltimore Sun:

During her tenure, Vaughn-Fox bought several cameras, camcorders and iPads that couldn't be accounted for, according to the report. She also bought multiple pairs of designer headphones, two seasons of HBO's "The Wire," $40 fountain pens, and books, including "I Want My Vagina Back" by Pamela Love Manning for $18.94, the report said.

Additionally, she purchased multiple e-books, songs and albums on iTunes and a dozen computer applications that cost between 69 cents and $13.99.

Here's Cassandra Vaughn-Fox in a story about her theft:

 Here she is from her LinkedIn:

One would think Metro would want to make sure our money wasn't being funneled to someone with this background. I mean if I was able to find out Metro was paying Cassandra Vaughn, it seems like Jawauna Greene could've done the same before funneling tens of thousands of dollars of our money her way.

I emailed Jawauna and Metro GM Paul Wiedefeld. They both worked at MTA, and rumor is Paul refers to Jawauna as "JoJo."

Neither responded.

According to a Metro source, "This is just a drop in the bucket. With dedicated funding watch out for more boondoggles." Two sources at Metro told me the waste going on at Metro is "worse than ever" under the current general manager.

Another source asked, "where is the Metro board? They're supposed to watch this kind of stuff."

"What other contracts has Metro awarded without doing any basic research?" asked another.

Perhaps most insulting about this whole thing is Wiedefeld's claim that there's no fat left to trim. Here's what he said to WAMU:

At some point there is nothing left for me to go to, and we are fast approaching that,” he said. “We are tightening as much as we can. I have looked under every rock I can to find dollars, but there is not a whole lot more to go to.

Given the boondoggle of the Youth Advisory Council, how can any of us, including the Metro board, trust such a bald-faced liar who lets his director of marketing funnel our money to someone who appears to be a thief?

Update: JoJo is leaving Metro for the Port Authority in New York City. It was likely something in motion before this post came out. These are hanging in the Metro HQ:

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Interpreting Metro Spin

So Metro released its own "customer satisfaction survey" today, and the media gave them a headline they were dying for.

OK. Let's break that down because NOTHING Metro says is the real story.

First, Metro is comparing the recent data to a survey that was conducted during peak SafeTrack. If people aren't a little happier after that mess, it would be shocking. (Also, SafeTrack is not over, it just doesn't have a name.)

Metro said 76 percent of riders in the survey were happier. That's up from 69 percent during SafeTrack.

The punch line comes at the end of the WTOP article. Metro's goal is a B. Sad!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Larry Hogan Rides the Metro

Today, to sign up Maryland for billions in new Metro funding, Gov. Larry Hogan - R(!) took the Metro, and Metro created an experience for him no rider gets to see.

Metro deleted it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

These Metro Songs are Amazing

Metro is testing three safety songs.

They're pretty incredible.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Metro Offers Free Techno Music

To go along with your fare hikes.

From MA:

So last night while heading home from Friendship Heights Metro I thought someone had taken over the central PA system and started playing techno, but it turned out to be some sort of speaker error.

But it went on for a very very long time, at least more than 30 minutes since that is how long I was there.

Metro workers were just standing around. People found it amusing at first, but it slowly started to become very annoying very fast to have to listen to this blasting everywhere at the end of your day.

I wonder if this is also a safety concern since they wouldn't have been able to use the PA for any emergency messages or anything of the sort while it was blasting error tones.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Where are the Buses?

Wonder why it looks like Metro is only running 30 buses at rush hour? Here's the reason.

From Mike:
Metro provides an interface for developers for us to get data about the system: bus schedules, bus predictions, bus locations, train information signs, etc.

Every once in a while, some of the data goes stale, and we need to prod WMATA to reset something on their side so the data goes correct again.

Starting over a month ago, the bus position data that Metro provides us to see where all the buses are on the roads started to become less and less.  900 buses became 800, became 700, became 600, and now we’re down to approximately 30 buses at rush hour, or at least that’s what we’re being told by the system.

Obviously, more buses are out on the road, or this wouldn’t be the first time you’re hearing about it, but due to an “upgrade” on the bus position system, we have lost access to 97 percent of the buses out on the streets, and app developers have no way to show you on your smartphone, tablet, or web browser where the buses are.

Ironically, Metro contracts with NextBus to get this data, and the NextBus site still appears to show correct location data for almost all the buses in the system.

Third party developers are forbidden by WMATA from accessing the NextBus data because WMATA wants everyone to go through its own API, unlike many other transit systems which allow NextBus to publish the data for them.
So if you have any apps on your smartphone that are supposed to show where the buses are but isn't, it's not the developers' fault. WMATA just isn’t providing the data.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Oops! Another Wrong-Side Doors

Via @zestyteich: @wmata culture of safety (doors opened on wrong side) @unsuckdcmetro

From this morning. This really should never happen.

Here's another shot:

 (via @willchong25)

Update from @willchong25: Doors were open for at least 40 seconds. It beeped & closed then reopened on wrong side for another ~20 seconds

'Absolutely Absurd'

Here is perhaps an explanation as to why the new Dupont South escalators are among Metro's worst performing.

From Emily:
The Dupont South escalators presented me with a tough choice one night last week around 8 p.m.:  Do I hobble down on crutches with all the risks entailed, or do I hobble through the circle on crutches to reach the elevator that may or may not be in service? 
I hobbled down the still escalator stairs. 

When I reached the bottom, I had a word with the really nice, and almost equally frustrated, station employee.

It turns out that when Metro contracted with a company to replace the escalators, the contract included a clause that said only employees of the contracted company can touch the escalator.

Since the Dupont South escalators had been replaced by this company, Metro personnel (including the engineer standing there during the conversation) are unauthorized to adjust them.

The station manager had to put in a request to the contracting company for them to send an employee to Dupont South just to switch one escalator's direction from up to down.

The station manager had been waiting for 4 hours for someone to come and make that switch.

Absurd.  Absolutely absurd.
Metro finally "responded" obliquely to this post, which meticulously documents the problems with the "transit grade" Dupont South escalators. They wouldn't respond directly to the statistics based on their own data that bear the problems out, but a spokesman emailed WAMU:
"The escalators at the South Entrance are performing as designed,” the statement said. “We are happy with their performance, and so are the 20,000 people who use the station each day and understand how much better their experience is now."
Last week, when DCist approached Metro asking about the original post, Dan Stessel told them:
"I have a standing rule of not commenting on Unsuck."

Other items:
Metro veteran to lead "independent safety oversight" group (WaPo)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

New, 'Transit Grade' Escalators Among Metro's Worst

Photo via @DougCassaro

Metro recently bragged about how much escalator performance has improved under the pricey Metro Forward campaign. But a closer look reveals an ugly truth. Two of the major--and most highly touted--replacements under Metro Forward have yielded among the worst performing escalators in the entire system.

All three escalators at Dupont South, which were closed for months for a complete replacement, rank, on average, 387th in availability among Metro's 588 escalators. At Foggy Bottom, the three new "transit grade" escalators rank a collective 471 out of 588. One of the new escalators at Foggy Bottom has an availability of 79.7 percent  - in 556th place out of 588 escalators.

For every 17 minutes that Metrorail is open, an escalator goes out of service.

"This is what Metro Forward is all about: delivering more reliable service and significantly improved escalator availablity [sic] for our riders," said Metro General Manager Richard Sarles in a press release.

Really? All this money is being spent for what exactly?

How could brand new escalators break so often? I think it's because of this.

Perhaps measuring escalator "availability" system-wide is not the most honest way to measure performance.

Since June 1, Lee Mendelowitz (aka @MetroEscalators) has been tracking escalator outages published through the WMATA API. Here, he uses this data to set the record straight on Metro escalator performance. All of the data used to generate this report is available at DC Metro Metrics.

Here's what he found:

Q: Is the Metro escalator availability for the second quarter really 91.9 percent?

A: Possibly.

Escalator availability is defined as the average percentage of escalators that are operating while Metrorail is open. Both unscheduled outages as well as scheduled maintenance and inspections result in a lower value for escalator availability. The escalator availability computed from WMATA data is 93.5 percent for June 1st through September 15th.

However, this value is a generous overestimate due to missing data. Since a station manager must manually report each escalator outage, some go unreported for several hours. On other occasions, outages are never reported at all.

For example, on Sunday 9/15, @MetrorailInfo reported that all nine escalators were out of service at Navy Yard station for 90 minutes due to a power outage, but these escalator outages were never listed on the WMATA website. This is the norm rather than the exception. WMATA never officially listed the escalator outages associated with power outages at Union Station (6/25), Bethesda (7/3), Shaw-Howard (7/8), or Clarendon (7/10). Escalator outages that go unreported have no impact on the escalator availability.

Q. Is system-wide escalator availability is a good measure of what Metrorail riders experience?

A: No.

The Metrorail system has 588 escalators, which means there are many reliable escalators that inflate the system-wide escalator availability average. In fact, 139 of Metro’s 588 escalators are operating at least 99 percent of the time that Metrorail is open. It’s the chronically underperforming escalators that frustrate riders the most, and these get “washed out” when computing a system-wide average.

In addition, riders frequently use at least four escalators for each Metrorail trip. An escalator availability of 92 percent means that there is a 28 percent chance that at least one of those four escalators will be out of service. Despite this fact, WMATA has set their target escalator reliability at just 89 percent.

Instead of looking at system-wide escalator availability, one can look at how frequently escalators go out of service. Since June 1st:
•    There have been 7,255 unscheduled outages.
•    For every 17 minutes that Metrorail is open, a new escalator goes out of service.
•    215 escalators (36.6 percent) have a mean time between failures (MTBF) of less than 7 days.
•    38 escalators (6.5 percent) have a MTBF of less than 3 days.

Q: True or false:  "When an escalator is out of service today, more often than not, it is for scheduled rehabilitation or preventive maintenance," said Rob Troup, Deputy General Manager for Operations.

A: False.

Most escalator outages are due to unscheduled outages.

•    Since June 1st, there have been 10,443 escalator outages, and only 31.8 percent of these were for scheduled maintenance or inspections. Most scheduled outages are for preventative maintenance inspections that take place overnight while the Metrorail system is closed.

•    Only 9.2 percent of escalator outages that occur between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. are due to scheduled maintenance or inspections.

Q: True or false: “In service status is tracked as units are reported to the Metro escalator/elevator control center. Because this is a manual process, an out of service escalator may take up to an hour to be reflected in the computer tracking system; this margin of time does not significantly change the availability score.”

A: False.

I’ve already written a few blog posts detailing escalator outages that go unreported for several hours. See here, here, and here.

A very revealing plot is looking at the time of day when unscheduled escalator outages are first reported. The hour of day with the most escalator outage reports is always the opening hour:

•    On weekdays, 9.6 percent of unscheduled outages are reported between 5 and 6 a.m.
•    On weekends, 19.9 percent of unscheduled outages are reported between 7 and 8 a.m.

It is highly unlikely that such a large fraction of escalators stop working in the opening hour of business when very few customers are using the Metrorail system. Instead, these escalators stopped working at some point during the previous day and go unreported until a station manager reports them during the first hour when Metro opens.

 Click for larger

Q: How reliable are the six new street escalators at Dupont South and Foggy Bottom that have been replaced during the Metro Forward campaign?

A: The Foggy Bottom street escalators re-opened in July 2011, and the Dupont Circle South street escalators re-opened in October 2012. Despite being Metro’s newest escalators, they are among the worst performing in the system.

Since June 1st:

•    The middle escalator, A03S02, at Dupont South has had 42 unscheduled outages – 11th most in the system.
•    The right escalator, C04X03, at Foggy Bottom has had 46 unscheduled outages – 10th most in the system.
•    The middle escalator, C04X02, at Foggy Bottom has an availability of 79.7 percent  - in 556th place out of 588 escalators.

 Click for larger


While escalator availability may have improved in recent years, it is a misleading measure of what riders experience. The computed value for escalator availability is inflated by the fact that outages often go unreported for hours or are never reported at all. Escalator outages continue to mount at an alarming rate – one new outage every 17 minutes that Metrorail is open. The newly replaced escalators at Dupont South and Foggy Bottom are among the worst performing in the system. While Metro plans on replacing another 128 escalators by 2020, it may end up being just more of the same.

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