Fixing WMATA, the Nation’s Second Busiest Transit System, From Every Direction

Washington, D.C.’s Metro has many daunting problems, partially because of the unique way it’s funded and managed. Its new management team is tasked with fixing all of them.
by | November 2016
(Photos by David Kidd)

One cool Friday afternoon this fall, in the middle of rush hour on the Washington, D.C., Metro system, a third-rail insulator failed, releasing stray electrical current and sending black clouds of smoke up from the tracks at Metro Center, one of the system’s busiest stations. Because of the fire, service was suspended on three subway lines -- half the lines in the entire system. Thousands of commuters who had already braced for delays because of scheduled repairs now faced even more harrowing trips home, many of which stretched for hours.

It was an alarming experience, but it was the sort of thing that weary Metro passengers have come to anticipate. Electrical fires are a persistent problem for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), and the consequences in some cases have been far more serious than chaotic rush hours. The worst came in January 2015, when a smoke-filled train got trapped in a tunnel; one woman died and 91 other people were injured. This March, an eerily similar fire prompted Metro officials to shut down the entire subway system for a day to perform systemwide inspections and repair.

There are more than 100,000 insulators along Metro’s tracks, and one of them fails, on average, twice a month. Not all of those incidents are as serious as the one in September, but many are even worse. In 2013, an arcing insulator forced two trains to stop in a tunnel, stranding 250 passengers for an hour, including a woman who was having a seizure. Several passengers defied orders and left one of the trains. They climbed out of the tunnel through a vent shaft that led to an open field, where they were met by a police helicopter. Metro is working to replace old insulators, but it seems it can’t move fast enough. Two days after the Friday fire in September, another arcing insulator in the same station interrupted service again.

Fires are only the beginning of Metro’s troubles. The 40-year-old system, which is the second busiest subway network in the country after the one in New York, faces not just one crisis, but several. It is trying to upgrade its aging and failing infrastructure; to convince the federal government it is safe to run; to reverse recent ridership declines; to keep better track of how it spends its money; and ultimately, to find a dedicated revenue source so it can plan for its future more than just a few years at a time.

“It’s brick-and-mortar stuff, and it’s people stuff,” says Leif Dormsjo, the director of Washington, D.C.’s transportation department and an alternate on the WMATA board. “A lot of transit agencies are dealing with one or the other. But to be dealing with both, I think that is why WMATA is in such a tough spot right now.”

Metro’s troubles are unique in some ways, but they are not unfamiliar to those who run transit systems elsewhere in the country. “In a system that is aging like WMATA’s, this is the new reality,” Dorval Carter, the president of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) warned a few months ago. “It is part of what you have to do to properly maintain the system. The Washington, D.C., area got kind of spoiled by the fact that the maintenance that needed to be done wasn’t done, but now you’re experiencing what other systems around the country are going through.”

Single tracking or partial line shutdowns happen on most typical weekends in Chicago. The CTA shut down the southern half of one of its lines for nearly a year to overhaul it. New York City is planning on shutting down a subway tunnel connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn that was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The project will take a year and a half, leaving the 225,000 riders who take the L line under the East River every day scrambling for new routes. In the San Francisco region, the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system, which opened a few years before the Washington Metro, also has shut down lines for weekend work, and its riders have encountered unexpected delays because of mechanical failures. After one particularly frustrating experience back in March, an agency spokesman posted a blunt message to riders on its @SFBART Twitter account: “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.”

Transit executives who have brought back struggling systems emphasize the need for both time and money to make the turnaround possible. Andy Byford, the CEO of Toronto’s transit system, whose subway is slightly larger than Metro’s, told his board that he needed five years to turn his agency around. Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, predicts it will be a year or two before Metro passengers notice improved service.

Wiedefeld says improvements won’t be noticeable for a year or two.

Wiedefeld, who at different times has headed both Baltimore’s airport and its transit system, took over at Metro less than a year ago. The search that ended with his hiring had taken more than a year, and it exposed deep divisions on Metro’s unwieldy multijurisdictional governing board. Board members from Maryland and the District of Columbia wanted a financial expert; representatives from Virginia and the federal government wanted a more conventional transit executive. The in-fighting and seemingly intractable problems at the agency scared off many candidates. So when the board finally settled on Wiedefeld, the news was a relief. His appointment was roundly cheered.

Wiedefeld vowed to make safety his top priority. The first indication that he meant that as more than just a platitude came when a blizzard hit the capital region in January of 2016. The new Metro executive shut the entire system down for a day. Although not unprecedented, the closure was noteworthy for a system that stayed open even on the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks that hit the Pentagon.

Then Wiedefeld shut down Metro rail service a second time, just two months later. This time, though, the concern was for the safety of Metro’s own equipment. A fire on Monday, March 14, had caused extensive rush hour delays. Disturbingly, the fire started in a similar fashion as the one in 2015 that resulted in a fatality. Both were caused by faulty jumper cables, which carry electricity between separated segments of the third rail that powers Metro’s trains. The day after the March fire, Wiedefeld took the drastic step of ordering a system shutdown without giving riders even a day’s notice. Metro used that closure to inspect 600 jumper cables throughout its system. “When I say safety is our highest priority, I mean it,” Wiedefeld said at the time. “That sometimes means making tough, unpopular decisions, and this is one of those, for sure. I fully recognize the hardship this will cause.”

Looking back, Wiedefeld says he made the decision, in part, because he couldn’t get reliable information about the condition of the other jumper cables. “It wasn’t that people weren’t trying to give me the information or were hiding the information,” he says. “In some cases we just didn’t have the information, and I just wasn’t comfortable with that.”

A few months later, Wiedefeld made clear that the daylong shutdown was just the beginning. He unveiled a plan, called SafeTrack, that seeks to cram three years’ worth of track maintenance into a single year. Since June, Metro crews have been using shutdown time on the tracks to replace rails, rail ties, insulators, fasteners, studs, grout pad, power cables, switches and signals. They have welded joints, repaired platform lights, inspected fiber-optic cables, and cleared trash and weeds.

Expansion beyond the original 100-mile plan, while often popular, has come at the expense of basic maintenance.

For riders, the program has meant earlier nightly closing times, long delays and fewer customers. Ridership declined during the first three months of SafeTrack by 11 percent compared to a year earlier, a far steeper drop than the 1 percent average in the years since 2010, and something the cash-poor system definitely does not need right now.

Even when the “safety surges” are complete next spring, the subway system will still have a long list of maintenance and repairs left to tackle. Large-scale work, such as fixing a leaky tunnel 200 feet underground near the Dupont Circle station, will still be needed. “We are not back in 1976 [when Metro opened]. We’re a 40-year-old system,” Wiedefeld says. “Track is just one of the issues we have to deal with. We have system issues. We have power issues. We have lighting issues. Those are just ongoing issues that we will have to deal with. But we had slipped so far on one of the primary elements of infrastructure -- on the track -- that we have to do something to get it to a state where we can just maintain it.”

Once SafeTrack is completed, Wiedefeld wants to cut back Metro’s hours for an indefinite time, most likely by reducing late-night service. His goal is to give crews an additional eight hours a week to work on the tracks. It might not sound like a lot, but Wiedefeld hopes the extra time will generate more productivity. Currently, when Metro is closed for five hours a night, workers spend most of their time moving trains back to the rail yards and moving heavy equipment to the areas where it’s needed. Then, they have to move everything out of the way before service starts again in the morning. With all of that activity, a work crew sometimes gets as little as 90 minutes of actual repair time. So an extra hour or two could actually have a big impact, or so Wiedefeld argues.

Shrinking Metro’s schedule, though, has not been an easy sell. It would essentially mean rolling back the subway system’s hours to what they were in 1998. The following year, Metro extended weekend service until 1 a.m. In 2007, it started running weekend trains until 3 a.m. The move was popular with passengers and with restaurants and bars that catered to the D.C. nightlife scene. The longer hours helped revelers stay out later, but they also helped service workers get home after a late night at work. A local business group says scaling back service could cost 2,000 to 4,000 jobs in the District alone, and could reduce sales tax revenues to the city by $8 million to $12 million a year.

A group of elected officials from two suburban Maryland counties wrote a letter to Wiedefeld opposing any permanent shortening of hours. They raised the needs of service workers to get home and the public safety benefits of keeping drunken drivers off the road. But they also noted the potential impact on their region’s economy. The letter pointed out that many developments had sprouted up near Metro stations. “For these transit-oriented developments to reach their potential,” they wrote, “the transit … cannot just be a commuter system to get workers to and from office buildings for 9-5 jobs, but a ‘lifestyle system’ that allows for reliable transportation for recreation and nontraditional work hours.”

Dormsjo, the District’s transportation director, also questions the need for so much closure time. Wiedefeld wants Metro to be closed 41 hours a week, which is more than similar agencies in San Francisco (34 hours), Atlanta (30), Boston (28) and Los Angeles (22.5). “What is the state of WMATA’s track and rail infrastructure that necessitates much more overnight maintenance activity than not only other big city subway systems, but subway systems built in the same era?” Dormsjo asks, pointing to the systems in Atlanta and San Francisco. “They have similar technology. They have similar rail cars. They have similar operating requirements.”

Earlier closing times and long delays have meant fewer customers.

The debate over service hours offers a glimpse into the one factor that makes Metro different from all of its urban transit counterparts: management by a hodgepodge of competing jurisdictions that have been far more interested in expanding the system than in spending money on routine maintenance.

Metro was conceived in large part as a way to get federal workers from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs to their jobs in the District. That is still a core responsibility. But the system has expanded to 91 stations and 116 miles of track (with another extension to Virginia’s Dulles International Airport under construction). In the process, it has become the region’s best catalyst for economic development. Currently, 93 percent of all office space being developed in the Washington metro area is within a half-mile of a Metro station, and the overwhelming majority of it is even closer. If you fly over the area, you can identify Metro stops just by the clusters of high-rise buildings.

The new offices, condominiums, sports stadiums, retail developments, transit hubs, restaurants and bars have attracted a more diverse ridership to Metro from Maryland, Virginia and D.C. However, each of those jurisdictions has its own priorities, and Metro -- which unlike all of the nation’s other large systems doesn’t have its own dedicated funding source -- relies on all of its member jurisdictions to chip in every year to keep the trains running.

Ninety-three percent of office space being developed in the Washington area is within a half mile of a Metro station.

Expansion, or the promise of expansion, is often the best way to keep everybody happy. Economic development is a far easier sell than repairing dysfunctional insulators. But all that growth has taken its toll on the invisible infrastructure that keeps Metro trains running. “In 1998,” Wiedefeld says, “we had 25 percent more time to do maintenance than we did pre-SafeTrack. We’ve increased the system by 20 percent. We’ve added 40 more miles of track. We’ve added 15 percent more stations. We’ve basically added 65 percent more usage, by running cars more often. We’ve gone from two- and four-car [trains] to six- to eight-car [trains], so you’re adding that much more weight. All of those things are driving to the conditions we’ve gotten to.”

The tension between growth and maintenance, of course, is not new. It has been a recurring issue at Metro for decades. Metro’s safety record -- which has long been criticized by safety inspectors -- came under especially heavy scrutiny after two of its trains collided in June 2009, killing nine people, including one of the operators. In its investigation of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the immediate cause of the accident was a faulty circuit in the system that controls the trains. But a contributing factor, the investigators said, was the longtime “lack of a safety culture” at Metro.

The devastating accident and the damning conclusions led to major changes at the agency. Wiedefeld’s predecessor, Richard Sarles, launched a five-year effort to fix up the subway system’s dilapidated infrastructure. Congress pledged to spend $1.5 billion over a decade on capital improvements, with Metro’s local jurisdictions matching that money. The money helped Metro start replacing older subway cars, like those in the crash, that were part of its original fleet. It also paid for more track improvements. That work required reduced service on nights and weekends, and WMATA’s ridership, which had been steadily increasing for years, began seeing declines. Still, it seemed that Metro’s fortunes were improving.

Then, just days before Sarles stepped down, came the disaster of the smoke-filled train and another passenger death. To make matters worse, the accident exposed how ill-prepared Metro was for an emergency. A smoke detector failed to alert Metro’s control center of the smoke in the tunnel. Dispatchers failed to stop all the trains in the system once they heard reports of smoke, and then were unable to move the smoke-filled trains for more than half an hour. Train operators didn’t know how to turn off the onboard fans that were bringing smoke from outside into their cars. First responders didn’t know where to go when they arrived on the scene, and the fire department’s radios didn’t work in the tunnel. The safety turnaround that so many people thought was taking place at Metro seemed not to have taken place at all.

“What the heck was going on from 2010 to 2015?” asks Dormsjo. “Where did all that time and money go? The customers have been experiencing a lot of service outages for repairs, so what was going on? The management has been a little circumspect about that, other than to say the low-hanging fruit was being plucked.”

If six years of service disruptions failed to improve much at the agency, there’s real reason to question whether a year of safety surges and indefinite early closures will do the trick.

Under SafeTrack, crews are attempting to do three years' worth of maintenance in a single year.

But is the fundamental issue sloppy maintenance practices, or is Metro’s dysfunction ultimately a question of money and governance?

“This region was not making the investment that WMATA needed going back 15 to 20 years. Now we’re paying for it,” says Chuck Bean, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Bean is hopeful that Wiedefeld can provide the needed management changes, and the board members can focus on regional needs rather than parochial issues. Then Metro can generate support for new funding by emphasizing its role in economic development and improving residents’ quality of life. “Funding Metro will be seen as a good return on investment,” he says.

Christopher Zimmerman, a former Metro board chair, is less optimistic. He says the agency repeatedly asked its participating jurisdictions for money to fund upkeep and improvements that would make its operations run more smoothly. But local officials balked at the price. Years ago, after Metro completed building its original 100-mile plan, the jurisdictions objected to making the improvements necessary for Metro to preserve its share of commuters over the next few decades. “There was never a clear intention to even maintain the share of Metro in the region with growth, and there are consequences to that,” Zimmerman says. “These are the consequences. The biggest problem we have as a region is that we want the easy way out, so we are forever blaming whoever is the general manager now. Our real problems aren’t there. They’re shared by lots of people in the region, ultimately everyone in the region.”

Citizens and elected officials often hear about Metro’s problems and then decide that the system shouldn’t get more money until it gets its act together. Zimmerman doesn’t buy that. “It’s like not giving the patient any medicine until they get better,” he says.

“It’s the disconnect between the service we all say we want,” he adds, and the “political will to pay for something.”