16 Mar Stop the Trains…Literally. The D.C. Metro has Shut Down
The Washington Metro Area Transit (WMATA) is no stranger to being on the wrong side of the tracks. Its past is riddled with bad press such as the deadly smoke incident last year, or the 2009 Fort Totten accident, or train derailments, and most recently the cable fire in McPherson Square this week (not to mention, numerous security incidents). But yesterday, WMATA set a new record for negative coverage, shutting down the entire metro system for twenty-nine hours to inspect more than 600 electric cables in tunnels. This action placed more than 700,000 additional people on the road in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia (DMV) area today.
Other cities have shut down sections of their railways for periods of time, but never the entire system. Chicago shut down a ten-mile stretch of its Red Line for five months in 2013, providing bus service as a replacement. The move saved hundreds of millions of dollars, minimized the total disruption time and eventually increased ridership by two percent. New York’s subway ridership hit 60-year lows in the 70’s and 80’s on account of shoddy maintenance and derailments. Richard Ravitch turned New York’s system around with organized town hall meetings and magically secured the much-needed funding to repair the broken system. WMATA has been in search of their own Richard Ravitch for years.
WMATA Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, is acting on the organization’s promise to put safety as its top priority. After Monday’s fire and last year’s deadly smoke incident, both stemming from the same electric cables they are currently inspecting, Wiedefled felt he had no choice but to do something drastic. Especially when a recent Metrorail report showed that ridership has continued to decline, an estimated ten percent since 2010 partly on account of Metro’s reliability.
With the unprecedented news aside, I can’t help but look at it from a public relations/crisis communications perspective. Within hours, the news of the shut down had spread – but it wasn’t coming from WMATA, itself. Those who got wind of the information were the ones spreading the news.
As one daily rider wrote on Facebook, “No signs outside my station. No announcements while waiting on the platform. WMATA’s site is completely down. Shouldn’t they be busting their butts to communicate this to tonight’s commuters???”
Last year, WMATA enlisted help from Hill + Knowlton and O’Neill and Associates to improve its communication with riders and its image. The goal was for WMATA to regain public trust, be truthful, and ensure quality customer service. No one believed the task would be easy, but the metro system continues to battle uphill.
Currently, the WMATA site is operating and there is a massive banner ad talking about the closing. The ad links to a press release posted yesterday explaining the immediate need to inspect the power cables which will affect all six metro rails and 91 metro stations. The release does link to alternate sources of transportation, but as other riders had suggested, no mention of compensated fare for alternate arrangements.
Alternatively, WMATA, knowing they’ve had communication trouble in the past should have been in control of the message from the start. They need to take a page from their followers and “haters” who did spread the message like wildfire. Some riders interviewed said they wished WMATA had done this on a weekend as to not affect daily commuters who depend on the metro to get to work. WMATA should have placed a stronger emphasis on the safety concern as to the reason of why metro had to be shut down immediately. They could have scheduled press conferences and TV appearances to get ahead of the message and control the conversation.
It will take a long time for WMATA to redeem its image and earn back riders’ trust. Wiedefeld was just recently appointed in November 2015 and has been hit hard with incident after incident within his first few months on the job. As in other cases mentioned before, a large budget increase to fix failing infrastructure is needed to get back to a level playing field. From there, the organization can no longer ignore routine maintenance to stretch their budgets a little further. It’s time to get to the heart of the message it promotes – safety first. Let’s hope this movie, while rash, may just be what is needed to get things back on track.
And for my fellow commuters, think of it as a snow day. Many companies, organizations, local governments, and the federal government are offering the option to telework for those that are impacted (which is pretty much the entire metro area). And if you are among those that do not have the option, hopefully, those that can telework take advantage of that opportunity, making it easier on those who cannot. Like it did in Los Angeles in 2011 and in 2012 when a section of freeway was shut down, sending shockwaves of fear all over the city causing many people to stay home, thus traffic was better than average.