National Press Club

New Metro manager says train system "much worse" than he expected

March 8, 2016 | By Wesley G. Pippert | PippertW@missouri.edu

Paul Wiedenfeld, General Manager and CEO of Washington's Metro system, answers questions from National Press Club President Thomas Burr at a Club luncheon, March 7, 2016.

Paul Wiedenfeld, General Manager and CEO of Washington's Metro system, answers questions from National Press Club President Thomas Burr at a Club luncheon, March 7, 2016.

Photo/Image: Al Teich

Paul Wiedefeld, the new general manager of the Washington Metro, told a National Press Club luncheon Monday that he found things when he took office three months ago as "much worse than I expected" and would deal first with nuts and bolts issues before tackling a long-term strategy.

In a prepared statement later, Wiedefeld said there was no single action that would turn Metro around but concerted efforts "to grind out critical changes at all levels... from the Metro cars to using employees efficiently." He said he was committed to being transparent "about what needs to be fixed, how we are going to fix it and ensure our stakeholders can easily monitor progress."

He promised transparency for the public as Metro moves into its 5-year program. "It's the cars, it's the vehicles, being in the line every day, a.m. and p.m.," he said. "It is the track, and its the operation, meaning operators and station managers."

In a departure from the usual format, NPC President Thomas Burr and Wiedefeld sat on chairs on the platform in the Ballroom and carried on a conversation. Burr, of the Salt Lake Tribune, began by reciting a list of problems facing Washington's comparatively new, 40-year-old subway system -- broken elevators, garbled announcements, derailments.

Wiedefeld, an expert in transportation management, came to Washington from Baltimore where he was BWI manager. He said he spent hit first three months studying Metro problems with outside consultants and making his own assessment. Line people and station managers, he said, "understand what we're up against." He cited, for instance, 30 very sharp curves, and tracks with aging and broken fasteners that are expensive to replace.

As for the escalators, Wiedefeld said, "The reality is these are very complex systems designed from a safety standpoint ... and are designed to stop automatically." When passengers encounter a broken escalator, they assume the other escalators are broken, too. In reality, he said, 90% of the escalators function properly.

He also said it's time to look at Metro's weekend service.

Wiedefeld said Metro is a "very safe system," with 6.1 crimes per a million passengers. In answer to Burr's complaint about rarely seeing officers, Wiedefeld said he wanted to see Metro officers on the platform "popping into cars, popping out again."

He said Metro now is working on a $350 million project to replace the radio system both above and below ground, with $125 million tabbed for the tunnel portion.

All was not serious. The traditional luncheon dessert, a cookie, was frosted with the pattern of a Metro map. And when Burr presented Wiedefeld with the traditional Press Club mug, he told not him to be sure not to use when riding Metro.