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— by Angela Claypool, Associate Editor
Thirty years ago this month, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) launched service on the first segment of its subway system — a 4.2-mile, five-station corridor that dissected downtown Washington, D.C.
Initially, most of authority's 20,000 daily passengers were federal workers who rode Metrorail ("Metro" for short) — which was open from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Monday through Friday — to get to and from offices in the nation's capital. But the system, and along with it, the passenger base, grew considerably during the next-quarter century. WMATA added segments and stations just about every year, completing work on the 103-mile, 83-station system in 2001. In 2004, the agency opened its first extension, a 3.1-mile segment to Largo Town Center in Maryland.
Today, WMATA carries commuters between their suburban Maryland and Virginia homes and downtown D.C. on its trains and buses. The agency also transports tourists to national landmarks, sports fans games at RFK Stadium, FedEx Field and the MCI Center, and people to special events on the National Mall. With an average weekday ridership of 700,000 and rising, WMATA now provides service weekdays from 5 a.m. to midnight and weekends from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Although the customer base and service reach have changed, the way WMATA managers ran the operation didn't — until recently. After a series of infrastructure and ensuing service problems surfaced in 2004 — delays caused by cracked rail, two derailments and a train collision, all under the watchful eye of lawyers, lawmakers and bureaucrats who make up a significant portion of the ridership base — it became apparent to WMATA's leadership team that the agency needed to change.
"This was a construction site for almost 30 years. It's an operating site now," says Metrorail Chief Operating Officer Steven Feil. "We didn't carry 700,000 people 10 years ago and we didn't have the operating concerns we have today. Now, we have to talk about the next level."
For WMATA's chief strategists, getting there means taking a step back and reaffirming the authority's core mission — which, simply, is getting people from A to B safely and on time. Enter what WMATA officials termed a "back-to-basics" program launched in late 2004. It's an "aggressive service reliability, customer service and corporate accountability effort" that ultimately would go a long way toward enhancing "customer confidence and
regional support," officials said at the time.
Taking a step back enabled top management to take a fresh look at the organizational structure. It made sense to have one transportation superintendent in charge of the subway when the system
extended five, 10 or 20 miles, but one
superintendent could never keep up with the demands of a 106-mile system. Meanwhile, maintenance employees could handle routine work, but didn't have the right kind of experience to proactively
address aging infrastructure.
Some streamlining was in order, WMATA management concluded. In early 2005, the authority consolidated 12 departments reporting to the general manager and chief executive officer into four: customer service, operations and safety; planning and development; workforce development and administration; and finance. Officials then reorganized the transportation and maintenance departments so managers were appointed to specifically oversee one of the authority's three lines.
Restructuring in and of itself won't be enough for top management to convince employees (and the managers themselves, for that matter) that they're sincere about stepping back and re-focusing so they can reach that elusive next level. But the organizational buy-in of the "back-to-basics" mind-set was evident during Progressive Railroading's mid-January visit to WMATA's downtown D.C. headquarters. Top execs, line managers and department heads spoke enthusiastically about the
renewed focus on the mission, even in the midst of a GM/CEO change that had been announced just days earlier.
"What's really important? It's customer service and reliability," says James Hughes, assistant general manager for operations. "We've made a commitment to ourselves and our customers to focus on that."
Determining what they needed to focus on was easy. Figuring out how to do it — and do it well — wasn't. For help, Richard White — who stepped down from his long-time position as general manager and chief executive manager in January — turned to rail COO Feil. In June 2004, Feil joined WMATA just in time to witness the rash of service problems.
With more than 20 years of rail experience, including stints in the engineering departments at MTA New York City Transit and Amtrak, and as Washington Group
International's vice president and general manager of operations for New Jersey Transit's Hudson-Bergen light-rail system, Feil brought a fresh set of eyes to WMATA. He surveyed the system and determined more workers were needed to get more maintenance work done sooner. Feil then turned his attention to what he believed was the key to WMATA's success: a new management structure.
Under the old structure, one person was in charge of all transportation and station management, and oversaw more than 1,000 employees and nine divisions. The new arrangement is based on a line management structure. Feil divided the organization into three groups to represent WMATA's Red, Yellow/Green and Blue/Orange lines.
The authority appointed a manager for each line to oversee all stations and employees, including train operators, station managers, custodians and customer service representatives. The manager also is responsible for reliability, customer service, safety and cleanliness on his or her respective line.
"We're creating full accountability and engaging the total management concept," says Feil. "It's not just the director, it's not just the chief operating officer; it's the
operator, station manager, custodian."
The reorganization, which began in late 2004, took more than a year to complete. "It took us a long time to pick the right people," says Feil.
The "right people" include Red Line Manager Belynda Jones, Blue/Orange Line Manager Charlie Dziduch and Yellow/Green Line Manager Rita Davis. Each have about 30 years' experience at
WMATA. More important, they're dedicated self-starters with original ideas and creative problem-solving skills, Feil says.
And they're ambassadors of the back-to-basics program. Jones, Dziduch and Davis don't just preach the customer-service message to their employees; they live by it — whether it means greeting
customers or directing passenger flow on a platform. The aim: Set an example for
employees to follow. Every job description includes the responsibility to serve
"Before, mechanics thought they were out just to fix a train. We're trying to show them that they're also there to assist customers with whatever needs they have. If there's a delay, direct them around it," says Jones. "They might not be directly involved with customers, but they still have the opportunity to be customer focused."
How do the line managers work to keep customer focus front and center? It's a three-step process, says Dziduch.
First, line managers must communicate with their employees. And they have to be visible. Jones, Dziduch and Davis don't spend much time in their offices; they're out visiting stations to observe and talk with workers, making sure they understand what's expected of them while also hearing their thoughts and concerns.
Second, managers must use the feedback they receive to determine how to better support employees, whether it be by supplying equipment such as radios or providing workers with pertinent information — details on upcoming special events or trackwork, or reminders on
"Nothing's worse than having a customer ask your employee a question and they don't have an answer," Davis says.
Lastly, managers must recognize employees for the good (and not-so-good) work they do. Any time a manager receives a customer complaint about a discourteous employee, a superintendent speaks with the worker to get his or her side of the story, takes action if necessary and follows up with the customer to let them know they addressed the situation.
To reward employees, Jones, Dziduch and Davis are looking to expand WMATA's incentive programs. The authority offers certificates for the division and employee of the month, but line managers want to
do more. For example, managers could hold quarterly celebrations to recognize employees in front of their peers instead of doing it annually, says Jones.
"A lot of people will say customers are No. 1," says Dziduch. "But it's really the employees that are No. 1, and if you treat them as such, they'll give you the customer service you need."
Dziduch, for one, is hearing fewer complaints since he began managing the Blue/Orange Line in September. Complaints about rude and discourteous workers dropped from 25 per month
before he took over to 11 in December.
The new management seems to be making a difference in the transportation department. But the restructuring doesn't end there. WMATA also reshuffled the maintenance department, again with an eye on accountability, efficiency and (ultimately) better service.
Last summer, Feil combined the track division with the systems division to improve coordination between the two groups, which are responsible for maintaining signals, track, structures and power systems.
To head up the new department, Feil turned to former NYCT colleague David Knights, who's also served as head of construction for telecommunications provider Empire City Subway and an
Amtrak project consultant. He most
recently worked for consulting firm Carter & Burgess Inc. before taking over as
WMATA's general superintendent, track and structures/systems maintenance last June.
In October, Knights implemented a line management structure in the track department to mirror the organization on the transportation side. Track superintendents, supervisors and maintenance managers now are assigned for the Red, Blue/Orange and Yellow/Green lines. And, like the transportation department, the
reorganization gives maintenance supervisors ownership, responsibility and
accountability for their lines.
"Before, it was set up by a north/south division, so somebody maybe had some of the Red Line but not all of it and someone else had a piece of the Blue/Orange Line — it was all over the place," says Knights. "Now, there's a much clearer
delineation of who has responsibility for what."
The new structure required WMATA to hire more workers. The department added about 30 track and structures managers and field personnel. Knights then created an 81-person production crew to handle "out of face" work, such as installing continuous-welded rail, switches, track panels and third rail, and conducting major tie replacements.
The additional workers have helped WMATA tackle more aggressive maintenance-of-way programs. Production crews are taking on larger projects, which frees other workers to focus on maintenance.
Knights also plans to hire more track inspectors this year, and halve the number of track miles they inspect from about 10 to five. Inspectors, too, are assigned for each line and report to line superintendents, who are responsible for ensuring work gets done.
Inspectors previously handed orders off to maintenance workers and frequently neither party followed up with one another, which resulted in a lot of finger-pointing if a problem area occurred.
Inspectors and superintendents now work in tandem to conduct condition assessments, and develop maintenance and production programs, which will become increasingly important as the system ages.
With the lines of communication and responsibility now clearly established, the transportation and maintenance divisions are able to work more efficiently together.
"If there are any issues, then the line manager on the transportation side can directly contact the line superintendent," says Knights. "They know who has the ownership and responsibility for each line, so if there are any issues, they just have to make a phone call."
To help support the authority's new management structure and drive its mission, Feil also made changes within the operations control center (OCC). The
director now reports to Feil instead of the general transportation superintendent ("The OCC is the pulse of the system, so I thought they should report directly to the COO," says Feil). In addition, workers from all disciplines of the subway system — C&S, car equipment, power distribution, track and structures, fare collection and substations — are on hand to lend support and help troubleshoot problems.
For example, if train operators are having trouble with a particular car, they can radio the problem to the OCC, where the worker manning the car equipment console can try to help the operator solve it, then relay the information to a car maintenance shop.
"We're basically dealing with a two-lane highway, and we have such close headways that if a problem can be fixed or isolated with standard troubleshooting, it's important to do so," says OCC Director Dan Epps.
It'll be at least a year before WMATA officials can gauge the success of the reorganization, says Feil. But early indicators show the effort is paying off. In fourth-quarter 2005, the mean service time
between failures shot up 23 percent and complaints dropped 12 percent.
Officials expect they'll see further improvements as their efforts continue to take root. In the meantime, they have other issues to address; namely, finding ways to stay ahead of ridership growth, which is increasing an average of 3 percent annually.
"The reorganization, for all intents and purposes and barring any small tweaks, is complete," says Feil. "Now, the challenge for us is to increase capacity."
The authority operates a two-track subway system that has no room to add a third track. For WMATA to increase capacity, it'll need to maximize asset utilization.
However, the authority's already operating the maximum, or close to the maximum, number of trains it can on most lines, says assistant GM of operations Hughes.
A partial solution: operate longer trains. In late January, the authority launched eight-car train service as a pilot on the Orange Line. During the morning rush hour, WMATA now operates 27 trains per hour — six of which are eight-car trains — instead of the previous 29 six-car trains.
The authority also expects the move to increase reliability. Because headways are so tight, running fewer trains can help boost on-time performance.
"The moment we have a minor delay — even one minute — the train behind it backs up and we end up with this bunching effect," says Hughes. "Now, if we have a one- or two-minute delay, we can absorb it better."
WMATA plans to roll out eight-car trains on other lines later this year. The authority expects to use eight-car trains for 20 percent of its service by December and 33 percent by 2007's end. The authority currently is in the process of purchasing and taking
delivery of passenger cars needed to run the eight-car trains.
The agency's already using all 192 cars it ordered from Spain's CAF Inc. in 1998 and is beginning to take delivery of the first of 182 cars it ordered from ALSTOM Transport. In addition,
ALSTOM is rehabilitating some of WMATA's older vehicles to feature new interiors and propulsion systems, says acting General Superintendent of Car Maintenance Gene Garzone.
The additional cars should keep the authority on pace to meet ridership growth through 2012 based on a regional planning model. Then, it'll need to purchase another 220 cars by 2020 to operate nothing but eight-car trains, says Hughes.
But 2020 seems like light years away for WMATA officials, who have plenty to keep them busy in the near term. The authority needs dedicated funding to help keep the system in a state of good repair. Officials also are trying to find new ways to generate additional revenue. Continued investment in station and parking improvements are necessary to accommodate the ridership
increase. And then there's the business of figuring out who's going to be the agency's next leader.
On Jan. 11, WMATA announced long-time GM and CEO White had reached an agreement with the board to step down from the top post. During his nearly decade-long tenure, White oversaw the build-out of the system, raised awareness of the need for dedicated funding, helped secure a six-year, $3.3 billion regional funding agreement, and launched the back-to-basics program. But board members believe another leader would be better suited to see the agency through its current set of challenges.
The board is seeking "someone who brings to the table both an understanding of customer expectations and an entrepreneurial spirit" who can increase communication with customers and elected officials, work well with the board, and continue White's efforts to obtain dedicated funding, says board member Dana Kauffman, who served as board chair last year.
The board is conducting a nationwide search for a new GM, but might not have to look far.
WMATA board member and D.C. Department of Transportation Director Dan Tangherlini — who resigned from both posts to try his hand as WMATA's top exec — officially started Feb. 16. Tangherlini was unavailable for comment as of press time, but Kauffman hinted in late January that the position could become a permanent one.
"[Tangherlini] understands the challenges we face. He has a proven track record in D.C., where he's used to a system that's under the gun," says Kauffman. "We're going to do a national search and I look forward to getting many good applications. At the same time, the nation's capital could not get by with a caretaker in the general manager position, so Dan has the opportunity to stand and deliver."
The new leader certainly will have his or her hands full meeting the board's directive for building stronger relationships between the general manager, and customers and elected officials.
"They have to do more than just keep the trains and buses running," says Kauffman.
However, it's easy to get caught up in relationship-building and lose sight of your core mission — operating reliable service — so the importance of "just keeping trains running" shouldn't be downplayed, says White, who's hinted that he might seek
employment in the private sector.
"When the rubber hits the road, they have to make sure their operational process is working," he said during one of his final interviews as WMATA's chief. "If you don't pay attention to that, it'll be very easy to backslide off the progress that's been made."
But if the new leader can find a way to juggle the demands of the board and customers, and manage the system as a whole, WMATA will be in a good position to finish its climb to the next level.
"With the right leadership and the right mind-set, this could be one of the best periods for the agency," says Kauffman.