This is the premiere episode of The FixWMATA Podcast and is a great background for what WMATA is and who Chris Barnes (FixWMATA) is. It was recorded in late 2017.
Link to Ian Sutherland's Music: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/ian_sutherland
Link to an article about my day on Metro in a wheelchair: https://www.americaninno.com/dc/metro-writer-discover-accessibility-issues-firsthand/
Text of this episode:
Hello I’m Chris Barnes and this is the FixWMATA podcast.
Since this is the very first episode I’d like to cover some basics – namely what is WMATA, who I am and what are you getting yourself into here.
First things first:
WMATA, spelled w-m-a-t-a, is an abbreviation for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority or as it’s more commonly known here in the DC area: Metro.
WMATA has 3 primary services: Metro Rail, Metro Bus, and MetroAccess.
While this podcast will focus on all 3 of these services there will be a heavy focus on Metro Rail because metro rail needs fixing… badly.
There is a wealth of detailed information about how WMATA came to be and what there was in DC before WMATA on Wikipedia and a must-read for any urbanite in DC is “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro” by Zachary Schrag but the bottom line is this: WMATA was officially formed in 1967 via an interstate compact approved by congress.
At the time getting Virginia, DC, Maryland, and the federal government to agree on how to form and later operate a mass transit agency was a big undertaking… an undertaking that’s clearly still being forged today.
So in 1967 we got WMATA and in 1969 WMATA broke ground on the very first segment of rail – the Red Line. Just a few years later in 1971 WMATA took over the region’s bus network and finally in 1976 WMATA opened it’s first Red Line segment which operated from Farragut North to Rhode Island Avenue.
From there the rail system has grown to 91 stations spread over 6 lines: red, blue, orange, yellow, green, and silver which stretch 117 miles – a distance some consider commuter rail. Metro tracks are at grade – which means street level, in tunnels, and on elevated stretches. Metro boasts a daily ridership of over 700 thousand. This puts Metro Rail in the list of busiest transit agencies in America – but those ridership numbers have begun to decline.
2 other “sister” transit systems were built and opened around the same time as WMATA: Atlanta’s MARTA and San Francisco’s BART. You’ll often see comparisons among these 3 systems as they’ve faced similar finance, growth, political, and stigma issues.
WMATA, like any other transit agency, has had few accidents in it’s history and some have resulted in death.
By far the most shocking accident in recent history occurred on June 22nd, 2009 when a Red Line train outside Fort Totten station stopped. Track circuits failed to tell another Red Line train approaching from the rear that the first train had stopped and the rear train slammed into the front train from behind. The accident killed 8 riders and the train operator of the rear train and injured about 80 others.
The 2009 Red Line accident was a wake up call for WMATA and for the region. How could something like this happen and what needed to be done to prevent it from happening again?
A very thorough investigation by the NTSB and others showed that WMATA had been cutting corners and delaying or falsifying track work for a long time. In some cases track work was delayed to provide service levels – a fatal tradeoff that only works for a short time.
Another finding of the 2009 crash was a lack of funding and how that affects safety at WMATA. WMATA is the only transit system in America without dedicated funding. Each year funds have to be allocated by DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government. Lack of funds often leads to prioritizing safety after financial and political interests. The debate on how to finance WMATA still rages loudly today – nearly a decade after the 2009 crash.
Since the 2009 crash WMATA has been in turmoil – or as some of us call it: a death spiral. We’ve seen general managers come and go – each time promising to be the ones to fix WMATA. We’ve seen board members come and go promising the same only to be lured to greener pastures – like becoming DC’s mayor. We’ve seen accidents too. In 2015 a rider named Carol Glover died when a Yellow Line train just south of L’Enfant station stopped short of an arcing insulator. The smoke filled the tunnel and eventually the rail cars before they could be evacuated.
Carol Glover’s death was another wakeup call that resulted in another investigation and once again WMATA was found to be pencil-whipping safety reports. Specifically agency documents showed that tunnel exhaust fans were being maintained when they actually weren’t – certainly a contributing factor to Carol Glover’s death.
The arcing insulators which caused that incident remain a problem today. Sadly they’re just one of many problems plaguing the rail system. The short list includes water infiltration issues, switch issues, and of course the arcing insulators.
So, WMATA – a system that serves ¾ of a million riders daily – is a disaster. Financial problems, safety problems, customer service problems, management problems, union problems, and oversight problems cause daily heartburn for riders and although everyone seems to know the list of problems nobody can seem to agree on how to fix WMATA.
That’s where this podcast and I plan to step in. We’re going to talk to riders. We’re going to talk to management. We’re going to talk to labor organizers, we’re going to talk to politicians. We’re going to talk to reporters and we’re going to talk to many of the people who are on the fringe trying their best to see a need/fill a need in whatever way they can.
We’re going to ask as many people as we possibly can a very simple and powerful 2-part question:
What is wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
You’ll probably hear people here you disagree with. Hopefully you’ll hear a few who might have taken words right out of your mouth.
We’re also going to work to educate and energize WMATA’s ridership. Did you know, for instance, WMATA has a Riders’ Advisory Council? Did you know they have a group called the Accessibility Advisory Committee who is focused on nothing but accessibility issues?
Did you know WMATA board meetings are open to the public and there’s a public comment period?
Did you know major changes to WMATA including budget approvals require a public meeting where the public can both get educated as well as make remarks?
If you’re tired of fares going up that last one might be for you!
Did you know also there are resources from every day riders waiting for you and most of them can be found on twitter with the hashtag w-m-a-t-a?
If you’ve ever ridden a metro train or bus and had the “WTF” feeling this podcast is for you. If you’re tired of seeing problems and want to be part of the solution this podcast is for you. If you’re just looking for something to listen to on your commute, yes, this podcast is also for you.
Again, my name is Chris Barnes. I started the twitter account @FIXWMATA in 2011 after moving to DC from Houston and have maintained it – off and on – since then.
I started doing this because as I commuted daily from Ballston to Silver Spring I was amazed by all the crappy things I saw in what should have been a friggin awesome system. I saw crowding and offloading and delay after delay and I turned to Twitter to find out why such an otherwise beautiful metro system was such a pain in the butt.
By following the WMATA hashtag I found accounts like unsuckdcmetro and quickly tried to educate myself on the problems and who was doing what to try to fix them.
For my part I started tracking hot cars. Anyone who’s ridden in a hot rail car in the summer will tell you they’re a real problem. In fact so many people were reporting the cars with car numbers on twitter that I decided to see if there were trends. There were. Not only did newer railcars have more problems the same ones kept popping up over and over for several months – a sure sign that they weren’t getting fixed.
Through the years I’ve tried my best to get involved and be part of the solution instead of just another angry person yelling about WMATA on twitter.
I started 2 WMATA rider groups in the past 7 years. The first called MetroTAG and the 2nd called WMATARU. Both folded for different reasons but i still feel strongly in the need for a metro rider’s union.
I’ve also gone to Riders’ Advisory Council meetings and Accessibility Advisory Committee meetings at WMATA headquarters because those are the 2 groups of riders who are responsible for creating change at WMATA. Eventually I even became a member of the RAC representing DC riders but as they say: you don’t want to see how the sausage is made. Once I saw how the RAC really worked I was convinced they were nothing more than window dressing – a checkbox for the board of directors to use when rider input was required.
I still hold out hope for this group but drastic change is needed for them to make any real difference.
While attending the AAC meetings I met a couple named Pat and Meeka. I told them I was there because I was trying to better understand the accessibility issues facing Metro riders. They told me if I truly wanted to understand what it’s like to use Metro trains and buses in a wheelchair that I had to spend a day doing it. So I did. They loaned me an extra manual wheelchair and I spent a day riding the rails and buses with them. I learned about things like autolevel which keeps the threshold of the train door level with the platform so you can roll over it. I learned about the delay you cause when a bus driver has to put the bus in park and lock your chair in – and the nasty stares you get from other riders while it’s happening. I learned about dark platforms which make navigating for riders with limited vision a perilous activity. I really could keep listing insights I learned from just 1 day but the point I want to make is that far too often we see our world from our point of view and fail to see how things that may seem just fine to you or I are actually a matter of life or death for others.
So now here we are at the end of 2017 and after a year away I’m back to relaunch FixWMATA once more. I hope you’ll tag along with me for the journey. I can promise you this: I won’t always be right and I won’t be the smartest person in the room but just like you I won’t stop looking for the answers to the question:
What’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
I hope you’ll join me next time. Until then take care of yourself and your fellow rider – we’re all in this together!
If you would like to be featured on a future FixWMATA podcast or have segment suggestions please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @FixWMATA.
If you have something to say about WMATA and want to leave feedback you can call me at 202-709-6282 and leave a voicemail that may be included in a future podcast.
The FixWMATA podcast is recorded using Apple products and can be found on iTunes and Google Play.
A text version of each podcast is available at FixWMATA dot com slash category slash podcast.
The music used in the podcast comes from Ian Sutherland and a link to his music can be found on the website.
You can continue the conversation on Twitter by following @FixWMATA or searching the hashtag WMATA.