Episode 005 of the FixWMATA Podcast was recorded in December, 2017 and features news and an interview with Roger Bowles of @RailTransitOps.
Link to Ian Sutherland's Music: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/ian_sutherland
Text of this episode:
I’m Chris Barnes and this… is the FixWMATA Podcast
This week we take a quick look back at the news from December 9th through December 15th, 2017, take a look ahead at the week of meetings, and then I sit down with Roger Bowles who heads up the Rail Transit Operations, Performance & Safety Group.
In WMATA news this week…
A night time shooting at Minnesota Avenue station left one rider injured and Metro Transit Police on the lookout for 2 suspects. This is the 2nd Transit Police incident at Minnesota Avenue station in 2 weeks. Last week a man evaded paying his fare and proceeded to the platform where he threw a bicycle onto the tracks causing damage to 3 new railcars. These incidents combined with incidents at other stations have some riders calling for a MTPD presence at some stations during all operating hours.
Metro continues to push for Automatic Train Operation. ATO was turned off after the 2009 Red Line crash and WMATA hasn’t had much progress getting it restored since. Metro plans to bring in an outside consultant in 2018 to help restore the service which will, among many things, provide a smoother ride for Metro’s riders.
And Metro is pushing forward with a plan to start charging for parking on Saturdays starting in February. Currently weekend parking is free at Metro parking garages – a benefit many weekend riders appreciate given the horrible state of rail service on weekends. One WMATA Board Member fought back against the plan to start charging to park – Cathy Hudgins requested stations in her jurisdiction of Fairfax County be exempted from the change at the WMATA Board Meetings this week. Her request was voted down. This policy change comes on the heels of another policy change that will no longer allow negative SmarTrip balances – another change riders don’t like.
All of these stories and more can be found on FixWMATA dot com where new stories are added throughout the week.
And here are just a few of the opportunities we have to get involved with fixing WMATA this coming week:
The Accessibility Advisory Committee’s MetroAccess Subcommittee Meeting happens this Monday the 18th of December. The meeting is from 4 PM to 6 PM at WMATA Headquarters.
On Wednesday the 20th the Riders’ Advisory Council’s Program Projects and Planning Committee meets at 6 PM followed by the Safety and Security Committee meeting.
And on Thursday the 21st the Riders’ Advisory Council’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting starts at 6:30 PM. All Riders’ Advisory Council meetings take place at WMATA Headquarters at 600 5th Street, NW.
All of these meetings are open to the public and allow public comment. These events and others with more information can be found on FixWMATA.com under Calendar.
Roger Bowles, James Pizzurro, and Stephen Repetski run an operation you may not be familiar with. Their group – called the Rail Transit Operations, Performance & Safety Group – acts as an entirely grassroots effort by riders to evaluate WMATA’s operations and provide information and recommendations about Metro’s performance.
You may not be familiar with them – but you should thank them anyway. This 3rd-party impartial group takes a detailed and critical look at everything from how the trains run to how the Rail Operations Control Center is run and how decisions made at WMATA affect rail riders. They also provide detailed and timely information to riders via Twitter – often when the needed information can’t be gleamed from Metro.
I sat down with Roger this week outside WMATA Headquarters to find out more about the group and how they do what they do to help fix WMATA…
[begin interview audio]
[FixWMATA] This week I’m speaking with Roger Bowles from the Rail Transit Ops Group. Roger, thanks for sitting down with me.
[Roger] Thanks, Chris.
[F] You guys are officially the Rail Transit Operations, Performance & Safety Group and you’re on Twitter as @RailTransitOps. You are an independent, 100% publicly funded organization that currently evaluates the operations, performance, and safety aspects of the WMATA rail system. You also provide incidental service information on MARC and VRE. You’re basically 3 guys: yourself, James Pizzurro – who we’ve spoken to in the past about DC Metro Hero, and Stephen Repetski. Is that right?
[R] Yes, that’s correct.
[F] 3 guys do all that work? And if you’re not following you guys on Twitter I highly recommend that people do follow @RailTransitOps on Twitter because you guys get it right and you get it out there usually faster than Metro does. So that’s fantastic. I’m a huge supporter. In your own words what does your group do?
[R] Well, the initial reason we formed the group originally was to keep an eye on Metro with the goal of looking at incidents, operational procedures, compliance of existing procedures, identifying areas that WMATA could improve on. And our plan was also to include other rail systems in various areas, not just WMATA, like MARC, VRE even DC StreetCar is considered on our list. However due to the fact there’s just 3 of us and funding and staffing and WMATA’s status right now we’re pretty much 99% focused on WMATA. Incidentally due to public questions on social media we’ve taken on explaining service incidents. When we started doing that the original idea was to give more detail of what exactly is going on – not just ie “track condition” so passengers would be knowledgeable about what is actually happening and to plan accordingly. The intent wasn’t to be the primary source of information. It was to be additional information, however, we’ve noticed – as most passengers noticed – we are providing slightly more information to the public.
[F] Well that’s my next question: you guys seem to know things and are able to communicate that information with the riders so quickly that you often put Metro’s communications team to shame. And you have much better hours! How do you do it?
[R] We’re honestly not trying to put them to shame. What we’re doing is a combination of monitoring communications – which we do on and off, honestly it’s pretty much a full time job for each of us in addition to our other jobs – we monitor communications and train positions via Metro Hero, which is one of our primary sources, to identify potential incidents and concerns happening. And then also with experience myself – I have 20 years monitoring Metro – we can pretty much conclude what is occurring in real-time – what’s on the system. And can go ahead and get at least the basic information out so people can start making adjustment to their commutes.
[F] OK, I’m kinda a “scanner head” from back in the day myself. So I get some of that. What’s the most shocking thing you’ve either seen while doing a field evaluation or heard happening in the system?
[R] As far as shocking, personally? That would be, well primarily – and it’s been reduced lately – is operators closing the side windows of the cab prior to all the doors of the train closing. The 2nd one would be an operator having a conversation with a passenger while operating the train in manual mode – with the cab door open and looking to the rear of the train. The most shocking thing I’ve seen on the system would be – I forgot the date off the top of my head – is when a report of a Green Line train rolling over a passenger at U Street/Cardozo station. The passenger was not struck, he actually got back on the platform after the train passed.
[F] I’m guessing they crawled up underneath the – the escape area up underneath the platform and was able to survive that?
[R] Actually, from the information we got the person actually laid in-between the rails.
[F] Wow – that is, that’s insane. This is the part where I beg people to help you because I’ve helped you myself – I’ve donated to you guys. I think you’re a very worth-while cause. You’re an incredibly valuable resource and I support you guys 100%. Speaking of that support – what do you need to keep doing what you’re doing and how can riders help you?
[R] Well, we’re not in this – none of us are in this to get rich or make a Fortune 500 company out of this. However, this is very very labor intensive. We monitor communications on average 40 to 80 hours a week. We’re out doing field evaluations maybe 10 hours a week. That’s labor intensive not counting reviewing incidents that have happened, looking over incidents that could happen, writing analysis – all that takes time. And as everybody knows time is money. You go to work – everything costs. So all we’re asking – we try to keep in our budget of $25 a day – should keep us getting the information out to the public on a reasonable basis. The more we get the more we can look at the possibility of getting on additional people and devoting more time. As well as we can look at the possibility to expand back to monitoring more of commuter rail like MARC and VRE services.
[F] OK, so ideally you guys need $25 a day to do what you’re doing and you primarily source that income through Patreon, right?
[R] Patreon is our – if you choose to do a monthly recurring contribution. We also do from PayPal as well as we are testing out CashApp. We’ll look at that again early next year to see if that’s worthwhile staying at. But those are the 3 primary sources we use. People have the option of doing a single individual contribution or recurring monthly contributions.
[F] OK – so if you like the stuff you’re seeing from you guys – as far as recommendations to WMATA, as far as getting information out to riders – if you’ve ever been on a train and said “what the heck is going on” and Metro’s providing no information but you guys are – I’m saying please go donate to your group. Anything else to add to that?
[R] Well, also feel free to mention us on Twitter. If you see something going on or you have a question we will generally try to get back to you with what’s going on. It might be a simple initial response as “we’ll look into it” – and trust me, we will actually look into it and even tell you flat out this is what occurred or unfortunately due to difficulties we could not determine what occurred – but you will get an answer from us.
[F] I like that. Reach out – you will get an answer. The final question is the big one that I ask everyone, and maybe I need to get my arm ready for a lengthy answer cause you’ve been at this 20 years – is that right?
[R] A little bit over 20.
[F] Little over 20 years watching Metro – what is wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
[R] You’re gonna run out of feed for this. Well, in all honesty Metro is a decent system. What needs to be done is maintenance needs to occur, operations needs to be focused on and addressed. The biggest issue is there is a huge silo effect within the Authority. One department does not know what the other department is doing. This leads to multiple issues that cascade into failures which leads to delays and miscommunications. There needs to be transparency within WMATA. There needs to be outreach via communications – internally and externally – to improve the picture at Metro.
[F] OK. Roger you are honestly one of my favorite people I’ve met while I’ve been doing all of this. I appreciate all of your support in the past – whether things have panned out well for either of us is a different story – but I appreciate your support and again the work the 3 of you do is invaluable and I definitely encourage people to go check you out. Thank you again Roger for your time.
[R] No problem, thanks a lot Chris.
[end interview audio]
Before we wrap up this episode I wanted to say a couple things about oversight.
Over the past several weeks I’ve spoken with people about a variety of oversight issues including rider oversight at the Riders’ Advisory Council, jurisdictional oversight with Marc Korman from Maryland, and now this week 3rd party auditing oversight with Roger.
While the push for dedicated funding at WMATA is worthwhile and long overdue I think it’s equally important that this dedicated funding come with strings attached. We can’t just give WMATA blank checks anymore – taxpayer and rider money needs to come with strict and clearly defined conditions. These conditions need to include strengthened oversight. We need to include stronger support for the OIG at WMATA. We need to include stronger support for a Riders’ Advisory Council and Accessibility Advisory Committee that can operate more as a checks-and-balances on behalf of riders instead of a focus group for Metro. And we as riders also need to encourage groups like Rail Transit Ops who can take the time to look at WMATA operations from a non-influenced perspective.
All of these efforts and others like restructuring WMATA’s Board of Directors will bring about the meaningful change WMATA has lacked for so long. Yes, let’s get WMATA the dedicated funding it needs – but let’s also restructure WMATA to make the most with that money to get Metro back on track.
Finally, the podcast will be taking a couple weeks off for the holidays and returns on January 6th, 2018.
I hope you’ll join me again 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.
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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.