Monday, August 10, 2009

Is WMATA Management Starting to Crack?

In the aftermath of the June 22 Red Line accident, WMATA is an understandably tense organization these days. But a recent event gives insight into the growing strains inside the agency and calls into question its management’s ability to withstand the pressure of public scrutiny.

In Jack Catoe, WMATA has one of the country’s most capable transit general managers. When he took over the agency in January 2007, Catoe inherited a budget deficit, aging equipment, crumbling underground infrastructure and a lack of dedicated funding for the agency. Catoe aggressively addressed these problems with multiple rounds of job cuts disproportionately targeted to management and overhead, a fare hike and advocacy for more federal and regional funding. Catoe was named the top public transportation manager in the U.S. in May 2009, an award he earned after just two bruising years on the job.

But the June accident changed everything. Public scrutiny of the agency has been unprecedented and unyielding. WMATA has been scrambling to understand the implications of the accident for its system, a problem it has not yet solved. Slow trains operating manually test the patience of Red Line riders (including your author). Perhaps most annoyingly, press-hogging agents from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have leaked embarrassing information to the media in an effort to head off any effort to blame them for the mess. All of this has taken a toll on Catoe and his staff that came to a breaking point less than two weeks ago.

On July 30, an anonymous Metro bus rider told an anonymous blog that he had witnessed a WMATA bus operator talking on a cell phone while driving. The rider stated:

I caught my bus driver using her cellphone while driving Tuesday. I was riding the 63 from Takoma as I do every morning now that commuting on the Red Line is a mess. When we got to the stop just outside of the Petworth Metro station, our driver got out of the bus and started talking on her cell phone. One minute goes by, 2 minutes, 3 minutes ... and she’s still talking on her phone. Passengers start getting very angry. One, in particular, steps outside and yells at the driver to get moving. Yet another minute goes by before the driver bothers to get back on the bus. And she’s still talking on the phone. If I were smarter (and more awake), I would have caught this moment on video, but she sat down and pulled out into traffic with phone to ear, and drove several hundred feet before ending her call. I got a crappy picture with my cell phone. It was the best I could get from my vantage point. If you zoom in on the driver, you can see her holding up a phone to her ear with one hand and pulling out into traffic with the other.
The rider sent this picture to the blog:

The Washington Post picked up the story the next day without doing any investigation of its own. We will leave the discussion of why the area’s paper of record chose to print an anonymous allegation on an anonymous blog as news for another day. Catoe told the Post, “We will determine who this operator is... the action for speaking on your phone or texting on your phone is termination.” Catoe also told WTOP he was “embarrassed,” and said, “We will not tolerate any violations of our policies whatsoever. The penalty for doing that is, you will lose your job.”

Catoe spoke too soon. A source with knowledge of WMATA’s investigation related the following account:

The actual story was that a number of passengers reported that the destination sign on the bus was not working and asked her where she was going.

The operator stepped off the bus and examined the sign and determined that it was not working correctly. She then proceeded to the rear of the bus to “re-boot” the sign so that it would re-set. This did not correct the problem. When she went to board the bus again, she tripped on the steps of the bus and suffered minor injuries to her arm and leg.

She attempted to contact central control via the phone system installed by Metro (a fixed radio-phone system installed on the bus). Central control did not respond. The operator then stepped off the bus to call central control with her cell phone. She was able to contact central and report both her injury and the need to schedule a “change-off” where a bus with a working sign could replace her bus en route.

While still speaking to central control outside the bus, passengers became agitated about her not leaving the terminal on time and began “berating” her. According to the operator, she boarded the bus, sat in the driver’s seat and completed the call to central control before actually moving the vehicle.

A witness on the bus corroborates her story. The witness confirms that she was talking about mechanical problems on the cell phone and did not move the bus before hanging up the cell phone. The witness also states that the person who took the photo was asleep until he awoke and saw her in the bus seat and took the photo. The witness did fault the driver for not telling passengers exactly what was going on.

A tape of the conversation between her and central control also corroborates her story. As a side note, central control failed to schedule the requested change-off and she continued to operate the bus for the rest of her assignment with a broken destination sign.

The operator is scheduled to be re-interviewed again next week. Although the facts as I have described them have all been confirmed, WMATA is still contemplating firing the operator.

WMATA Revised Use of Electronic Device policy dated July 10, 2009 issued by Alexa Dupigny-Samuels, Chief Safety Officer (the so-called “zero tolerance” policy) states: “....In the event of a life threatening situation or a Metro provided radio, car-bourne equipment, or bus radio malfunctions, cellular phones may be used to contact the respective Central Controls or Departments after the vehicle is stopped in a safe place.”
This investigation will conclude soon and we will see if our source is right. In any event, when a respected head of a billion-dollar agency makes snap personnel decisions on the basis of anonymous allegations from an anonymous blog, there is a BIG problem. WMATA management is starting to crack. That benefits no one. It is time for the alarmists to stand down. It is time for the mainstream media to carefully scrutinize any allegations of performance issues rather than merely run wild-eyed to the printer with the latest hysterical blog entry. And it is time for WMATA’s leaders to take a breather, avoid over-reacting to the press and refocus on providing the quality service we need them to deliver.