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Metro: Fixing Deplorable “Customer Service” Needed

Four weeks ago this writer was trapped on an immovable object –- a Red Line train headed to Friendship Heighta. Having arrived at the Dupont Circle station and proceeded down to the platform to await the train –- in more than ample time to reach Friendship Heights, a nine-minute ride, it was then that there came an announcement (semi-garbled, as usual) about single tracking between Van Ness and Friendship Heights.

The question, then, was what to do – wait for the train due to arrive in two minutes or bail out for a taxi. Figuring that there was nevertheless ample time to stay with Metro since we were going to be early for our appointment anyway, even with the single tracking involving only the intermediate Tenley stop, we stayed with Metro.

Big mistake. First, turned out that the single tracking started at Cleveland Park, not Van Ness, meaning that the distance affected was now substantial. Why was inaccurate information announced to begin with? Next, after about a minute waiting at Cleveland Park on came an announcement assuring that the train would be “moving momentarily.” Then over the course of the ensuing 15 minutes the train operator re-stated the “momentarily” line four more times! To us, “momentarily” means concepts like briefly, fleetingly, for a moment, for a second, for an instant. Clearly, Metro needs to change the script for these announcements so that the information provided is actually helpful rather than pretending all is well.

Furthermore, Metro management needs to ensure that information regarding expected delays like described above is made known to “customers” — that’s what they like to call us -– by actual signage rather than garbled PA system announcements before we commit to spending at the fare gates so that we can go back out and get a taxi and not waste our money because we were not informed ahead of time. Interestingly, just in the past few days we learned that there has been in place a procedure allowing for persons who face such situations to be able to exit within a short time period and have their fare charge credited back. Why has this been kept a secret?

Another systemic failure us “customers” have long encountered, and continue to be plagued by, is employee rudeness and seeming unwillingness to respond to simple requests for assistance –- even ignoring us while they talk on their cell phones with friends. Of course, not all, but in our experience and from what we have heard and witnessed over time, it does seem that this is common behavior, especially with station managers who are imperiously ensconced in those cut-off from the hoi-polloi nearly sealed command capsules.

And, it’s not just the seeming reluctance to respond to a question or request for assistance at the kiosk or at a fare machine (until one can’t be ignored any longer), but also the need for a “customer” to almost beg or to badger before a report will be taken about a problem that needs attention, like lighting out over an escalator’s stepping on or stepping off place (our own experience more than once) or other system glitches.

We are far from alone. As reported in the Washington Post on February 9th about a technical glitch at some fare gates causing overcharging, one rider was quoted as saying, “What bothers me more is that managers at the station [were] aware of [the problem]. They want us to use their train and take our money, but they don’t really care about us. This is unacceptable.”

This sentiment is without question rife among Metro users; negativity is pervasive, and yet it has been pretty much ignored at the operational level.

Now, however, there is hope for meaningful change and that these issues will be addressed at the highest reaches and assigned the priority they deserve –- right up there with rail safety and crime prevention.

In a recent interview with newly elected Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who is also the DC Council’s Ward 2 member, he assured The InTowner that it is his intention to make improving “customer service” a very high priority, that Metrorail and bus users deserve to be treated like valued customers of any well-run enterprise where the customer is king -– our words based on the intensity of his remarks to us about the long-festering seeming indifference to us users; he stressed that this “culture” will be changed through comprehensive retraining and reassignments where needed so that the culture of indifference is corrected. We urge the Metro Board to fully support its new chairman if they want to ensure luring back dissatisfied “customers.”