MTA non-answers a rider's questions
On Wednesday night, both Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley and Maryland Transit Administration chief Ralign T. Wells owned up to the fact the communication with riders is the agency's No. 1 weakness.
It's good that these officials, who seem genuinely concerned about providing good service recognize the problem. But it might be even worse than they think.
Consider the case of Melissa Schober of Baltimore, who wrote a well-reasoned and well-informed email to Wells after a particularly bad commute June 22 -- a night of troubles that was overshadowed by the even worse problems the night before. Schober also had the moxie to share a copy with Getting There, a practice this blog enthusiastically encourages.
Schober's June 25 email and Wells' reply, attached below, provide a vivid picture of the brain death that affects parts of the MTA. Here they are, you judge:
Tuesday evening I was subject to one of the worst commutes I’ve ever experienced. I boarded the 4:15PMWAS departure train to Baltimore Penn Station. A few minutes after pulling away from the platform, the train experienced partial engine failure. We reversed into the station – a process that took more than 30 minutes – and were shuffled onto another train.
Shortly after boarding the replacement train, Union Station lost catenary power. Knowing that diesel locomotives suffer from fewer power issues, I left the 4:15PM replacement train and walked over to the 5:20PM train. *The train was dangerously overcrowded with aisles impassable, people sitting on stairs, and riding in the vestibules.* The scheduled departure time came and went with no announcement. Finally, at 545PM, the train departed. However, an announcement informed us that yet another train had failed ahead and we would have to return to the station to be re-routed. Fifteen minutes passed and we began to move forward, with no further explanation.
We moved at reduced speed until just before the BWI Airport station where we were delayed another 20 minutes as an Acela moved past. Finally we approached Penn Station only to learn that we would have to wait for platform to de-train. *I finally de-trained at Penn Station at 7:16PM, more than one hour after my scheduled arrival and more than three hours after boarding, with minimal air conditioning for the duration of the trip.*
Later that evening, I watched you give a statement on WBFF Fox 45 in which you said, “Amtrak operates our service for us, on our MARC line. We’re at the mercy of our contractor to operate the service as we expect them to.”
If service is so unsatisfactory with Amtrak, will you commit to exploring new operators, as the Virginia Railway Express has done (they chose Keolis Rail Services America in 2009)? I know that the Penn Line is under contract through 2013; will you be offers riders a chance to comment on contract negotiations when they open? What sort of contract conditions will you impose with regard to passenger safety and comfort during time of mechanical failure?
As bidding opens on July 12 for MARC Ancillary Repairs, Maintenance and Minor Construction (Contract T-1318), how will riders be assured that the lowest bidder is truly able to maintain the aging fleet of MARC trains? As farebox recovery collection continues to decline – from 55% in FY2008 to 44% in FY2009 – how will MARC maintain service, let alone improve it? When will the MTA respond to the recommendations to consider a fare increase in FY2011, as was reported in the budget (J00H01)?
As a regular Penn Line rider and registered voter, I look forward to your prompt response.
So here's the response Schober received under Wells' signature on Wednesday:
Dear Ms. Schober:
Thank you for sharing your frustration with me regarding the MARC Train 538 incident on June 21. As you know, the train was stopped without air conditioning, and it was more than two hours before all the passengers were transferred to other MARC trains. The circumstance was unacceptable to Governor Martin O’Malley and me, and I apologize for the inconvenience and discomfort you experienced.
Although the reasons for the failure of the locomotive are still under investigation, what concerns us most is the way the subsequent delay was handled. The service staff did not take adequate measures to improve the comfort and safety of passengers and establish regular communication.
Early the next morning, MDOT Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley spoke with Mr. Joseph Boardman, President of Amtrak. Together they are taking immediate steps to understand the incident circumstances and modify procedures. The scope of their effort includes consideration of operating a back-up locomotive on Penn Line trains and review of policies that determine when passengers should evacuate a disabled train. We also plan to deploy MARC managers each evening to more closely monitor the situation at Union Station to ensure Amtrak personnel are acting on behalf of MARC riders and providing the most accurate information possible.
As a MARC customer, you deserve safe, reliable service. Together with Amtrak, we must find ways to eliminate the possibility of such service failures. Although complex mechanical systems like trains can and do break down, we must assure passengers are treated with consideration and respect. Again, I apologize for the inconvenience you may have experienced, and commit to do better. If you have additional comments or suggestions, please do not hesitate to contact Mr. John Hovatter, MTA Director of MARC Train and Commuter Bus Service at 410-454-7265 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ralign T. Wells
So do you see what's a little bit off with the reply? Wells' reply was certainly timely, but iit had nothing whatever to do with the problem Schober was reporting. It didn't answer her questions. It diidn't even address the serious issue Schober raised about the Amtrak contract. As Schober put it to Wells in an email today:
The following is essentially a form letter that does NOT address any of the specific concerns I wrote you about.
I described an incident on June 22, not the MARC 538 train incident on June 21. I asked several questions about contracting and the financial implications thereof. I asked about farebox collection.
This is yet another example of MARC not listening to the valid and specific concerns of their riders.
I couldn't agree more. While I don't share Schober's implied optimism that replacing Amtrak as the MARC operator would necessarily produce better results, she raised an extremely important issue that deserved a thoughtful reply from an official high enough up the food chain to understand the issues. Instead, it appears some low-level functionary who barely bothered to read the letter threw it into a pile with all the complaints about the "hell train."
There is nothing wrong with a well-composed form letter when an organization is dealing with dozens of complaints about the same thing. But the form letter had better be germane to the original complaint.
Wells has so far shown himself to be an enthusiastic, engaging administrator, but he had yet to show the public that he knows when to kick butt. This time he ought to do just that -- and let the world know butt has been kicked. If MTA apparatchiki know an employee can get away with such cavalier treatment, this will happen again and again. And then it will be the administrator's rear in the kicking line.
Getting There looks forward to reading Wells' response to Schobel.