What’s a frustrated user of public transportation to do when public transportation isn’t performing up to expectations? In the case of busted subway escalators and elevators, for instance. An unresolved SmarTrip card complaint. No cell service in tunnels where there should be cell service. Unexplained power outages. Trains that don’t arrive. Rude bus drivers. No station managers. Unexpected track work. Or what’s a rider to do in the (rare but possible) case he or she wants to praise good service?
In the modern age, we take to Twitter. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Twitter feed has more than 45,000 followers. WMATA employs a vast communications staff, including social media managers. Still, frustration prevails, because the Twitter feed is not only closely monitored—it posts frequently—but also selective. It recently blocked one of its most ardent watchdogs, Chris Barnes of FixWMATA.
WMATA, no doubt, feels up against it. The Washington Post editorial board went after the agency this past weekend, calling Metro a “slow-rolling embarrassment,” and describing its service as “bewildering, maddening, [and] soul-sapping” for passengers. Last week the Washington Examiner took it to task, too, outlining how the agency has fallen behind in maintaining the aging transit system, in particular broken escalators, elevators, and other system failures that cause hassles for riders.
Chris Barnes is a commuting buff and advocate. He works in broadcasting in the Washington area and has a background in traffic reporting. He says he is “fascinated” by how people commute and wants to “help riders who aren’t getting help” from WMATA. He started FixWMATA and its related Twitter feed in 2010, and routinely attends meetings of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, a 21-member panel of passengers from DC, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as three at-large members. Elected officials cannot join. He tries to provide up-to-the-minute service information—much like the WMATA Twitter feed—and uses riders as his sources. He consulted the WMATA Twitter feed, too, though last week he was officially “blocked.”
It happened after a Metro fire in Silver Spring. As information was exchanged on Twitter, the level of frustration escalated, including in a tweet Barnes sent to WMATA that included the acronym “STFU.” The next day he found himself blocked. “I don’t know who blocked me,” he says. “Myself and many other people have said much worse without getting blocked.” Did he feel he perhaps handed WMATA an opportunity to block him? “Sure,” he says. “But I am a taxpayer. I ride Metro. I don’t see how a government agency can block someone.”
Dan Stessel, who is the chief spokesperson for WMATA, responded rather quickly to our call on Tuesday but did not want to talk about Barnes. “I’m not going to comment on any individual Twitter user,” he said. But he was open to talking about other subjects, including the Post editorial. “I do understand the sentiment captured in the editorial,” he says. “But I think it is reflective of a week’s worth of difficult rush hours rather than a long-term trend. I think it is important to take a broad look at data and trends to keep things in proper perspective.” He adds, “In the transit industry there is a saying: ‘You’re only as good as your last rush hour.’”
Does Stessel think the Post editorial was unfair? “No,” he says. But in defense of Metro, he says, “We have made considerable progress. The reliability of the fleet is up 70 percent from last year. That doesn’t mean we’re where we want to be. We’re digging out of a hole. The system did not have maintenance done when it should have been for a long period of time. We’re playing catch-up. We understand the frustrations of the customers. We ride the system, too.”
Stessel would not say who writes the individual responses to passengers who tweet with questions or complaints. “Several people are involved in the feed, which comes from a number of different sources and also directly out of rail and bus control,” he says. Many of WMATA’s tweets are updates on service for specific transit lines, interspersed with back-and-forth with riders. The service information is available during the hours the transit system operates. The interaction with customers is only during business hours. The Twitter feed is not for emergencies. “It’s important that folks pick up the phone and dial 911 for anything that is an emergency situation,” Stessel says.
The Twitter feed is young and has evolved over the past three years, but Stessel says he would put it up against the social media of any other transit system. “I doubt you would find them as active as we are,” he says.
Not that this will end passenger frustration. But will that frustration cut into the number of passengers? The Washington Examiner reported ridership is down on Metrorail by 5 percent from a year ago. That figure includes Barnes, at least as a commuter; he says he used Metro for two years, at a cost of about $300 a month, and then “got fed up. I moved closer to my job so I don’t have to give Metro my money.” While he can’t DM WMATA about it anymore, other riders can. If a customer question is about when the next train will arrive, the WMATA Twitter feed “can be helpful,” Stessel says. “If they are just expressing frustration, the best we can do is apologize and be sincere about it.”
There’s this recent example:
Rider Tweet: “What is your train car rationale? 8-car train at 12:30pm...6-car trains at 4:30pm. Do u guys do any real ride analysis?”
WMATA: “We unfortunately do not have enough cars to run all 8-car trains. But 8 car trains do run during the rush hr (4:30p) on 4 lines.”
Rider: “Thanks for the response.”
WMATA: “Thank you for engagement. Have a great day!”
But there’s also this:
Rider Tweet: “There is no AT&T service at Farragut N, Metro Center, Gallery Place or Archives. Who at AT&T am I supposed to call?”
WMATA: “We believe ATT Customer Support handles inquires about poor or non-functioning cellular service.”
Rider: “Lol at ‘we believe.’ Some ppl believe in Santa Clause.”