News & Politics

The WMATA Twitter Feed: A Source of Commuter Frustration, or a Solution?

The agency’s account is closely monitored—and selective.

Photograph by Flickr user thisisbossi.

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
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.”