WASHINGTON - Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld appeared live in the FOX 5 DC studios on Monday morning-- which was also another challenging morning on the rails. For over 26 minutes without interruption, Wiedefeld fielded questions from FOX 5's Steve Chenevey, Tom Fitzgerald, Holly Morris and Melanie Alwnick, who was in the field covering Metro's Monday morning issues, as well as dozens of FOX 5 viewers.
Hundreds of people submitted questions on social media using the hashtag #AskMetroGM, During the interview, Wiedefeld addressed issues from safety to smoke incidents to what has led to the demise of the rail system, and communication about the realities of the system's problems.
Just Friday, Wiedefeld unveiled the transit system's plan to repair the failing rail system-- a year-long plan that includes closures and lengthy single-tracking periods on all six lines, beginning in early June. CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS ON THE SAFETRACK PLAN.
One of FOX 5's viewers tweeted a question for Wiedefeld, pointing out that she's now carrying a survival kit-- including a scarf, water and flashlight-- when she rides the train each day. Wiedefeld said passengers shouldn't have to. As he's said on several occasions, Wiedefeld said decades of issues have led to the current state of Metrorail, and he's trying to address those issues.
During the interview, FOX 5 showed Wiedefeld a portion of an emotional interview reporter Bob Barnard did with Dr. Lilian Pitts, who was on the train during the deadly smoke incident at L'Enfant Plaza. It took place at an NTSB hearing on Metro, one Pitts had to leave because emotionally, she couldn't take it. After watching Pitts' reaction, Wiedefeld said it was terrible to see.
"That's why the actions I've been taking, and the actions I need to take in the future is trying to obviously make sure that we never have to do that again-- that nobody ever has to experience that again," Wiedefeld said.
SAFETRACK: THE NEW PLAN TO FIX A SYSTEM IN CRISIS
The comprehensive SafeTrack plan unveiled Friday by Wiedefeld condenses five years of work into one year. One of the big things that is different about this approach, he said, is the long periods of single-tracking, some of which will be for weeks on end. That, he said, along with the planned shutdowns on every line, makes the plan different than the approaches that have been used in the past to fix the rail system, without success.
"Historically we've been trying to do this while maintaining a level of service that is just not sustainable," Wiedefeld explained.
As it stands, Metro's maintenance crews have 33 hours a week to do work when trains aren't in service, but Wiedefeld explained the amount of time for "true work" is much less than that, considering it takes an hour and a half for crews to get in to the track areas and set up, and then the same amount of time to get out. That means crews only get about two hours of work on a regular night-- and that's not cutting it.
"If we don't do this, in my estimation, we continue the path we've been on for decades, and as the system gets older by the minute and the conditions are getting worse by the minute, in my estimation you're not going to get there, and that's why I've come up with this plan," Wiedefeld explained.
RIDERS ASK: WHY ARE WE PAYING THE SAME FOR LESS SERVICE?
Ahead of this interview, FOX 5 viewers submitted a flood of questions for Wiedefeld using the hashtag #AskMetroGM. One of the most-asked questions related to the price of service, especially when the level of service is, so obviously, unacceptable. Should riders really be paying full fares for service they're not really getting?
Wiedefeld said he's heard the question, and he certainly understands why it gets asked.
"We have to remember that all of the work you're seeing is paid primarily-- or a good portion of it-- is from the local jurisdictions, and from the fare box," he said.
"That's the financial challenge that we face," Wiedefeld added.
With the new SafeTrack plan will come many changes and service adjustments, and plenty of information that all riders will need to have access to. But that isn't as easy as it should be, especially recently. Video from several incidents has first appeared on one DC station-- WRC-- before other stations, and in some cases, only on one station. But as FOX 5 reporter Tom Fitzgerald pointed out to Wiedefeld, regardless of which station they watch, every citizen needs the information about safety, and they need to see it everywhere.
From his perspective, Wiedefeld said he tries to spread himself as far and wide as possible when it comes to appearing in the media, and he will continue to do so. But in cases of video or information being selectively distributed, Wiedefeld said he agrees that the information needs to be made available to everyone-- regardless of which station they might turn on.
"From what I control, yes, but there's lots of other sources of some of this stuff," Wiedefeld said.
Last Thursday, for instance, two fires on the tracks at Federal Center Station SW forced Wiedefeld to shut down the station so all of the third rail insulators could be replaced. Video of one of the fires that morning near the platform inside the station-- taken from a Metro security camera-- made it to WRC, but when FOX 5 asked for the same video, we were first told it wasn't from Metro. Later, we were told it wasn't available. Many hours later, it was finally distributed to the other TV stations in the area, and the Washington Post.
With regard to that particular incident, Wiedefeld said, "I'm not certain how that first video got out."
INSIDE METRO: CULTURE AND COMMUNICATION
Wiedefeld says his direction for the future is something he's clearly communicating to all employees at WMATA. In fact, he said last week, he sent a note to all of Metro's 650 managers reinforcing his priorities. He also says he reminded them that they are at-will employees, and that everyone has to be held accountable across the board.
On Tuesday, Wiedefeld also revealed, he will hold what he believes to be the first-ever meeting with every one of Metro's 650 managers to cover his priorities-- and his expectations. His first expectation, he told FOX 5's Steve Chenevey, is about safety, and he says it's not something that should have to come all the way to him before it's addressed.
"That's something that as people see something, they need to do something about it," Wiedefeld said.
But is Wiedefeld the system's only real decision maker?
"What I'm trying to do is get people to understand that they have to make these decisions, and not bring all these decisions to me," he said, adding that it's a cultural issue, and in terms of management and safety, it hasn't been there.
Starting now, Wiedefeld is getting some help with those safety issues. Metro's new Safety Chief, Patrick Lavin, starts today, and Wiedefeld said he brings something important to the table: 30-plus years of experience in New York City's transit system.
"The safety business shouldn't be doing investigations and what went wrong," Wiedefeld said. "It should be in the business of preventing things from going wrong, and that's basically what he will be doing-- and that's his focus."
WIEDEFELD: FIXING METRO IS A 24/7 JOB
Metro's recent issues have had riders calling for change. During the recent day-long shutdown, many passengers expressed their support for Wiedefeld's decision to take action and address the problems-- even if it meant they were inconvenienced. But even the shutdown didn't stop Metro's issues, many of which are the result of arcing insulators on the third rail, which cause smoke and in some cases fires on the tracks.
After seeing and hearing about the many issues plaguing Metro's system, one might ask: Did he know what he was getting into when he took the job? FOX 5's Holly Morris asked just that question. He says he did.
"The depths of it may be a little bit deeper than I thought," Wiedefeld said, "but this is a 24/7 job."
Wiedefeld added that being responsive at all times and dealing with this crisis is the nature of the business, but he also pointed out that he's inspired by the many employees who share his desire to right the ship.
"There are a lot of people working extremely hard every minute to get the system working, to deal with the issues they have to deal with," adding that he's amazed by the commitment he sees from those employees.