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Don’t be Stranded with a Flat, Keep Your Assets in Tune – Lessons from WMATA

Oct 03, 2017
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Orchestra style floor plan of tranist agency with maintenance section highlighted and text - State of Good Repair efforts need to be

This is part four of a blog series on orchestrating your transit masterpiece. Catch up on part one, two, and three.


What would you think if you went to the symphony for a great night of music only to find that the trumpet-tuning slides (the piece that keeps them in tune) were dented, no longer able to produce top quality sound? Or maybe the violin strings had not been cared for and were not in tune and the snares from the percussion section had cracks and holes in them? Or even worse, all of those things happened?  You wouldn’t expect much in terms of the music no matter how great the maestro or musicians were, would you? And you would be right.

The same is true as you prepare to play your transit masterpiece in your city. If we don’t take care of our infrastructure – the rail, the rolling stock, the bus shelters, signs, and the signaling and software systems that run the show behind the scenes – we won’t be ready when the crowd comes.

Not a month goes by lately without a disaster for some transit system whose subway tunnels flood or trains derail. While many transit systems have grown over the last decade (adding new service or rail lines), too many have failed to maintain their infrastructure in a State of Good Repair. This is one of the reasons for FTA’s recent guidance in MAP-21 on requiring better asset management.

What Does it Take to Achieve a State of Good Repair? Lessons from WMATA

I recently spoke with Paul Wiedefeld, CEO and GM of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in Washington, D.C. on this topic. He is often described as the man with the “toughest job in Washington” as he labors to make repairs to a once glorious metro subway system that was the envy of the world.

Wiedefeld came to the job with a background in transit and aviation and soon found that the rail infrastructure at WMATA needed significant work, which was highlighted in a series of well-publicized smoke/fire incidents. Wiedefeld developed a straightforward approach to assess and repair the tracks, called SafeTrack

Now, past that phase of the WMATA Metro upgrade, Wiedefeld says that State of Good Repair efforts need to be “incorporated into the design of a project from day one.” He continues, “[T]oo often it’s coming in after the fact. We should not wait until it [becomes] a crisis to staff and budget” to continue maintenance and State of Good Repair work. He also says that CEOs should plan for equipment obsolescence right from the start. 

Now, WMATA has restricted hours of service so formalized preventive maintenance programs can continue unabated. Wiedefeld encourages transit systems to get ahead of the curve on State of Good Repair issues so they can be proactive not just reactive. He also reiterates a familiar theme that transit systems need to budget appropriately and recruit new staff to maintain new systems or rail lines as they come on line, incorporating maintenance as an ongoing expense. 

When budget priorities are established at a transit system by the board of directors or other stakeholders, transit leaders need to be equipped with good information from their asset management systems to argue how much money should be budgeted to continue maintenance contracts, rail replacements and the like, and maintenance staffing levels need to remain high. While there are many new exciting things we want to have happen in our transit systems, there is one thing we can never have happen and that is a derailment or some significant safety failure.  

Maintain Your Tune

If a symphony didn’t bother maintaining their instruments, and just let them sound terrible, they would alienate their audience. When they lose their die-hard audience and bad reviews start accumulating, it becomes difficult to bring in a new crowd to listen to your poorly-maintained instruments. Again, it doesn’t matter if you have the top musicians, composer, or conductor, the instant the orchestra proceeds with terrible instruments, the sound will falter and any audience that does show up will be sorely disappointed.

The same is true for transit systems with significant safety failures. They lead to very bad publicity which leads to ridership declines, which leads to lower fare revenue, which leads to less money available to maintain and/or expand the system. This vicious cycle is hard to break.

Safety truly needs to be the number one priority at every transit system. And we must put our money where our mouth is. Creating proper budgets and investing in proper maintenance programs will help to make sure you have the right instruments in place and that they are well maintained and polished so you can put on a really good show.


ATPA is just around the corner. Please join me to strategize top maintenance practices and how to achieve a State of Good Repair. It’s time to orchestrate your transit masterpiece. Learn more here.

Paul Comfort is the VP, Business Development at Trapeze Group. Prior, he most recently served as CEO and GM of MTA Maryland (Baltimore’s transit agency), the 11th largest transit system in the U.S.
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