announced in September 2014 he is stepping down from his post as GM/CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
(Metro) in January 2015. Since taking the helm in 2011, Sarles has set the agency on a course to improve safety, reliability, financial stability and customer service. He has led actions to build a new safety culture within the agency, including strengthening the safety department, expanding training and creating a new employee safety recognition program. He has spearheaded the replacement of buses and MetroAccess vehicles and the acquisition of new rolling stock — 7000 series railcars equipped with advance crashworthiness technology. Under his leadership, Metro is in the midst of a $5 billion, six-year capital improvement program dedicated to improving safety, customer reliability and state of good repair.
In addition to creating a multi-year business plan to support agency goals, Sarles led the development of the agency’s strategic plan, “Momentum: The Next Generation of Metro,” also known as Metro 2025, which benefitted from unprecedented public and stakeholder input.
Sarles has more than 40 years of experience in the transit industry with Metro, NJ TRANSIT, Amtrak, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
METRO Magazine Executive Editor Janna Starcic spoke with Sarles about his 40 years of experience in the transit industry with Metro, NJ TRANSIT, Amtrak, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and greatest accomplishments as well as how he’s going to spend his time beyond the public transit spotlight.
METRO Magazine: What do you feel are your biggest accomplishments during your tenure at Metro?
Richard Sarles: As you know, [safety] was at the forefront of concerns with Washington Metro about five years ago and the community was very concerned about that and looking for changes. The board of directors itself changed in that time frame and was very supportive of improving the safety culture here. We had reports from the NTSB and the FTA, as well as a report commissioned by the board of directors, all pointing to the weaknesses in the safety culture here.
We set about, with the strong support from the board, to listen to people, not only the people who prepared those reports but also our own employees, about what the concerns were. And, through a relatively structured process, developed a plan to address the concerns, and while we were developing that plan, we were making improvements.
Much of it had to do with being willing to listen to what the concerns were and then, as I said, laying out the plan; laying out a time frame for making improvements, both general improvements as well as very specific improvements; and letting people know what we were going to do in terms of improving the safety here. Most important, was convincing our frontline employees we were serious about this because, as I said, many times before this place was hunkered down, bunkered down, you know, siloed, whatever description you want to give it, but there was a lack of communication and action across organizational lines.
We set up local safety committees, strengthened whistleblower protections and introduced close call reporting a couple years ago, which was new for the heavy rail area of transit, and that has become more and more successful. Now, we are advancing our fatigue risk management program.
While those things were going on, we were doubling the investments and rebuilding and rehabilitating our infrastructure here. We also reconstituted our engineering department.
We also determined we were going to measure what we do and be transparent about it. [There are] monthly reports on our key performance indicators, safety being among them. We’ve seen that improvement. So, we’ve demonstrated to our employees, as well as ourselves and the public, that we have definitely improved in safety.
There are other things that we’ve been working on, too, such as improving customer service, which is very important.
Working closely with the board, who changed its focus from being transaction-oriented towards being policy- and governance-oriented, we developed a new strategic plan that supported the regional plan, in terms of how to shape economic and population growth where it should be. This strategic plan was then adopted by the board after much input from around the region as well the board’s active participation. That has set the road map for the next 10 years in pretty good detail and for the next 25 years, in more general terms, as to where we should go.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
There’s one area that, it’s not something I would have done differently; it’s something that I am very happy we did. We changed our approach to communications here. We had a fairly defensive posture, a reactive posture, and what I said to the folks when I came in is, “If we do the work, we’re going to communicate the successes,” because the morale of our employees here was not in good shape. They didn’t want to wear the uniform out beyond the job.
So, we changed our entire approach to communicating externally and have been not only transparent about what has to be fixed, but also the good work that has been done so that I think we’ve transformed the narrative from one of failure to one of success, while acknowledging where we have to improve further. That’s been a major step forward for this organization to the point where the front line folks feel proud again of working at Metro.
What was most effective in terms of turning around the safety culture?
The opening of the Silver Line, the largest expansion of Metrorail, adds five new stations and direct rail service between the region’s two largest employment centers.
Responding very affirmatively right from the beginning, both the board and I, to the fact that we would address every NTSB recommendation, there were 29 of them; that we would have a schedule for doing that; and we then proceeded to attack those. We have closed out 25 of them. We have four left. I am hoping that three of those four, we will have submitted for closure within the next month or two. The only one outstanding will be replacement of the original cars here, the 1000 series with 7000 series cars. We simply can’t finish that one until we’ve received all the cars, but we’re starting to get the new cars next year.
I think that, by very publicly saying we’re going to address those recommendations, some of which had been outstanding for many years and had not been addressed, and then in doing it, demonstrated internally and to the world, the public at large, that we were very serious about changing the safety culture here.
What made the greatest impact on getting things moving in the right direction for State of Good Repair?
What made the greatest impact is the board and the jurisdictions that fund us deciding that we would no longer continue to slide back into a deeper hole. At the rate we were investing in the system, which was somewhere between four and five million dollars a year for rehabilitation and reconstruction, we were not gaining. We were losing ground. We basically doubled that investment level, annually, over the last four or five years to the point that we are climbing out of that hole we were in. We project, at the current rate of progress, we will have brought ourselves back to where we should be in about two or three years from now, 2017, and after that continue the needed investment on an annual basis that has dug us out of that hole.
These are very basic things: track, signals, communications, the trains themselves that just had not been invested in at the rate they should have been.
Explain the significance of the recently launched Silver Line.
Well it’s significant in two ways. It has been off to a great start. The passenger counts that we’re getting at the end of the line station exceeds what we expected to see a year after operation.
It’s very significant for Metro because, again, it’s part of that positive narrative about what’s going on at Metro. On the other hand, the opening of the Silver Line also demonstrated the system shortcomings of Metro. What I mean by that is to provide trains for the Silver Line down to Tyson’s Corner, those Silver Line trains go through a tunnel into the District of Columbia and then they go on to Maryland. That tunnel was operating at capacity already before the Silver Line opened up in terms of the number of trains in the peak period. To fit the Silver Line in, we actually had to take trains from the Blue Line, which runs through that tunnel, and move those trains over to the Yellow Line, which goes across the bridge to the more southern part of the District of Columbia rather than the northern part of the District of Columbia where the tunnel is.
That demonstrated the limitation on the core capacity of this system, and in doing so, it highlighted what we had said in the strategic plan that it’s not a matter of talking about extending Metro. It’s first a matter of talking about improving the core capacity of Metro because there’s simply not enough room in the core of the system to accommodate more people without something being done. That highlighted something we had identified in the study and made it real for people when they saw that the trains couldn’t go where they used to go.
What is the agency doing to achieve its Metro 2025 initiatives?
[We are] working to gather support among the different stakeholders in the region, the most important stakeholders being the business community. The business community here is extraordinarily supportive of Washington Metro. In fact, they recommended some of the governance changes to the board. That’s how interested they are in this place. They have been making known their very strong support for improving the core capacity of this system. They know it’s necessary for their own growth as well as smart growth groups and environmental groups. We together, in many different meetings, have been working with the elected leaders to make them aware of the needs.
The tougher discussions are how to fund it. Last year, the governor of Virginia and the governor of Maryland, along with the mayor, committed $75 million for the current fiscal year to start funding these improvements. That was a down payment. Now, we are in discussions as we craft the new six-year capital funding agreement to achieve the support for the additional funding required for Metro 2025.
What was the most challenging project(s) you’ve undertaken?
Under Sarles’ leadership, Metro has become the first U.S. rail transit agency to launch a Close Call Reporting System.
I’ll start with Washington Metro. The most challenging thing here is to change the culture. I mentioned about the safety area, how we did that, but it’s a culture that has to be improved upon in all the areas so that it works better together as a team, it listens more, and takes action and improves. And, we’ve been doing that, not only in the safety area, but customer service, and as I mentioned before, on the infrastructure side. The leadership and the effort required to change a culture is different, and the challenge is somewhat different than when you deal with a hard goods project, if you will, because it’s all about people, what they believe and how they act. So, it’s a continued, sustained focus that you have to have on that. That’s the challenge here.
I think previous to this was the ARC project, you know, the tunnel into New York when I was at NJ TRANSIT. Again, that was interesting because you had a New Jersey agency at the time dealing with a federally supported agency in Amtrak, and of course New York, and getting the support that was needed to advance that project. It was quite something to the point that there was support in New York and from the federal government, as well as New Jersey. Unfortunately, you know, as a new administration came in and the priorities were looked at, that project was shut down. But, that was probably a major challenge in working across jurisdictional lines to get support for a very important project to the region.
What can Metro riders look forward to based on what you’ve put in place?
One is certainly improvement in the safety of the system and in the physical appearance and operational system with the new cars coming in, with the improvements being made to the stations, and the return of automatic train operation in a couple years.
What advice would you give your successor and what qualities should they have that best suits Metro’s needs?
The advice is, don’t be complacent about safety and move forward with the strategic plan because it does serve as the blueprint for the future of Metro. Execute it. You have to have someone that not only pays attention to the day-to-day operation, but also looks to the future and makes sure Metro prepares for it.
How crucial was your background in construction, project management and planning for your current role?
It was very important, not from the sense of the engineering side, but from the management side. As I progressed in my career and had larger and larger projects, I learned how to bring [the public, the customers and elected leaders] together in support of a project and take their input and modify the project as [we went] along. When I went on to Amtrak and had the Acela project, it was not just about the engineering, technical part of putting new trains on and all the infrastructure that goes with it, but also bringing in the business elements of it, the marketing of it.
What key thing have you learned as the head of an agency?
How important leadership is to changing the culture of an organization. You have the spend a lot of time, a lot of thought, a lot of effort on it and do it in a sustained way to actually have an effect on the culture, which then ultimately leads to a better-run organization.
What are you most proud of?
One is certainly the improvement here at Washington Metro over the last four or five years, especially in safety. The other was the introduction of the Acela high-speed rail service at Amtrak.
What are your future plans?
It’s almost a cliché you hear from other people. I’d like to travel more. I have eight grandkids. I have not had the time to spend with them that I want to. Since I’ll be living near a beach I want to take up surf fishing and learn that. And, do a few other things that I haven’t figured out yet. But, I’m looking forward to a very active retirement.