A Reminder of the Joys of Regulation

Not too long ago, I had occasion to take a trip on Metro, Washington’s subway system. My trip required a change of trains at Metro Center station, from the Red Line  on the upper level to the Orange Line on the lower. Three escalators connect the platforms. One was stopped. The other two were going up. So of course I complained to Metro, asking why, if one escalator was out of service, the station manager did not reverse one of the other two, so that one went up and one down.

The answer I received surprised me. Here’s what it said: “Metro’s policy states that the majority of our escalators are set so that in the event of an emergency we can get as many customers out of the system as quickly as possible. In addition, all station escalator configurations were evaluated and modified to reflect the most efficient usage of these assets. Metro Center station was included in this analysis. We now have a set direction for each escalator and the set configuration cannot be changed by the station manager.”

As I read and reread this response, it made me think of nothing so much as the days of rail regulation. Back then, before railroads were deregulated in 1980, they didn’t much care what their customers thought. They offered what they offered,  and customers could pretty much take it or leave it. Rigidity was the norm. The concept that some flexibility and customer sensitivity could build business was foreign.

That’s the type of attitude Metro seems to have. Its experts have determined the most efficient way to do business–which means, at Metro Center, two escalators going up and one going down. That’s how Metro will operate, and it’s not going to change just because circumstances have changed and the down escalator isn’t working. And Metro is not going to give its employees the flexibility to make changes as conditions change. The rules are king, not the customers.

Once deregulation came, the railroads figured out that they needed to take a different attitude toward freight shippers. By doing so they turned their very stodgy industry into a growth industry. Regrettably, there’s no such competitive pressure on Metro. I don’t expect either its attitude or its escalator service to improve soon.

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