At Thursday’s WMATA board meeting, Metro leaders proposed making SafeTrack’s cuts to late-night service permanent as well as deepening them even further, offering several proposals that would only have the system be open 127 hours per week. These proposals would turn a system that already had some of the most limited opening hours in the US into the least-available large rail transit system in the country.

Image by Craig on Flickr.

The table below compares Metrorail’s hours and to those of the other nine largest rail transit systems in the US, by ridership. To get an idea of earlier evening frequency, I looked at the time between scheduled trains on the line that ran trains most often between the hours of 8 and 12 pm on Friday evening (the choice of Friday was arbitrary, but I wanted to compare nighttime frequency before the really late hours.)

Rail system Minimum hours open Maximum hours open Friday evening frequency
New York City Subway 168 168 every 5 minutes
Metro pre-Safetrack 135 135 every 15 minutes
Metro Safetrack 129 129 every 15 minutes
Metro proposed 127 127 every 15 minutes
Chicago ‘L’ 125 168 every 10 minutes
Boston MBTA Subway 124 135 every 10 minutes
Bay Area Rapid Transit 134 134 every 20 minutes
Philadelphia SEPTA 147 148 every 10-12 minutes
NY/NJ PATH 168 168 every 10 minutes
Atlanta MARTA 139 139 every 20 minutes
Los Angeles Metro Rail 136 146 every 20 minutes
Miami-Dade Metrorail 133 133 every 15 minutes

In ridership terms, Metro ranks second in the nation, though way behind the New York City subway. It’s closest to the Chicago ‘L’ in ridership.

Three of the ten largest systems run all (NYC subway and PATH) or some (Chicago) lines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Keep in mind that only one of these, the NYC subway, has extensive portions of four-tracked line that allow it to both run express tracks and perform maintenance on one set while using the other. Chicago has some portions of four-tracked lines where two lines run alongside each other, but the Red and Blue lines (which provide 24 hour service) use only two tracks each. Similarly, PATH does not have extensive stretches with more than two tracks.

Chicago, Boston and LA run more limited service on some lines. In Chicago’s case, the spur Yellow line is open far less than the other lines. In systems, hours are generally uniform across lines.

Frequency is the other major characteristic of evening service compared here. I examine the time between scheduled trains on the line with the highest frequency between the hours of 8 and 12 PM on Friday evening. On this metric, Metro lags New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and PATH. Only BART, MARTA, and LA have worst nighttime frequencies, though two of these systems (BART and LA) rely on significant interlining to yield much better frequencies in the downtown core.

What do these other systems tell us?

First, and most obviously, the cuts Metro is proposing would give it more limited operating hours than any large US rail transit system.

Second, even before these cuts, many other systems were running for much longer hours while performing inspections and routine maintenance.

And finally, before and after the cuts, Metro would run trains in the early evening at lower frequency than many major systems. In addition to limited hours, limited frequencies make Metro a less dependable option for travel outside of peak hours.

Metro should learn from how these other systems perform inspections and routine maintenance without shutting down the entire system. Clearly, other systems have figured this out, but WMATA has not. Additionally, when major work is needed, Metro should adopt the approach of other major systems by shutting down lines for extended periods of time, as Chicago, New York City, and PATH have all done. These shutdowns are painful, but as we have seen with Safetrack, temporary reductions in service are much easier for riders to plan around than long-term low-quality service.

Area stakeholders need to decide if Metro should be one of the better rail transit operators in the country, or if it is acceptable as one of the worst. The proposed cuts in hours, along with already low frequencies in the early evening hours, would unquestionably resign Metro to being one of the worst systems for riders outside of peak hours.

Even before these cuts, other US systems have managed significantly longer service hours and much better off-peak frequency. Why can’t WMATA adopt the strategies these systems have used to get maintenance work done?