In total, there were over one million Metro trips on Saturday, the day of the Women's March on Washington. It was Metro’s second-highest rail ridership day ever. In order to move that many people, the system relied on solid planning, additional staff, and, most importantly, excited crowds.
Until just three days before the 21st, Metro didn’t have any plans to run extra service. The plan was for the day to be an ordinary Saturday, with trains coming every 12 minutes on each line. Event organizers were expecting (in hindsight, a paltry) 100,000 people to descend onto the Mall, which the rail system would have been able to manage easily.
When it realized rider estimates were too low, Metro responded
Metro announced on the 18th that it would be adding more than a dozen extra trains in response to online criticism for that initial plan. When rail service peaked at around 11 am the day of, the system was running only ~20 trains short of a typical rush hour period. Not too bad for a quick turnaround.
Metro had fewer trains running in the afternoon, but more of the trains running were the longer 8-car type. This helped clear out downtown stations so people wouldn’t have to crowd on the platform as much as they would have if 6-car trains were running.
In the afternoon especially, knowing where people were coming from was key. When trains reached the outer terminals of the system, a subset of those would run “light” without passengers from the system’s edges back down to the core DC stations to pick up crowds and head back out.
Extra supervisors and personnel were at downtown stations to direct trains
Extra supervisors were positioned throughout the core of the system to provide real-time feedback to the rail operations center that helped guide how and when trains moved. Supervisors at L’Enfant, for example, had to sometimes instruct trains to bypass and not let people either on or off trains at the station due to the throngs of people on the platforms trying to transfer or exit the station.
In the afternoons, these supervisors were instrumental in giving instructions to those empty "gap trains" heading downtown from the terminals. They would be the ones able to request where the empty trains go in service to clear out platforms, and to get passengers safely back to their destinations. This strategy seemed to work pretty well during the peak of the afternoon crowds.
There is a downside to these extra employees: cost. Supporting large events is expensive, and Board chair Jack Evans noted WMATA wasn’t being reimbursed for the extra staffing.
Transit police and station managers restricted access into stations when necessary
The main limiting factors in Metro’s ability to move one million trips is a mixture of station entrances including numbers of fare gates, and “vertical transportation" — elevators and escalators. When stations in the core had to be closed or bypassed in the late morning (including L’Enfant, Judiciary Square, and Smithsonian), that was because the platforms were already too crowded to let more people out of the trains into the stations.
Station Managers and Metro Transit Police were key to keeping the stations from being more being crowded than they needed to be. By limiting how many people could enter stations, modifying which direction escalators ran (sometimes shutting them off entirely), or having to altogether open fare gates to let people through without tapping, Metro kept people moving and kept stations from being completely overwhelmed. On the flipside, this meant more people waiting outside of the stations— but that’s better than being in a smaller confined space.
Metro paused normal mid-day track inspections
Metro typically performs most track inspections outside of rush hour every day, from 10 am-3 pm, and after 7 pm. These inspections require trains to slow down to below 10 miles per hour while all 600 feet of the train clear the track personnel.
None of these were performed on either Friday or Saturday; the inspections were likely shifted to the overnight hours. Due to the number of consecutive hours of at or near rush-hour levels of trains on the two days, these inspections weren’t feasible.
Moving a subset of these inspections to the overnight hours was also only doable because only emergency trackwork was performed overnight on the 20th and 21st. Typically there are dozens of work areas where various types of track or other maintenance work are being performed. Shifting this work isn’t sustainable long-term due to Metro’s maintenance backlog.
Having excited, happy passengers makes a difference
Having so many people riding the system attending a single massive event certainly puts a spark in the air. I know if I traveled out of town by bus and then were taking the train into a different city for a conference, sports game, whatever the occasion, I’d be more excited than if I were on my normal commute to work.
Excited passengers with the camaraderie of thousands of others with a common destination isn’t something you see every day. Because of that, train delays or having to wait extra long to get into a station might not seem as big a deal as they would otherwise. Most people riding Metro on Saturday weren’t headed into work (although some certainly were) or had strict appointment deadlines, so a bit more waiting wouldn’t have been as much a negative as on a normal workday.
The system isn’t in good enough shape to regularly handle this load... yet
SafeTrack is ongoing. We all know that the rail system has issues, and it’s going to take years of dedicated focus and work to get the system back to a state of good repair so the agency isn’t constantly fighting (literal and figurative) fires.
Because of the system's needs, the track inspections that were delayed on Friday/Saturday still need to get done, and were (and caused speed restrictions and single-tracking on Sunday). Running near-rush service earlier and later means these can't happen as often, which could end up being a safety issue if left long enough.
The railcar fleet, as well, would be another limit. Pushing the same number of cars to run longer hours with more riders likely means more would break down, causing potentially severe service disruptions.
Metro did well on Saturday and rose to the exceptional occasion of moving one million rail trips. But until the tracks and rail cars are in good enough to do that every day, Metro's focus needs to be on making sure service is safe and reliable for those that use the system today.