Track work that disrupts your Metro ride isn't anything new at this point, and a lot of times, it's not even unreasonable. Fixing Metro requires some temporary discomfort. But lately, and without much reason, WMATA has cut some train service in areas where no track work is taking place.
Metro recently cut Blue and Green Line service even when it didn't have to
For most of February, Arlington Cemetery Station was closed as the tracks that carry Blue Line trains between Rosslyn and Pentagon stations underwent intensive repair for SafeTrack. With work taking place only in Virginia, it seemed that service disruptions would only happen there.
Instead, Metro enacted a plan where 40 stations saw a service reduction, affecting nearly 300,000 weekday trips (based on February 2016 average weekday entries). Riders who didn’t even commute through the work zone were adversely impacted.
Interestingly, the original plan Metro released in January did a better job limiting the impact of the surge.
I spoke with Sherri Ly of WMATA’s communications department about the change of plans. She said that, based on operational logistics and the location of the work, the revised plan “provided a more reliable and consistent service."
But was that true for the Green Line, or the Blue Line east of Rosslyn? Neither of these areas was part of the work zone, yet both saw reduced service. I wondered why Metro couldn’t maintain regular Green Line service and run Blue Line trains from Largo to West Falls Church (that's where trains could turn around if they weren't going south at Rosslyn)? Under this scenario, as few as four stations would have seen service cuts.
Ly said Metro considered a plan like this, but "logistical challenges would have made it more difficult to maintain reliable, predictable service." She also said that service through downtown “was sufficient to support ridership” despite no Blue Line trains running.
But does cutting service make it “more reliable?” And while there may have been "sufficient" trains to handle crowds through downtown, does that justify cutting service where there's no track work? Either way, it's clear the plan WMATA ultimately selected had much larger impact across the system than potential alternatives.
Weekend service is getting cut unnecessarily too
SafeTrack isn't the only time WMATA has cut regular service in places where it wasn't doing track work. Metro has recently closed off segments of track during the weekend where SafeTrack-scale surges won't work, and in some cases, unnecessary cuts have followed.
For instance, on February 3-5 there was single tracking between Friendship Heights and Medical Center, with Red Line trains running every 18 minutes. Additional trains were added between Farragut North and Silver Spring, resulting in service every 9-10 minutes between those points.
While it’s great Metro ran additional service, why not run it between Van Ness and Glenmont to maximize the number of riders served? When I asked, Ly noted that "turning trains in the work zone is a more complicated process,” and that it was "more efficient" to use Farragut and Silver Spring.
But this explanation is odd considering that Van Ness and Glenmont were not part of the work area here. Also, Metro has turned trains around at Van Ness before; in fact, that happened only a few hours before this work started! If Metro could do this train scheduling on weekdays, why not on weekends?
Another strategy Metro uses is to run fewer trains on one line in order to “coordinate” with work on another. This happened on the Yellow Line on December 16-18, when service was reduced to every 24 minutes (instead of the regular 12 minutes) and trains only went to U Street because of Green Line work from Fort Totten to College Park.
Reduced frequency on one line should not cut service by 50% on another. And it seems there was nothing preventing Metro from running regular Green and Yellow Line service to Georgia Avenue, with Green Line service every 24 minutes between Fort Totten and Greenbelt.
According to Ly, using Georgia Avenue would have resulted in greater delays for customers, in large part because using this station to turn trains around “is complex due to the location of the interlocking.” [Note: an interlocking is a junction where trains can switch from one track to the other.]
I posed these points to the guys at Rail Transit OPS, an independent group that evaluates the operations and performance of passenger rail systems. They note that the interlocking at Georgia Avenue is "nearly identical" to the one at U Street, right down to its location outside the station. Regarding delays, Rail Transit OPS thought Metro could be referring to when trains back up on either side of single-tracking while waiting for oncoming trains to clear. But they also said better procedures and proper train sequencing can mitigate any potential conflicts.
This is causing ridership to drop
It could be Metro has other reasons to explain the service cuts. Maybe it's budget pressures, staffing problems, or something else entirely. But if that's the case, Metro ought to say so. Until then, it seems reasonable to think that where there is no track work, there should be regular train service.
It’s clear riders have grown weary of disruptions caused by poor reliability and the work intended to fix it. Since SafeTrack began in June 2016 weekday ridership has fallen by 12% compared to the year before; it's now at its lowest level since 2003. But passengers were leaving the system even before SafeTrack. Ridership was down 6% in FY2016 compared to the year before, and the same report noted that "off-peak ridership declines are coinciding with less frequent service due to maintenance."
Judging by the responses I received, it seems Metro could be running better service, but chooses not to based on false choices and assumptions.
Such decisions are causing riders to give up on the system. WMATA needs to stop making excuses and start doing better. The agency said as much in a 2015 report where it conceded that “the only way to substantially improve [customer] satisfaction is through sustained and consistent service delivery.” Metro can start by maintaining regular service in areas where no track work is taking place.