Image by Barbara Krawcowicz licensed under Creative Commons.

With the cherry blossoms season over, Metro is back to its “normal” weekend track work schedule with a work zone disrupting each of the three sets of Metrorail lines, including 28-minute headways between Red Line trains. Even though it's in WMATA's power and interest to mitigate the impact of track work for its shrinking group of weekend riders, the agency has made no attempt to do so.

Metro announced its weekend trackwork schedule on Monday, April 16 for the weekend of the 21st/22nd, and did similarly the next week for trackwork the weekend of the 28th/29th. The schedules included single-tracking on the Red Line between Farragut North and Union Station affecting trains all day Saturday and Sunday. The agency noted that trains were scheduled to run every 28 minutes from Shady Grove to Glenmont.

No additional trains ran on either side of the single-tracking area to retain near-normal service. An initial request for comment from Metro to help explain the Red Line weekend scheduling went unanswered.

Greater Greater Washington has written previously about unnecessary service cuts on the Red Line. Contributor Travis Maiers raised objections to service cuts west of Farragut North for track work happening all the way up between Friendship Heights and Medical Center. There are several places for trains to turn around between those two spots which the agency could have taken advantage of to reduce the disruption.

Track work doesn’t need to mean impacting an entire rail line

The track work being performed in late April between Farragut North and Union Station is described as “communication cable installation,” part of Metro’s major federally-mandated program to roll out cell service in the entire underground rail system.

The track work is presumably happening between Gallery Place and Judiciary Square, which would take the interlocking at that location out of service and cause trains to need to single-track for a long distance.

Trains on Saturdays typically operate every 12 minutes, and every 15 on Sundays. Twenty eight-minute headways for both days about doubles the expected time between trains, and it’s 3.5 times longer between trains than it would be during the weekday rush period.

Riders outside of the single-tracking area are being punished unnecessarily with this service cut occurring where no work is happening. There are a number of ways Metro could limit how many of its riders are affected.

Ignoring system resources causes riders to suffer

There are eight interlockings between Shady Grove and Farragut North where trains could switch from one track to another. Any of these could be used to run “extra” trains from Shady Grove towards Farragut North and back again to service riders on the west side of the single-tracking zone.

While the interlocking at Farragut North likely wouldn’t be a great option since the agency is already using that for single-tracking, the one just west of Dupont Circle is perfectly situated to allow trains running, say, every 14 minutes to run from Shady Grove, offload at Dupont, and reverse back again to the end of the line. Allowing riders to have near-normal rail service down to Dupont Circle would get many close enough to downtown DC that exiting the system there and taking the bus, bikeshare, or walking the rest of the way is an easy option.

On the eastern side of the line, single-tracking ending at Union Station means trains are utilizing the crossover just south of NoMa. The next north crossover is above Rhode Island, just a station away. An extra train could run from Glenmont down to Rhode Island and reverse back up north, providing near-normal service for the northeast third of the line.

Reduced service leads to reduced ridership

Recently-released ridership data of the rail system and reported by WTOP indicate weekend ridership is declining at a drastic rate and doesn’t appear to be letting up:

The data provided to the NVTC show the weekend ridership trend is even worse: down 10.2 percent on Saturdays in Virginia compared to 2017 after a 9.9 percent drop the previous year, and down 8.9 percent on Sundays after an 11 percent drop the previous year.

Metro’s previous ridership models suggested that increased economic activity — aka more jobs — was linked well to increased Metrorail and Metrobus ridership. That all changed around 2010, according to the agency, due in no small part to weekend trackwork scheduling:

Previously, WMATA constructed rail ridership forecasts that until 2010 explained 96% of the annual variation in ridership. In 2010 staff began to see divergences from these forecasts, driven almost entirely by the impact of weekend work zones and midday single tracking on off-peak ridership.

Over the subsequent years, staff continued to see larger divergences from forecasted ridership, and sought to provide reasons for these divergences through a series of tactical research exercises exploring potential causal variables.

The numbers generated by the agency’s ridership models tend now to overestimate the number of riders, which caused them to need to go back and redo the models. Weekend scheduling, especially with reduced service levels, is certainly part of that.

Of course, the realities of the system don’t just allow weekend track work to go away. Metro is still working down a significant backlog of deferred and undone maintenance, and the agency says it needs the weekends and extra time to accomplish both the ongoing preventative maintenance work as well as the catch-up work.

In the process of scheduling weekend track work, the agency should ensure that the impact of the work is limited as much as possible. Showing little regard to the riding public like by scheduling 28-minute frequencies for the entire Red Line or by cutting Silver Line service back to Ballston with half-normal frequencies won’t help retain riders, but makes it easier for potential-riders to defect to other, more convenient services.

Politicians can help riders affect change

The 16 WMATA Board of Directors members are appointed by elected officials from DC, Virginia, Maryland, and the federal government. These members aren’t heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the company (that’s the General Manager’s responsibility), but they provide approvals for agency initiatives and also further the interests of the jurisdictional politicians which appointed them.

Riders would do well to send constructive criticism to their local officials to help provide pressure on Metro to schedule weekend track work better. While it’s in the agency’s best interests to schedule track work as least-intrusive as possible, we’ve seen that the agency tends not to do so. Maintaining near-normal weekend service where possible should be a no-brainer, but it may take an extra push from the public to get Metro onboard.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.