Image by pablo.raw used with permission.

Metro says its rail system is becoming more reliable and improving after years of decline, according to documents presented to the agency’s Board of Directors on May 10. Metro hopes to use these improved reliability numbers to show lost riders that the system is getting better and they can return.

Metrorail shows performance improvements, but still far from perfect

Metro’s MyTripTime metric, which debuted in Fiscal Year 2016, tracks how long each individual trip in the system should take. It factors in walking time from the fare gates to the platform, the maximum expected wait time for a train, maximum transfer waits, and the actual trip time.

The agency says that 87% of trips have been on time so far in the current fiscal year to date (2018). Only 67% of trips were on time last year when significant portions of the system were shut down for SafeTrack, and 74% of trips were on time the year before that in FY 2016.

Metro’s train on-time performance metric, which tracks how evenly spaced trains remain plus or minus two minutes, says the agency has averaged 90% so far in FY 2018. Metro does not report on-time performance comparing train station arrivals to the agency’s published schedules.

Railcar data released by the agency say that 559 offloads occurred in the first nine months of the fiscal year, compared to 883 and 1,298 in FY 2017 and FY 2016 to date, respectively. Fewer Metrorail trains run this year after a 25% service cut implemented July 2017 caused trains to run only every eight minutes instead of every six.

The agency attributes more reliable trains to the continued acceptance of new 7000-series trains and having been able to retire the 1000- and 4000-series cars. The 4000-series railcars have typically been the worst-performers in the Metrorail fleet, and the 7000-series cars have become the new ‘star’ performer, running more reliably on average than even the 6000s.

Two measures Metro uses to track how reliable railcars are Mean Distance Between Delays (MDBD) and Mean Distance Between Failure (MDBF). The later typically is a more “true” measure of reliability of the railcar, whereas the MDBD metric measures reliability that can vary based on operator and rail traffic controller experience.

Railcar MDBD has been on the rise over the last three fiscal years. It averaged 55,000 miles in FY 2016 while reliability increased to 73,000 miles in FY 2017, and is so far averaging 86,800 miles in the first nine months of FY 2018. Metro’s goal is 85,000 miles.

Railcar MDBF similarly increased over the past three years from 5,000 to 5,900 and now 9,700 miles in FY 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively. The 7000-series cars have averaged 17,300 miles MDBF so far in FY 2018 and leads the fleet. The next-highest reliable series is the 2000s, averaging 10,400 miles MDBF this year.

Track problems have begun to come down

The number of times trains ran past a red track signal decreased from 14 in 2017 compared to seven so far in 2018. There were eight reported red signal violations in 2016. The agency attributes the decline to upgrading signals from regular bulbs to LEDs so they’re easier to see, improved maintenance, and improved communications.

Fires on the tracks have slightly declined from 66 in both FY to date 2016 and 2017 to 61 so far in 2018. The most fires this year were attributed to arcing (27) followed closely by “non-electrical” fires (26). Five of the 61 fires this fiscal year have been cable fires, similar to those which contributed to a system-wide Metrorail shutdown back in 2016 and the death of a passenger in 2015.

In addition, 11% of the system’s tracks have been under speed restrictions that limit how fast trains can run. Speed restrictions are placed on tracks when inspectors identify defects, and restrictions can slow trains down to ‘medium’ speeds around 35 mph, slow speeds below 15 mph, or completely halt train traffic in an area.

Metro’s goal is to have below 2.2% of tracks under speed restrictions when the metric is measured at 9 am on the first Wednesday of every month. A speed restriction on the Red and Orange/Silver/Blue lines limiting trains to 35 mph could be lifted as soon as this summer, according to agency documents. The restriction was implemented due to a Federal Transit Administration directive instructing the agency to reduce the power draw of its trains.

Metro’s tracks were in bad enough shape in 2015 that an empty Orange Line train derailed between Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations due to tracks that were too wide. Metro employees found the issue a month earlier, but failed to act on the information and it went unaddressed. Inspectors were ordered to evaluate every other curve in the Metrorail system afterwards to find other critical issues.

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


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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.