Image by Kathleen Tyler Conklin licensed under Creative Commons.

When Metro needs extra time to perform track work, the agency routinely uses late-night hours before the system closes to begin single-tracking. But on weeknights when rail service can be cut as early as 8 pm, the agency does not create and maintain schedules so passengers know when and where trains should be so they can get home on time.

Due to the major backlog in Metrorail track and systems work, the agency routinely schedules weeknight track work starting at 10 pm, though on occasion it has started as early as 8 pm. When Metro transitions to the “early-out” service schedule, the time-based schedules used throughout the day are thrown out the window.

Instead, the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) relies on separating trains by how far apart they are from each other (headway), not based on where they are in relation to the current time (schedule).

Weeknight schedules aren't updated during track work

The Metrorail timetable shows that trains are scheduled to run every 20 minutes beginning 9:30 pm to system close from Monday to Friday, with the Red Line scheduled to run every 15-18 minutes. Missing one train could lead to waiting up to 20 minutes for the next one, or possibly up to 30 when single-tracking is in effect.

Long headways on the rail system are far from ideal, but can be tolerable if trains arrive when the schedule says they do. According to multiple sources, however, the agency doesn’t follow schedules for weeknight track work. On several occasions, a train operator was allowed to leave a terminal station without their schedule and was simply told to be governed by the ROCC.

Metro did not respond to a request for comment. The agency’s Trip Planner tool lists scheduled trains that run until the system’s evening close, but adherence to this schedule is minimal at best for any line affected by weeknight track work.

Metro publicly reports train headway adherence, but does not report how well trains stick to their set schedules.

With wider headways, sticking to a schedule can be key for riders

A typical weekday rush period means trains are based around schedules first, and headways second. Trains are dispatched from terminal end-of-line stations on set schedules, and operators have what’s called a ‘paddle’ which tells them the time they should be at each station.

However, once departing the terminal, trains come under the control of the ROCC which prefers to space trains based on headway to keep trains moving in and out of stations smoothly.

Headway-based scheduling can work well during rush periods, when trains come only every few minutes. Miss one train, and the next one may just be two to four minutes behind if you’re at a core station. But as the day goes on and trains begin running less frequently, it becomes more important for customers that they run on a schedule.

The Silver Line is one of the lines most affected by the lack of regular weeknight schedule adherence. Trains on the line are routinely cut back to operating only between Wiehle-Reston East and Ballston stations in Virginia. They would ordinarily run to Largo but can be cut back if there’s single-tracking in effect downtown or on the Maryland side of the line.

Analysis by the DC Office of Revenue Analysis in 2017 noted that with a 10-minute wait for a train, Uber was a quicker travel option than the vast majority of 99 of 114 trips measured.

Ensuring that Metrorail is convenient and predictable for riders to use is in riders’ — and the agency’s — best interests. It would seem that making sure trains arrive and depart stations as announced would help make that happen.

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.