Green Line by mosley.brian used with permission.

After a brief recovery in July, Metrorail ridership dropped to new four-year lows in August and September 2018, according to a new quarterly report Metro published on Monday, November 5. There's some good news, though: the report also indicates that the system is becoming more reliable.

Ridership was at four-year lows in August and September

Ridership was up 3.7% in July but down 7.1% in August and 4.8% in September 2018, compared to the prior year. Ridership numbers were below Metro’s estimates.

Monthly Metrorail ridership. Image from James Pizzurro, used with permission.

Metrorail ridership has continued to struggle after hitting its peak a decade ago in 2008 when the system averaged 751,855 daily trips. Several high-profile crashes, reduced frequencies, trackwork, and less reliable service contributed to years of dropping ridership. The SafeTrack initiative, which took place during the FY2017 year, closed multiple sections for extended periods of time and galvanized the drop from FY2016.

Metro has continued to perform a number of extended shutdowns since SafeTrack ended—most notably the 45-day Rhode Island Avenue shutdown and the recent four-day Veterans Day weekend shutdown at National Airport. A 14-day shutdown of the Yellow Line bridge is scheduled for later this year, and a 100-day shutdown south of National Airport next year kicks off three years of intrusive station work.

A continued decline in Metrorail ridership isn’t terribly surprising. Metro told riders to use the system “only if absolutely necessary” during 16 days of single-tracking earlier this summer on the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines, which cut train frequencies by almost in third. Continued trackwork on weekends and weeknights have suppressed any ridership rebound, while weekday peak ridership seems to be leveling off.

Metro’s General Manager Paul Wiedefeld proposed some minor service increases in the next years’ budget, and the Board of Directors is set to discuss specifics in upcoming meetings.

Metro says its service and railcars are more reliable

85% of trips were “on time” during the first three months of the fiscal year, according to Metro’s MyTripTime. This metric measures the time between when passengers tap in and tap out in the rail system. Metrorail hit 90% of on-time trips in September, the highest on-time percentage since January 2016, when Metro debuted the new metric.

An alternate metric that tracks the reliability of trains saw 90%, 78%, and 93% on-time performance during the July-September time period. The Green Line saw the best performance, averaging 95% over the three months. The Red Line, which saw service cut in half due to the Rhode Island shutdown in July through September, came in last at 83% reliability with a low of 64% in August.

The railcars Metro uses are also more reliable, according to agency data. The cars ran on average 128,987 miles between delay (MDBD), “a 50 percent improvement compared to the same period last year.”

The agency had 550 7000-series railcars in service as of October 1, allowing them to retire the 1000, 4000, and half of (as of the report’s writing) the 5000-series railcars. The 7000s were the most reliable through the quarter, followed by the 6000s, the 2000s, 3000s, and finally the 5000s.

The 7000s also hit a reliability milestone during the quarter. The cars averaged 21,999 miles between failures—a more stringent metric than Mean Distance Between Failures (MDBF)—which exceeds the contract requirement that the cars maintain a MDBF of at least 20,800 miles. The next-most reliable fleet measured by MDBF is the 2000s (8,133-mile average for the quarter) followed by the 3000s, 6000s, with 5000s far behind.

The report says more reliable railcars have led to better service. Metro recorded 35 times where riders had to be offloaded in September 2018—about one per day—down from 65 the year before, and 103 the year before that. There were a total of 354 offloads in the first three months of FY 2017, 189 in FY 2018, and 127 so far in FY 2019.

Improvements in safety are visible, but there's more to do

There were 26 smoke/fire incidents during the three-month reporting period in the report, 16 of which were arcing insulators. This number is down from 32 the same period last year. Reported smoke and fire incidents on Metro are down significantly since 2015, during which the agency reported on average 17 incidents every month.

There were no red signal violations during the quarter, which means no train operators passed a red signal when they weren’t supposed to.

There were, however, five rail collisions and one derailment. The five collisions involved three rail maintenance machines and two trains:

The two train collisions occurred in railcar maintenance shops. The first collision occurred when a train struck a portable fan while exiting the shop. The second occurred when a railcar came in contact with unsecured auxiliary doors adjacent to the track. The RMM collisions involved: a prime mover backing in the work area and coming in contact with a tamper unit on the mainline; a prime mover with flat coming in contact with another flat in the yard; and a prime mover toolbox making contact to radio cables and a snake tray on the mainline.

There were more collisions in the quarter than Metro estimated based on prior years; there were three during the same period last year.

Overall, it's great that Metro seems to be becoming more reliable, but it's important that WMATA doesn't neglect trying to boost ridership. If it doesn't, fewer people will be around to benefit from a better system.

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.