McLean Metro Station by Daniel Kelly used with permission.

It may not be possible to restore the late-night rail service hours which were cut back in 2016, according to a new Metro staff report presented to the Metro Board of Directors today. The late-night hours were reduced to allow the agency to perform more trackwork overnight, and they're set to expire in June unless the Board allows them to continue.

Chart from Metro staff showing four potential service hour plans for FY20. Image from Metro.

The Board voted back in 2016 to cut late-night service hours because the agency had a massive backlog of trackwork it needed to catch up on. Instead of running to 3 am on Fridays and Saturdays, trains now end at 1 am; instead of running to midnight during the week, they only run to 11:30 pm; trains now run only until 11 pm on Sundays.

The decision whether to restore the full service hours was postponed from a prior Board meeting this past December. DC’s delegates said they would use their jurisdictional veto to make sure the late night hours were restored, but the postponement meant the vote never happened.

Why are some resistant to restoring late-night service hours?

On Thursday, January 24 Metro’s staff laid out four options for rail service it could provide next year. Reverting to the longer service hours of 2016-2017 would cost $45 million; shifting but keeping most maintenance hours would cost $9 million; extending just weekend hours would cost $4 million; and keeping the current hours wouldn’t cost any more.

The agency would need to find other places to cut costs in order to restore service and not raise its overall operating expenses. Metro is now legally bound to keep year-over-year cost increases under 3%—more on that below. With certain exceptions, the agency cannot charge jurisdictions more than 3% more next year (FY2020) than it did this year (FY2019).

WMATA says that no matter whether the jurisdictions revert to the FY2016 hours or choose Alternative A or B, that “Any changes from current hours would put the subsidy outside the 3% cap.” If the agency exceeds that cap, both Maryland and Virginia are legally allowed to withhold massive amounts of money.

If the Board chose to restore partial or full service hours, Metro says there would be a number of tradeoffs for riders. The two “lesser” alternatives would result in some weeknight single-tracking on top of what happens now.

The full service restoration would mean that the agency schedules single-tracking during the midday hours (10 am-2 pm) at 23 locations around the system. Two sections of track would also be shut down as early as 11 pm five days per week, and the agency would institute bus bridges to keep people moving. The Rush Hour Promise program would also be canceled.

How did we get here?

In 2016, WMATA staff presented the early stages of a two-year preventative maintenance program they wanted to begin putting into place. The program would help turn Metro from being a reactive organization to being proactive when it came to track issues like fires and arcing insulators, said Metro’s senior track managers. They convinced the Board to go along with the plan—over a veto threat from DC representative Jack Evans—in part by setting a goal of reducing “track-related delays in half” and allowing the cuts to automatically expire.

Shortening the system’s hours of operation meant that crews could get more work done more efficiently. The amount of time left to do work after setting up and tearing down a work zone was minimal, they said, and a one-hour “unproductive work window” was all the time they had to get maintenance done on Fridays and Saturdays under the old hours.

Virginia, Maryland, and DC passed funding bills in 2018, which provided a new pot of dedicated funding towards Metro’s capital budget. The money was intended to be used for major long-term projects, but can’t be used for day-to-day expenses like paying workers or running trains.

The bills also stipulated that the agency could only allow its costs to increase a maximum of 3% per year for operating service, and that FY2020 would be the first budget to be bound by this requirement.

Agency staff want to keep the extra time

Metro staff are trying to keep the shortened hours for the next fiscal year to continue with their overnight track work. Data in the presentation suggests that the agency is making good use of the available track time and that they’re able to do more work with the additional hours.

Bar chart showing quarterly number of work-wrench hours from FY16 to FY19. Image from Metro.

The total number hours of “work-wrench hours”—the amount of time workers are actually doing work on the tracks (not including setting up work zones, taking down power, installing safety equipment, etc.)—increased from 35,440 hours to 47,534 hours from the first to fourth quarter in FY2019. Metro says it was able to get more work done overnight in all four quarters of FY2019 than they were in FY2017 when workers had eight fewer hours per week available.

The average number of crews that go out overnight to get work done increased from below 30 for both FY2016 and 2017 to around 33 during FY2019, and the average size of track crews rose from under six in FY2016 to just over seven in FY2019.

Average “wrench time” went up from under 1.9 hours per night to over 2.1 hours per night from 2016 to 2019 as well. Each increase, though small, adds up. Metro says the results are noticeable and important enough that it wants it the hours to stay.

The Metro Board of Directors is likely to decide on and vote for how to proceed during its next full meeting on February 28.

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