Should Metro keep closing at 11:30 most nights and 1 am Friday and Saturday, or restore the later hours it had until 2016? What about in the future? Can bus service fill the gap, or ride-hailing services like Uber/Lyft/Via?
The WMATA Board shortened rail service hours in 2016 because, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said, the overnight period was just not long enough for the needed maintenance. Not only were there not enough hours overnight, especially on weekends, but it took nearly an hour for crews to safely close the system down and then get it going again in the morning, leaving very few for actual track work.
Closing times had been midnight Sunday through Thursday and 3 am Fridays and Saturdays. The change cut it back to 11:30 weeknights, 1:00 Friday and Saturday, and 11:00 Sunday. Opening Sunday changed to 8 am from the previous 7 am. This, Metro staff said at the time, would allow for eight more hours of useful maintenance time each week.
When the WMATA Board approved these shorter late night hours, Wiedefeld initially wanted to make the changes permanent. DC's board members insisted on making it only a two-year temporary change.
Wiedefeld still wants to make the cuts permanent, while DC's representatives, Jack Evans and Corbett Price, have been pushing to restore late night hours now. Metro staff responded that doing this would cost too much, and the Federal Transit Administration then piled on by saying it would withhold $1.6 billion in funds not only for Metro but other transit projects in Maryland and Virginia, including the Purple Line and transit in Hampton Roads.
Did Wiedefeld promise two years of shorter hours and then we're done? No.
Some members of the public (and some officials) have been mistakenly believing that Metro promised the late night cuts were only a two-year proposition. The two years are up, so the track work should be done, and we can go back to later night service.
That's never what Metro claimed. Safety experts say that Metro was simply not doing enough maintenance over the years, and dug itself deeper and deeper into a hole. Some General Managers did not want to admit this was happening and simply let the problem grow worse, with the public none the wiser.
However, communication from WMATA often has not effectively dispelled this kind of view. During the SafeTrack rebuilding program, there was a consistent tenor of communication that Metro just needed to do these shutdowns and then everything would be back to normal. In other conversations, however, Wiedefeld was clear that he viewed more shutdowns, single tracking, and shorter hours as a permanent need.
But do they have to be quite so long?
While Metro officials make a good case for why they need to do more maintenance, Metro still has the shortest operating hours of any US rail transit system. What do these other systems do that Metro doesn't?
Back when Metro was proposing these changes in 2016, Andy Off, then the Assistant General Manager for Rail Operations, sat down with some bloggers and journalists to answer questions like this. I can't find my notes, but he talked about how some systems use technologies that speed up the process of shutting the system down. For instance, now (or at least in 2016) workers had to manually visit electrical breaker boxes, shut them off, and mark them with tags. Other agencies have mechanisms to allow shutting down power to more areas centrally, which still meet safety requirements.
Off said, at the time, that Metro could invest in equipment like this, but it would take time. It's understandable that Metro is focused on short-term problems, but it's important they plan and make progress toward this.
That's why, at least, DC should keep insisting on keeping late night cuts temporary. Maybe it'll be five more years, or 10, or 20. But I'd very much worry that the moment the shorter hours become permanent, that's when Metro maintenance teams and managers can permanently stop thinking about how to get their work done in a shorter time one day.
If the WMATA Board debates restoring late night hours every couple of years, at least that forces the maintenance divisions to think about the long term goal.
Also, Metro needs to be transparent about how it's using the hours. A public records request by James Pizzurro found that not that much more work is getting done on weeknights, but a lot more is happening on weekends. That's helpful information!
What IS the long term vision?
Metro has been gradually edging toward being more of a commuter rail system, running trains at peak times and less so at other times. Some of the shift is because of the need for maintenance, but not all. Travis Maiers outlined how for some closures, Metro reduced service more than necessary. For weekend track work, it has cut service on lines not affected by track work in order to “coordinate” service.
There are periodic statements by WMATA excutives and board members that suggest they are looking at transit too much as a business. If one kind of product is profitable and another is not, maybe you should cut the product. That's not how transit works. It enables car-free or car-lite living in walkable urban places. It facilitates movement for people of all incomes with all kinds of work, school, or play schedules.
In a recent article, Alon Levy talked about how cutting off-peak frequency puts an agency into a spiral of declining ridership. And he wrote,
Managers like peak trains. Peak trains are full, so there’s no perception of wasting service on people who don’t use it. Managers also like peak trains because they themselves are likelier to ride them: they work normal business hours, and are rich enough to afford cars. … The instinct of the typical manager is to save money by pinching pennies on off-peak service. n contrast, the best practice is to run more service where possible.
Sure, Metro has limits on what jurisdictions will pay and has to make tradeoffs. But there's a difference between board members and top executives saying “we hate that there are trade-offs, but given that here's what we will do” and actually not really even wishing the agency could provide service to all. Our ambition, at least, for transit must remain expansive even if practical considerations limit us in the current moment.
What can we do in the meantime?
People need to get where they need to go. They don't necessarily have to take a train. So maybe it's necessary to close the system more (though we shouldn't cut more than necessary). Maybe it's necessary to have longer maintenance hours for the time being, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on providing those people with the transportation they need.
Late night buses are one option. Many cities, like London, use this to great effect. Some have an explicit “Night Owl” bus service that parallels rail, or others use their existing bus service. Regardless, it's possible to serve rail riders with other forms of transit.
Giving riders $3 off a ride-hail trip, a possibility that Faiz Siddiqui reported in the Post, isn't the best way to do this, because people who live farther away would still have to pay a lot more. However, ride companies have been running “microtransit” programs in many US and global cities where, under contract to the local government, they dispatch drivers who take people where they need to go. Reportedly, many of these often can offer service at lower-demand times and/or in lower-density areas at a better cost.
Perhaps rather than paying for full buses, someone could operate a dynamically dispatched service that takes people from employment center Metro stations to other stations late at night in smaller but shared cars or vans. Riders would still pay the regular Metro fare. Maybe that will offer the night-time service for lower subsidy. Or maybe not. It's worth looking into, as long as an alternative late-night program doesn't force people to pay more than they would if Metro still ran.
What will happen now?
The WMATA Board will vote on late night service on Thursday. It seems it may be necessary to keep shorter hours, but the board should keep them temporary. In the meantime, Metro should identify steps to allow it to lengthen hours without reducing maintenance, and explore ways to offer service in the meantime.
Is that what the board will do? Hard to know, since members disagree so much. But it's not heartening to hear so many feel that if Metro were shrunk down to a small, pretty, perfect object, that would be just fine.