Photo by kristiewells on Flickr.

After last weekend’s logistical disaster getting people to and from the Comedy Central rally, Metro has been the target of significant ridicule.  Certainly WMATA has made its share of poor decisions, but the blame for Saturday’s quagmire does not belong on Metro.

There has been a lot of recrimination floating around the internet following the disaster that was Metro last Saturday.  WMATA chose to maintain its weekend trackwork schedule and to run a typical weekend level of service. 

The results, as many readers can attest, was packed trains, closed stations and a major escalator incident.

These conditions have left a lot of people asking what happened to make things so terrible.  Yes, the system broke a Saturday ridership record, but the number of rides on Saturday reflected a slightly above average weekday ridership, which the agency handles regularly without major incident.  So why didn’t they prepare by offering a weekday level of service?

Both Dave Jameison of TBD On Foot and Dr. Gridlock have relatively good explanations why Metro continued with its track work and didn’t run any additional service.

To summarize: Metro cannot easily adjust its track work schedule because it has so much track work to complete before the end of the year. The agency had no way to know that nearly 3 times as many people would attend the Comedy Central event as were projected by the event’s organizers.

The conclusion to be drawn is this: Metro could have done very little to mitigate what happened Saturday given that they were told massively underestimated expectations of attendance.  As Dr. Gridlock explains, Comedy Central was expecting similar numbers to the Glenn Beck rally in late summer, which was handled without major incident by normal weekend service.

That event took place part of the mall that is primarily served by only 3 stations, all on the Blue or Orange lines.  Based on the information they were given, it was perfectly reasonable to expect an event of similar size, on a section of the mall that is within a mile of at least seven Metro stations on all three lines, could be similarly handled.

The next question to be addressed is what could metro have done after the initial 10 am to noon crush to mitigate another nightmare after the rally. The answer here, again, is not much. The agency had 20 trains on call as per the original event plan, and put them into service almost immediately.

Clearly that was not enough, but after the reserve trains, adding extra service requires extra operators, which means unless additional operators on standby in rail yards, it takes considerable to time to add significant service on the lines.  The chances that Metro could have called in enough operators in the 4 hours after the morning crush to mitigate a repeat in the afternoon are extremely low.

Was the situation on Saturday exacerbated by the occasional surly station manager, malfunctioning fare maching, or inoperable escalator? Probably. But solving all of those problems never could have remedied the fact that there simply were not enough trains to carry all the people who wanted to get on them.

And Comedy Central, whose parent Viacom, Inc. raked in $4 billion in profits last year, despite the invaluable press, publicity and viewership from the event, wasn’t willing to shell out $30,000 to pay for extra service.

Finally, some riders suggested that Metro should have prepared for the possibility of larger crowds despite low estimates because they could have made a lot more money off of more people.  Of course, anyone who understands the economics of a transit system will recognize that this is unfortunately incorrect.

Transportation systems are inherently subsidized. Even transit agencies which make a profit, like Hong Kong’s MTR, generally subsidize their transit service with revenues from other sources like real estate and advertising. The cost of running train service is not actually recovered by the fares riders pay. That’s what makes transit in its most basic sense a public good. Roads don’t cover their costs either.

For example, during the inauguration, Metro ran 17 hours of rush hour service and carried 1,120,000 riders in one day. Does that mean they raked in the dough? Nope. They pulled in $3 million in revenue from extra passengers, but spent $5 million to run the service.

We recognize that higher ridership is a good thing, but unless you can fit the additional riders on the same number of trains, higher ridership will mean higher costs. Increased ridership only increases profitability (or rather reduces subsidization) of a transit line assuming a constant level of service.

In fact, if there is any bright side to the disastrous situation on Saturday, it’s that Metro probably made a lot more money as it turned out than they would have had they run additional service.  After all, the least subsidized train is the one that’s bursting at the seams.