An eight-car train stops on the Green Line at Gallery Place. Image by GKJ used with permission.

Metro runs trains which are either six or eight cars in length; the latter cost more to run but can move more riders. With a recent budget increase, the Yellow and Green lines are supposed to have only eight-car trains running on them now, but the number of these longer trains has fallen in recent months, according to Metro data analyzed by MetroHero.

The drop corresponded with the six-station Platform Improvement Project shutdown on the Blue and Yellow lines that began on May 25, 2019. Turns out, there’s a reason for that.

In March 2018, Metro announced that the agency was lengthening trains on the two lines to eight cars ‘whenever possible.’ The policy was in response to service cuts the prior year when trains began running every eight minutes instead of every six, and when Yellow Line ‘Rush Plus’ service to Greenbelt was discontinued.

All-day Yellow Line train service to Greenbelt was restored on July 2019 as part of Metro’s FY2020 budget. In this latest budget, all nine of the Yellow Line’s trains and all 17 of the Green Line’s trains are scheduled to be eight cars in length.

MetroHero can calculate how many trains, and how many eight-car trains, are seen in service. However, MetroHero’s Performance Summary tool average trains between 5-9:30 am and 3-7 pm, whereas the WMATA budget only says what trains should be running at 8:15 am and 5 pm. That means the average numbers produced by MetroHero are going to be lower than the “point in time” numbers in the WMATA budget.

The eight-car trains may be going to other lines

In April and May 2019, the Green and Yellow lines combined averaged just under 20 eight-car trains—fewer than budgeted, but still a significant number. Then starting around June, the number of eight-car trains began dropping. The fourth week of July averaged 16 eight-car trains during morning and afternoon rush hours when 22 trains were scheduled to be in service.

Yellow and Blue Line trains currently end at National Airport due to the above-mentioned 107-day shutdown that affects the Braddock Road, King Street, Eisenhower Avenue, Huntington, Van Dorn, and Franconia-Springfield stations. Metro spokesperson Ian Jannetta said the decline in eight-car trains on the Yellow and Green lines was “an effect of Alexandria Yard being offline due to the Platform Improvement Project.”

Jannetta says over time, trains may end up being “reblocked” - that is, assigned a different train line color or destination such as the Silver or Blue Line - “if it is needed to maintain schedule” on that line. “The rationale behind this is that it is better to maintain proper headways versus missing a trip to ensure that an eight-car train is in a particular slot,” he says.

Over time, Jannetta suggests, eight-car trains have been shifting away from the yards which feed them to the Yellow and Green lines, meaning fewer of them end up in service.

“Due to reblocking to mitigate delays/adhere to schedule, there may not be enough trains arriving at certain yards to re-deploy as eight-car trains,” Jannetta says. That leaves fewer eight-car trains to be dispatched into service for the Yellow and Green lines where they’re expected by riders.

Data on the number of Silver Line trains at 5 pm during rush hour and the number of eight car trains. Data from MetroHero

Over the same timeframe that eight-car trains have been seen less often on the Yellow and Green lines, the number on the Silver Line are up significantly, and there are a few more on the Blue Line as well. This would suggest, as Jannetta noted, that there are fewer eight-car trains being dispatched from Greenbelt and Branch Avenue rail yards, and more from the New Carrollton and/or West Falls Church yards.

Metro’s most-recent data showing average passengers per car (PPC) from March suggests Yellow and Green Line trains are more crowded in the afternoons than when measured in the mornings. Trains at L’Enfant headed south average 100 and 105 PPC for the Yellow and Green Lines, respectively. Metro defines the optimal railcar load as 100 passengers, with 80 being a relatively light load and 120 the maximum.

Northbound Yellow Line trains at Pentagon averaged 89 PPC in March; Green Line trains to Greenbelt at Waterfront averaged 93 PPC. Numbers are not yet available for railcar loading after the Yellow Line resumed service to Greenbelt.

Metro may actually be running more eight-car trains than scheduled

Recently, Red Line riders recently have noted seeing fewer eight-car trains as well. While the data supports this assertion, the number of eight-car trains running now still on average meets the number that Metro has budgeted during morning and evening rush: 18 six-car and 18 eight-car trains.

The total number of trains running on the Red Line has gone up recently. Metro eliminated the Grosvenor turnback in late December 2018 and also eliminated the Silver Spring turnback in July 2019.

Number of eight-car trains on the Red Line sampled at 5 pm daily. Data from MetroHero.

In fact, Metro appears to have been running more eight-car trains than scheduled on most days since September, according to MetroHero data. The line averaged 21 eight-car trains in April and 20 in May, though at least one day (May 22) averaged more than 26 eight-car trains.

The Red Line has been averaging just under 18 eight-car trains during rush hours so far in July. Just under nine have been seen on average on the Orange Line, 10 on the Silver Line, and 7.5 on the Blue Line.

Metro’s Yellow and Blue Line closure ends on September 8, after which the Alexandria rail yard should reopen and regain the ‘operational flexibility’ the agency says it lost when it closed.

You can explore Metro railcar trends over time for yourself with MetroHero’s Performance Summary tool.

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

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.