Photo by outlan2000 on Flickr.

Just as some traffic engineers can fall into traps like viewing roadways as moving cars rather than moving people, transit engineers can lapse into thinking about their system in terms of how it best serves the trains that roam the tracks than the people who ride those trains.

When he became chair of the WMATA Board one year ago, Peter Benjamin said, “Metro’s job is not to run buses and trains. It is to move people, to provide mobility, and to create transportation alternatives for the region.”

Finding ways to get more maintenance done on Metro is a laudable goal, but Metro operations head Dave Kubicek’s suggestion to suspend late-night Metro service altogether teeters on the edge of putting the convenience of the operations department over the needs of riders.

A letter from a retired Metro employee to Unsuck DC Metro absolutely places engineer convenience ahead of the actual purpose of a transit system:

Metro’s decision to operate trains as late as they do on the weekends was the second most misguided decision the authority has ever made. It was a cave in to politicians on the board who know nothing about rail and want nothing more than to spout platitudes to their constituents that they live in a “world-class city.”

World class in some ways, maybe, but Metro? Hardly.

Metro was never conceived to be a “world class” subway, at least according to what we think world class is in 2011. It was conceived to bring workers downtown in the morning and take them home at night. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s how it’s built. …

It is a smart, if temporarily unpopular move, to close Metro at midnight, and they should never let it run until 3 again.

You know what else is a two-track system? Paris. Moscow. London (except for two very small pieces). Many others. In fact, more than 2 tracks is extremely rare worldwide.

Most world-class cities do have more lines, so they can shut down some lines and people can use others. London’s lines are very close together in the center city. So are Paris’s, plus they have RER as well as the Metro. Berlin has the U-bahn and S-bahn.

We often compare Metro to New York, but sometimes that leads to drawing the wrong conclusions. New York, by the way, does sometimes close down some of the tracks on their 4-track lines (or 1 or 2 on their 2-track lines), but not every night. Most lines, most nights, run all night. (They don’t run most express services all night, but still aren’t doing any maintenance on those express tracks).

Why, then, does Kubicek want to close the system at midnight every day?

This is the key issue. There’s a big difference between shutting down some lines, some of the time, to do extended repairs, and shutting down every line at midnight. Kubicek says he has some people unable to do the most important work because of the hours. Would they be working on all five lines every single weekend?

It could make sense to shut down even, say, one line on weekends for a few months or more if that will get that line substantially back to good repair. But Metro should only shut down what it absolutely needs to while it puts every possible maintenance person into the shut-down area.

There are the closures that will really benefit maintenance, and then there are the closures that will just make Kubicek’s job easier. Right now, we can’t tell the difference.

Benjamin told the RAC that sometimes Metro staff do fall into this trap of thinking about the system in terms of moving the trains instead of moving the people. A friend who works for a transit company said a number of employees there come from a freight operator, and they preferred moving freight because it doesn’t complain.

Having no weekend hours would certainly save some work for Metro management. The scheduling would be simpler. They wouldn’t have to communicate varying weekend closures or explain to the staff how to make the proper announcements. If only Metro structured its service around the needs of its managers, then things would be so much better… from the perspective of the managers.

Unsuck’s letter writer blames politicians for getting Metro to play a bigger role in our region than it did when it opened. If politicians are the ones who dream big while the engineers want to cut everything back and make it fit into a simple but narrow box, then we need more politicians, not fewer.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.