Metro offers a way to boost its on-time performance by cutting service
Jim Hughes, one of Metro’s top planning officials, spent years working on the rail service program that made room for the Silver Line trains and added service to central Washington, where new neighborhoods are blooming.
This summer, Hughes is working on a proposal that would curtail rush-hour service on the Silver Line and cut the number of trains in the District’s north-south corridor.
Is this a dramatic retrenchment? A big “Never mind”?
That’s one of several ways riders may react. Others will see the proposal as pitting the Blue Line against the Orange, Silver, Green and Yellow. If all their trains are spaced eight minutes apart, the Blue Line is the only one gaining service.
But this proposal is much more complicated than any of that, and I hope riders will take time to examine it.
The fundamental question is this: Would you want to trade the chance of more crowding on your train for a crack at a more reliable trip?
Here are five key points in evaluating the idea.
Reliability and crowding. “We’re trying to see if we can provide more reliable, consistent service,” Hughes said in explaining the proposal to the Metro Riders’ Advisory Council on Wednesday.
Each of the five lines under review connects with another line. Metro planners think there are too many trains competing for space at the junctions, and this— along with important factors such as the condition of the tracks and the rail cars— contributes to delays. “The on- time performance of our railroad is not up to our goal,” Hughes said in a statement that many riders would wholeheartedly endorse.
Planners think that by increasing the space between trains, Metro is more likely to get you where you’re going on time, because the trains will move more smoothly through the junctions.
But: “We will see more crowding,” Hughes said. This would happen even as Metro adds more rail cars to the trains remaining in service.
The connections. “Something that happens on one of our lines affects our other lines,” Hughes said. The most frequently discussed junction is Rosslyn, where the new Silver Line competes for space with Orange and Blue trains. But lines also join up at East Falls Church, Pentagon, Stadium-Armory, King Street and L’Enfant Plaza.
Hughes described this
proposal as a relatively shortterm strategy—“four, five, six years,” he said. Long-term, Metro still expects the ridership to grow along the Silver Line corridor and the north-south corridor in the District, and those riders will need more service.
Role of the Silver Line. Metro opened the Silver Line with the hope of moving 26 trains per hour— Silver, Orange and Blue — through the Rosslyn junction. That’s not happening, and the result is erratic service.
Meanwhile, ridership at the new stations on the west side of the Silver Line is below estimates. The end of the line station at Wiehle-Reston East and the Tysons Corner station near the malls are doing very well, but ridership at other new stations in Tysons is unlikely to pick up until more of the planned office and residential developments open.
Blue Line impact. To fit in the Silver Line trains, Metro cut service on the Blue Line, so trains now are scheduled to arrive every 12 minutes. Metro has looked for ways to address complaints about crowding. But the proposal was not designed specifically to benefit the Blue Line at the expense of the others.
In fact, it’s unclear whether Blue Line riders will like the approach. Metro estimates that 30 percent of Blue Line riders shifted to the Yellow Line when the Blue Line was cut back. If Blue Line service is increased and Yellow Line Rush Plus service is eliminated, those riders are likely to return to the Blue Line.
Metro estimates that at rush hour the Blue Line carries 106 people per car. Under the proposal, Metro estimates that Blue Line cars will carry an average of 108 people.
What’s next. This ambitious undertaking could come undone at many stages. The transit staff plans to present the proposal to a Metro board committee on Thursday. The staff is looking for board approval to draw public comment. A formal plan could be presented to the board this fall.
If the board approves, it still would take months for the staff to set up operating procedures and change Metro maps, signs, brochures and online scheduling information.
Hughes said it’s possible that a plan could be implemented in the first part of 2016. But the experience in creating the Rush Plus system shows it can take years to plan and implement widespread changes in rail service. Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail email@example.com.