A ques­tion from riders to Metro’s bosses: What does suc­cess look like?

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - 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-

Riders have ab­so­lutely no trou­ble see­ing the po­ten­tial down­side of Metro’s pro­posal to widen the gaps be­tween trains. But here’s another way to look at the transit staff ’s idea: If it works, how will we know?

The staff has been quite mod­est with its pitch to set the gap be­tween trains at eight min­utes. The pro­gram, it says, is just one way to im­prove the re­li­a­bil­ity of the rush-hour train sched­ule, which Metro’s charts show has de­te­ri­o­rated since the open­ing of the Sil­ver Line.

Other plans, such as adding more newrail cars, have been set in mo­tion, but this sched­ule change is one ex­tra thing that’s within Metro’s power to do rel­a­tively soon.

So cus­tomers are be­ing asked to con­sider whether they’re will­ing to tol­er­ate more crowd­ing in ex­change for hav­ing a bet­ter idea of when their trips are go­ing to start and when they’re go­ing to end.

On one hand, it’s re­ally easy to see how the trains can be­come more crowded. First of all, Metro of­fi­cials are quite up front in say­ing they’ll be more crowded. But the logic also is easy to grasp.

The gap be­tween rush-hour trains on the Or­ange, Sil­ver, Green and Yel­low lines, now set at six min­utes, will in­crease by two min­utes. Blue Line ser­vice will be­come more fre­quent, since the trains are 12 min­utes apart now. But the pro­posal also in­volves can­cel­ing Rush Plus ser­vice on the Yel­low Line, and many of those com­muters are likely to re­turn to their old home on the Blue Line.

But even if the rail plan­ners’ vi­sion is re­al­ized and the big­ger gaps be­tween trains make for smoother merg­ing where the lines come to­gether, they will have eased but one of the prob­lems caus­ing de­lays. This pro­posal at­tacks what goes wrong when trains are op­er­at­ing rou­tinely. It can’t do any­thing to com­pen­sate for the de­lays that oc­cur when trains break down, or switches mal­func­tion, or in­su­la­tors be­gin to spark.

Con­sider that Metro man­agers did some­thing sim­i­lar on the Red Line sev­eral years ago. To keep the rush-hour trains from bunch­ing up, they slightly widened the gaps be­tween trains and added cars to the re­main­ing trains to limit the crowd­ing.

But as far as riders are con­cerned, any pos­i­tive ef­fects of that pro­gram van­ish in the face of track and train prob­lems that are so fre­quent they feel less like emer­gen­cies and more like rou­tine com­mut­ing.

This is the sort of thing Metro board mem­ber Leif Dorm­sjo was get­ting at when he re­viewed some of Metro’s other per­for­mance is­sues.

Many transit ad­vo­cates were wowed by the vi­sion­ary plan known as Mo­men­tum, which looked for­ward to eight-car trains at rush hours and new ca­pac­ity to ease crowd­ing in the re­gion’s core.

If there’s one thing the transit sys­tem lacks right now, it’s mo­men­tum. That, and eight-car trains.

Metro’s lead­ers talked about suc­cesses in build­ing a safety cul­ture. Then a Yel­low Line train filled with smoke, and a pas­sen­ger died.

Dorm­sjo, di­rec­tor of the D.C. Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment, summed up the ef­fect of these woes on Metro’s cus­tomers: “We have a cred­i­bil­ity prob­lem.”

In Oc­to­ber, the board could wind up ap­prov­ing this or a sim­i­lar pro­posal af­ter sev­eral months of public re­view and launch it in early 2016. And then riders would be­gin the real eval­u­a­tion on the plat­forms at Vi­enna, New Car­roll­ton, L’En­fant Plaza and Fran­co­nia-Spring­field.

Their assess­ments would prob­a­bly come quickly, and they’d be based on how crowded their rail cars are, on whether they got to work on time and whether they made their home­ward-bound bus con­nec­tion. That’s a lot of lit­tle things that have to go right for peo­ple to judge the plan a suc­cess.

And lately, not a lot of things have gone right for Metro and its riders.

If you’re a board mem­ber, you’re not lik­ing the sound of this. But Metro needs to go ahead and have the dis­cus­sion with its cus­tomers. They ask good ques­tions, which could strengthen the plan.

But it’s also a rare chance for an ex­change be­tween transit of­fi­cials and riders on the ser­vice is­sues they care most deeply about. That’s an op­por­tu­nity not to be missed.

A farewell chat Join me at noon Mon­day for an online dis­cus­sion with Lon An­der­son, the well-known ad­vo­cate for lo­cal trav­el­ers who is re­tir­ing af­ter two decades with AAA Mid-At­lantic. An­der­son is not only a go-to ad­viser for tips about get­ting around the D.C. re­gion but also a pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for traf­fic safety and a more tol­er­a­ble com­mute.

You can use this link to the chat: live.wash­ing­ton­post.com/ grid­lock0713.html. But you also will find a link Mon­day morn­ing on the home page at www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/ re­gional.

Dr. Grid­lock ROBERT THOM­SON

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