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