For Metro­rail users, 2017 will go down as the year of ‘Back­2Good’ vs. ‘right-siz­ing’

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - Dr. Grid­lock ROBERT THOM­SON 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, 1301 K St. NW, Wash

As Metro re­sumes its SafeTrack projects, com­muters are again ask­ing: Who’s win­ning?

They’re pretty sure it’s not them, at least not in the short term. But they’d like to get a sense of whether all this fuss over the past year is lead­ing to some­place good. Or are they doomed to the sort of low-grade mis­ery they faced Mon­day morn­ing when thou­sands of riders were de­layed be­cause of the same old prob­lems with switches, the power sys­tem and busted trains?

Dur­ing 2016, com­muters han­dled the sched­uled dis­rup­tions quite well, and I think they’re about to show the same re­silience in the new SafeTrack projects.

No­tice the tone of this rider’s ques­tion that came in dur­ing my on­line dis­cus­sion Mon­day:

“My wife and I usu­ally ride the Blue Line. She gets off at Far­ragut West and I get off at McPher­son Square. With SafeTrack re­sum­ing, we will have to take the Yel­low Line. Do you think it’s bet­ter to change at L’En­fant and ride to our usual stops, or would it make more sense to go to Gallery Place and then both of us go to Far­ragut North?”

There is no whin­ing in this com­ment, though riders of the route for­merly known as the Blue Line could un­der­stand­ably in­dulge in that. For sev­eral weeks, many Vir­gini­ans will need to de­tour to reach work.

I sug­gest the cou­ple avoid the trans­fer at L’En­fant Plaza, which will prob­a­bly be ex­tra crowded at rush hour, and con­tinue on to make the trans­fer to the Red Line at Gallery Place. If they try that on Mon­day and it doesn’t feel right, then try the trans­fer at L’En­fant Plaza on Tues­day. Un­for­tu­nately, they will have plenty of time to ex­per­i­ment be­tween Mon­day and the project’s end on Feb. 28.

But af­ter that ef­fort, where will this com­mut­ing cou­ple wind up on the pain/gain scale by which trav­el­ers mea­sure all projects?

Metro tamped down ex­pec­ta­tions by dub­bing its 2017 re­cov­ery pro­gram “Back­2Good.” But tran­sit of­fi­cials did have some statis­tics for the 2016 ef­fort that in­spire hope. De­lays stem­ming from track prob­lems were down 7 per­cent for the year.

SafeTrack is a speeded-up track-work pro­gram. Metro re­ported that the ef­fort so far re­sulted in 16 per­cent of all track in the sys­tem be­ing re­paired. If that doesn’t sound like much on the pain/gain scale, keep in mind that SafeTrack tar­geted some of the most prob­lem­atic sec­tions of track. Those prob­lems in­clude arc­ing in­su­la­tors, smoke and fire.

But the re­cov­ery pro­gram un­der Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld in­cludes cam­paigns to re­pair or re­place the rail cars. The tran­sit author­ity said that in­ci­dents in which pas­sen­gers had to exit dis­abled trains were down 17 per­cent last year, and de­lays caused by rail-car prob­lems were down 13 per­cent.

The plus-mi­nus on trains for 2016 was 31 new trains in ser­vice and the equiv­a­lent of 19 old ones re­moved. As that process con­tin­ues, Metro also is be­gin­ning to re­move the poorly per­form­ing 4000-series rail cars.

By the end of this year, tran­sit of­fi­cials say, all of the old­est cars will be re­tired and so will the en­tire 4000 series. And all of the eight-car trains in ser­vice will be made up of the most mod­ern cars.

That’s swell, but it’s un­likely that all these fine-sound­ing statis­tics will re­store the lost rid­er­ship. Metro of­fi­cials con­tinue to talk about “right­siz­ing” the tran­sit sys­tem, which may be good man­age­ment, but for a rider, it means you’re get­ting worse ser­vice — on pur­pose.

Metro of­fi­cials are still fid­dling with the fi­nances, but as of now, the bud­get calls for widen­ing the gap be­tween rush­hour trains on most lines. Only Blue Line riders would get a break in the form of more fre­quent rush-hour ser­vice. And I’m not sure how much of a break it would turn out to be, be­cause Metro would dump the Yel­low Line Rush Plus ser­vice that draws off some riders and makes Blue Line cars less crowded than they oth­er­wise would be.

This year could be a bat­tle be­tween Back­2Good and right­siz­ing. Com­muters who are in this for the long haul should be root­ing for Back­2Good.

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