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