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Metro headway policy needs clarity

WMATA's board put off approving a headway policy in July, amid criticism that it set too low a bar. The board will take up the issue this fall. It's good for Metro to define a specific headway policy, as many other transit systems do, but that policy needs to be clearer so that elected officials, taxpayers and riders know for sure what level of service their money buys.

Photo by retsoced on Flickr.

Today, Metro's only headway policy is in the annual budget. The budget lays out the normal headway for each train line during rush and mid-day non-rush. The board approves the budget in June, and the staff writes the normal service schedule based on it. For rush periods, the minimum headway is not usually enough for the number of riders, so Metro adds trains and adjusts to meet the demand.

However, the annual budget doesn't specify the policy for headway before the peak period starts. It doesn't define when in the day the peak period headway applies. It also doesn't mandate any headway in the evening and at night. For example, Metro currently schedules trains every 20 minutes at night, but the budget only lists a maximum 15-minute headway.

Also, the headway policy is not part of the draft budget the board circulates to riders for public comment. It's only after the final budget is published, long after approval, that people can see Metro's policy.

Metro is trying to fix this by writing down a headway policy for board approval. Like the budget, though, the first version of the policy did not have enough detail. Metro staff proposed a maximum headway of 15 minutes during rush, and 30 minutes otherwise. They said verbally that the policy would apply to service during scheduled track maintenance, but there was nothing in the draft that made this explicit.

Some staff tell me that the suggested 15-minute headway during rush hour could have been anticipating service changes when the Silver Line opens. We don't really know, and Metro hasn't specified their plan for Silver Line service. If Metro plans to only provide service every 15 minutes during rush to any part of the system after that, riders and policymakers should have that discussion more openly than as part of a vague maximum headway policy.

What would make a better headway policy?

A good headway policy would have two key elements.

First, it would specifically delineate the minimum headway for regularly scheduled service, for all times of day and all lines. That way, board members and the public will know what level of service we are paying for. The annual budget should incorporate the headway policy, with a draft available by March when the budget comes up for debate.

Second, it would establish a minimum headway policy for planned maintenance. Metro won't be planning maintenance during peak periods, so a peak headway policy doesn't make sense here. The policy would be useful in deciding what kind of shutdown to use for track maintenance. If single tracking causes the planned maintenance headway to be too long, it would be better to completely shut down the segment and use shuttle buses.

With these elements in the policy, everyone can have clear expectations, and the General Manager can handle the details of how and when to provide regular service and scheduled maintenance within well-defined parameters.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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A third element to be added anticipating the Silver Line would be to set policy headway minima for the trunk lines instead of the individual color lines. This way, even if an individual line has a big headway, if the trunk still has 3-minute combined headways, it's less of a big deal for most.

by MDE on Aug 23, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

While in the District the trunklines generally have good service on shorter headways with more than one line providing service, the Orange Line between Rosslyn and Ballston, for example, suffers from (my opinion) being underserved. At present, this is beacause that section is only served by the Orange Line. 12 - 20 minute headways can be common off peak. While this may be fine for the more suburban branches, such as between Dunn Loring and Vienna; Largo Town Ctr and Benning Rd, it can cause crowded trains in areas with higher ridership, such as Rosslyn-Ballston. This issue goes away with the Silver Line but shouldn't be forgotten.

by Transport. on Aug 23, 2012 2:33 pm • linkreport

Also, beware of averaging headways.

20 minute headways during weekend single-tracking on the Orange or Blue lines might not sound so bad in the shared track portion, right? 10 minutes, not so bad.

Except that trains aren't evenly spaced. You'll see an OR and BL train 2 minutes apart, and then an 18 minute gap until the next OR.

In short, a headway needs to be true headway, not some weaselly average.

by Alex B. on Aug 23, 2012 2:37 pm • linkreport

As I write frequently, headways or LOS requirements should actually be defined in metropolitan level transportation plans and then be negotiated with the various transit operators. WMATA is doing both here. When they are allowed to do so, budget considerations will always trump general LOS standards.


In a different way, it's also relevant to bus service:


by Richard Layman on Aug 23, 2012 5:49 pm • linkreport

This makes a lot of sense. Having reliable standards to count on is an important part of transit, and I think we can point to the success of the Circulator in seeing how a standard headway system can make a system more attractive. Right now, when taking Metro in the evening during the week, I've seen anywhere from 9 min headways, to 26 minute headways with no delays given as a cause.

by Marc T on Aug 24, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

For comparison LA's minimum for both heavy and light rail is 20 minutes (see page 34 in link). That doesn't include maintenance periods as that would be ridiculous since entire lines are sometimes closed for maintenance or otherwise have scheduled maintenance that won't meet the minimum.

by Shawn on Aug 25, 2012 4:29 pm • linkreport

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