Cuts would make Metrorail headways worse than most
On Thursday, the WMATA Board will consider a proposal to cut off-peak Metrorail service by reducing the frequency of trains.
That portion will make up about half of the service related reductions needed to close an anticipated $40 million budget gap for the current year, which ends in June.
Part of the reductions proposed is a cut in frequency from every 12 minutes to every 15 minutes during the day on Saturdays. How does that frequency compare with other heavy rail systems in North America?
I looked at the train frequencies for other rail systems listed here between 10 am and 2 pm on Saturdays. For most systems, frequencies on Sundays was the same. If the frequency varies by line, it's given by a range.
- New York (MTA): this system has so many lines operating on so many combined tracks and lines that analysis and comparison to WMATA would be both pointless and time-consuming. I looked at a sampling of lines and noted headways ranging from 5 to 10 minutes. It's unlikely that WMATA would be convinced by any argument to run our service as frequently as in New York, which has approximately eight times our ridership.
- Toronto: this transit agency does not bother producing a train schedule, listing only a peak and off-peak headway and a span of hours. They send trains at least every 6 minutes, day and night, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays included.
- Montreal: except for a three station stub line on the periphery, the system operates a train every 6-8 minutes. They produce a schedule but also a table of frequencies which made it easy to see when the trains are close together.
- Chicago: most lines operate every 10 minutes, with some every 6-8 minutes. Their green line operates every 10 minutes, with a split two stations from one end. There is a two-stop spur line on the periphery operating every 15 minutes.
- Philadelphia (SEPTA): operates every 10 minutes on the two subway lines.
- Boston (MBTA): Red line every
14 minutes7 minutes, but blue and orange every 8 or 10. The green line light rail lines each operate every 7 or 10, but when they combine in the downtown tunnel service becomes very frequent.
- New Jersey (PATH): every 10 minutes to Midtown (33rd Street), every 15 minutes to the World Trade Center.
- Los Angeles: Every 12-15 minutes. Service picks up after 11 am, when the 12-minute frequency is the rule.
- Baltimore: every 15 minutes.
- Atlanta (MARTA): every 15 or 20 minutes. Like the blue/orange and yellow/green lines, their system operates in pairs, but they don't have nearly the same number or extent of single-line service we have. In their presentation, Metro staff stated that the impact of reduced frequencies would be "minimum" because most of the system is essentially doubled.
- San Francisco (BART): every 20 minutes. Downtown the service is essentially quadrupled, limiting even peak headways to 12 minutes typically.
- Miami: every 30 minutes.
Just comparing frequencies for Saturday mid-day, Metro currently runs trains about as often as Los Angeles for the ends and Chicago for the core. With the cuts as proposed, our service would drop to something like Baltimore or MARTA on the ends, and like Boston's core service on a smaller core.
That puts the Washington area near the bottom of frequencies for North American systems, despite its being the second most heavily used system of them all.
Headways are really important. Assuming evenly distributed trains, your average wait time is half of the headway. If you have to transfer, add another half of a headway. For a rail trip involving a transfer and a couple minute walk on each end, with a fifteen minute headway you're looking at 20 minutes before you even go anywhere. During non-peak time when the roads are not congested, it's going to be easier to justify taking the car if one is available. Long headways might even convince someone to go get or keep a car, and once a car is available, they're more likely to use it, even during rush hours.
These service cuts are only $2 million
per year for the remaining part of FY2010, or about $5M for a whole year. WMATA should find other ways to cut costs or raise fares rather than decreasing train frequency.
Update: Thanks Frank G and Charlie for the corrections marked above.
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