Greater Greater Washington


More 8-car trains could save money and preserve capacity

One of WMATA's proposed cuts to rail service involves discontinuing 8-car trains entirely. That's the most harmful of the rail service cuts. Instead, they should consider the reverse: running more 8-car trains at peak times.

Photo by Kevin H.

Metro says shortening all 8-car trains to 6 cars will save $2.688 million for the year. That's based on savings in propulsion power minus lost farebox revenue resulting from decreased capacity.

As Craig Simpson noted, the "return on divestment" here is not particularly goodMetro would only save $1.76 for each $1 lost. In fact, it's the worst savings to loss ratio of all the proposed rail cuts, worse than most by far.

This isn't much of a surprise. At peak times the Metro system is already at capacity in some places. Because of this, cutting peak capacity is the most direct way to cut ridership, because you can be fairly certain those cars not running would have been full.

Metro has acknowledged that shortening trains to 6-cars reduces peak pull out by 58 cars, a whopping 7% of peak capacity. According to Metro as of April 2009, the system was running a total of 850 cars during peak service.

232 of these constitute the 29 8-car trains, leaving 618 cars to make up 103 6-car trains, for a total of 132 trains. 8-car trains cost more to run than 6-car trains because they require more propulsion power, but the increased cost is proportional to the increase in capacity, meaning the cost per passenger-mile is unchanged. Essentially, it costs the same to move 850 cars through the system regardless of train length.

If Metro maintains peak capacity but eliminates trains by cutting some 6-car trains and lengthening others to 8 cars, they stand to reap several benefits. First and foremost, Metro could reduce its labor costs, which make up nearly 75% of the proposed 2011 Metrorail budget (page 75). As mentioned above, the cost of moving all 850 cars through the system is essentially constant, except for one thing: the operators.

If Metro were to run 104 8-car trains, and 3 6-car trains, the most 8-car trains possible with an 850 car fleet, the peak service would only require 107 trains, 25 fewer than now. Assuming the average Metro salary of $76,036 (many operators make significantly more), 25 fewer operators translates to $1.9 million in savings per year. Add in estimated fringe costs of $29,831, and Metro saves another $750,000 each year.

Running fewer total trains also means Metro could increase headways slightly during the crush time, allowing for more dwell time in the busiest stations, and reducing problematic pile-ups at choke points which reduce average speed on lines and end up costing the agency in performance and money. A 19% reduction in trains may sound extreme, but during peak service, it would have a relatively small effect on customer experience: 2.5 minute headways would widen to 3:10, 3 minutes to 3:45, and 5 minutes to 6:20.

Of course, ridership is not totally even across the peak hour. There may be times when 8-car trains and longer headways might be more harmful than helpful. Still, with the right mix of train lengths, but more 8-car trains, rather than fewer, Metro should be able maintain peak capacity while saving some costs.

As I understand it, Metro has previously experimented with fewer total trains but more 8-car trains on the Orange line as a way to reduce congestion in the Rosslyn tunnel. Because 8-car trains were relatively new at that time, there was no Automatic Train Operation (ATO) setting for berthing 8-car trains in stations, and operators were inexperienced with manual operation of the longer trains and had trouble efficiently berthing them correctly. The result was actually less efficient service.

When Metro abandoned the experiment, they expected to try again once ATO berthing for 8-car trains had been perfected. Meanwhile, most of the concerns at that time became moot.

Since the Red Line Crash last June, ATO was switched off and all trains are operated in manual. Additionally, all trains now pull to the very front of the station, increasing berthing times regardless of train length.

Finally, 8-car trains have been part of the Metro fleet for several years now, meaning that most, if not all operators have significantly more experience operating them manually than they did previously. The result is that Metro should actually be able to increase its peak service reliability, particularly on the Blue-Orange and Red lines, by decreasing the total number of trains.

Metro would probably incur some extra costs based on the need to reconfigure trains for off-peak service, but even if this cost amounted to $1.5 million it would still be a more efficient way to cut costs than cutting 8-car trains, and cuts no capacity. Additionally, instead of switching back and forth from 6-car to 8-car trains, which requires extra planning and is labor intensive, WMATA could just go with my next crazy cost-saving method: cut the trains in half and run 4-car off-peak trains. But we'll save that proposal for another day.

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 


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Would there be any issues with Metro's electrical infrastructure if they ran the maximum amount of 8-car trains? I thought I remember that they needed some upgrades to the power distribution system when they first introduced 8 car trains, so maybe everything is in place now. On the one hand, if the same number of cars is running then one could expect the same power demands, but one could also imagine a situation where, for example, one power substation, which had been able to power one 6-car and one 8-car train would now need to occasionally power two 8-car trains, for which it might not be suited.

by thm on Mar 1, 2010 10:20 am • linkreport

I seem to recall something somewhere that Metro's system cannot handle all 8-car trains. Not sure of the specifics, but I thought the idea of running all or predominantly 8-car trains was ruled out until upgrades were completed, the upgrades themselves being shelved in the wake of all the safety issues and budget crunch.

by kidincredible on Mar 1, 2010 10:33 am • linkreport

Two things:

1. So I am correct in saying that I haven't seen an 8 line train on the orange line in quite some time. Where are they running them -- Red?

2. I also remember something B&M about power which smarter people explained to me.

by charlie on Mar 1, 2010 10:37 am • linkreport

Upgrades are complete to run 50% 8 car trains. There is money in the capital budget to move forward to 75% and then 100%. The current peak capacity is running at about 30% 8 car trains so there's some room to increase now and more room to increase later in FY 11.

by kreeggo on Mar 1, 2010 10:41 am • linkreport

@kreego Thanks for the info on the substation upgrades. I was going more for a practical budget perspective and failed to mention that there may still be limitations of the power grid. Still, (keep in mind I am no electrical engineer) as I understand it the capital needs plans to expand the traction-power system estimates the percentage of 8-car trains upgrades will facilitate holding the total number of trains constant. Logically, then, if they reduce total number of trains, the grid should be able to handle at least slightly more than half of the trains running at full-length.

@Charlie you raise another good point: that the few 8-car trains do not seem to be optimally placed. Last Friday I rode my first 8-car train on WB peak orange line service in over a month. The NB green line, on the other hand, frequently has 8-car trains during evening peak. Last time I checked, the Nats season doesn't start for another month. Go figure.

by Erik W on Mar 1, 2010 11:02 am • linkreport

I've seen loads of 8 cars on EB Orange from L'enfant in the morning when I go to New Carrollton. That said, yes, we do get lots of 8 car trains on the Green Line. Almost every other train somtimes.

by Mike on Mar 1, 2010 11:18 am • linkreport

8 car trains seem a no brainer during the (c)rush hour, especially since you can spread out boarding to the entire platform and, as you note, save on labor.

by SJE on Mar 1, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

You mention this at the very end, but I think the majority of off-peak trains could be reduced to four cars. I wasn't in the area when Catoe took over, but I've heard that the end of 4-car trains was one victory he touted.

But anyone who regularly rides off-peak can see that trains are relatively empty past, say, 9 p.m. You could definitely fit that many people in four cars. Of course, would it save all that much money?

by Tim on Mar 1, 2010 11:28 am • linkreport


No, you wouldn't save money. Part of the advantage with all 6-car trains is that you never have to reconfigure the trainsets.

And back when they did have 4-car trains during the off-peak hours, they were really packed. Definitely not worth it.

by Alex B. on Mar 1, 2010 11:32 am • linkreport

@Alex It's debatable whether the agency would save some money. Clearly shortening trains reduces cost or they wouldn't be considering cutting 8-car trains back to 6-cars. 4-car trains cost less to power than 6-car trains. I can't say with any certainty that the cost of reconfiguring trains wouldn't be offset by energy savings, can you?

Also, there are certainly some times during off-peak service when trains are packed (late-night Fri/Sat/Sun) but there are many more times when 6-car trains have a total of 200 passengers or less on them.

The point about 4-car trains is that it's less time & labor intensive to cut 8-car trains in half than it is to chop 2-cars off and have to either put 3 pairs together, or store a bunch of lone pairs in the yards.

by Erik W on Mar 1, 2010 11:46 am • linkreport

I don't care if it saves money or not. 4 car trains is a bad idea. Period. When we had them, they were packed to the gills.

by Alex B. on Mar 1, 2010 11:52 am • linkreport

And when you get to talking about 4 car trains (well I guess we are already) remember to shame Metro for not thinking about articulated units, such as the new Toronto subway cars . A 4-car fixed articulated unit would have 5-10% more capacity than the current 2+2 configuration, with more effective use of capacity there is.

by egk on Mar 1, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

Don't even get me started on the articulated train issue. My best guess why American transit systems consistently thumb their noses at this awesome idea is that there is some safety regulation which prohibits them.

by Erik W on Mar 1, 2010 12:52 pm • linkreport

I used to ride Orange from L'Enfant to Vienna in the post-rush evenings when 4-car trains were running, and it seemed to me that they were always packed because the running intervals usually weren't any shorter. Alternating 4-car and 6-car trains every 12 to 15 minutes was nowhere near suitable for the WB Orange passenger load -- on at least one occasion, I rode EB Blue from L'Enfant to Eastern Market, then switched to a WB train in hopes of being able to find standing room.

Even today, during evening rush, I'll sometimes ride from Braddock Road on Yellow up to L'Enfant, switch to Orange there, and go all the way out to Vienna from there. It takes an extra 20-30 minutes, but at least that's 20-30 minutes where I might have a seat and won't be trying to fight my way onto a packed 6-car train at Rosslyn.

by sg on Mar 1, 2010 12:53 pm • linkreport

Articulation is an awesome idea, but not fully suitable for WMATA's existing fleet - the yards & repair facilities aren't designed for 600-foot trains, and I have serious questions about the mechanics of retrofitting the traincars themselves with that capability. Shaming Metrorail for past decisions is fine, but there are productive steps still available.

What would be perfectly suitable is one gangway per pair. Metrorail cars are not actually the 75-foot units you know and love, but mated pairs of such units with puller bars permanently attached between the two. The machinery is designed to move them around as 150-foot units, and some shared machinery necessary for the functioning of a pair of cars is only installed on one of the pair.

If you replace the facing emergency exits on each pair with a flexible accordion gangway that's open all the time, you create effective 150-foot traincars, which are much more efficient at load-balancing the crowdedness of individual cars. You can slap a sealed gangway over the puller bar and take out the doors with a minimum of modification to the traincars themselves. It ain't full articulation, but it's cheap and doable.

by Squalish on Mar 1, 2010 1:13 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I doubt they would ever go for full articulation, but you could see articulation between the married pairs, and even a current 4-car trainset.

One idea would be to create a 4-car equivalent out of 5 articulated 60' cars - that would mean 5 cars, 6 bogies, 300' long...

But that's a long ways off, regardless.

by Alex B. on Mar 1, 2010 1:18 pm • linkreport

Agreed Squalish, full-length articulated trains are not appropriate for a system that operated trains of varying length. But when the smallest unit they really deal with is a married pair, not a single car, there is no reason not to consider articulated pairs in the future. Let's make your suggestion a GGW service project! Last month it was cleared bus stops, this month it can articulated trains.

by Erik W on Mar 1, 2010 1:20 pm • linkreport

Another possible issue with 4 car trains is that until they get the stopping issue fixed (either through ATO or elimination of human error) that currently has all trains stopping at the end of the platform, the back half of the platform will be unused. I imagine this would be particularly problematic at Gallery Place on the Shady Grove bound Red Line where transferring passengers would have to walk at least 300 feet (or the length of a football field) just to get to the back of the train.

by Steven Yates on Mar 1, 2010 2:02 pm • linkreport

I hadn't thought about reconfiguring trains. But how long does it take? How much does it cost?

Maybe something like this could work: for weekdays, you have a lot of 6-car trains and not as many 8-car trains. For the weekend, you run a bunch of the 6-car trains, then cut some of the 8-car trains in half and have some 4-car trains (you wouldn't need to cut all of the 8-car trains). Then, before Monday, you put the 8-car trains back together. So two reconfigurations per week, essentially.

And yes, I recognize that 4-car trains could get packed relatively easily. But Metro has a pretty good grasp on peak periods, so I would assume it'd be pretty easy to ensure that the busier times/lines get 6-car trains.

by Tim on Mar 1, 2010 2:54 pm • linkreport

Alex: if the choice is between running 4-car trains at comparable frequency to today, or running 6-car trains far less often, I'll take the 4-car trains, thank you.

'Course, in my case, it's probably a moot point anyway since Metro is effectively castrating the Yellow Line anyway...

by Froggie on Mar 1, 2010 5:31 pm • linkreport

Just an example of what this insanity of 6-car trains only will lead to. Today I tried to get on the blue line in Rosslyn at 5h30pm. The platform was filled with roughly 5 rows of people as I come in. Sign say, next train in 3 minutes. 8 minutes later, a 6-car blue line rolls in. The train pours out. At the doors I was waiting, people were still trying to get out, when the doors started closing. People jammed the doors. Some more people got out. The doors opened again. More people came out. The doors closed again, and the train drove off. *Nobody got on* (at the doors where I was waiting).

Two 6-car orange lines come in. It's the sardine line alright. Even the second train was unfit for a healthy sardine.

Another 6-car blue line shows up. Again, filled up with people squeezed to the doors. I finally get on. Again not enough time to get everybody on board, and the train leaves.

Is this what we want for the metro of the capital of the richest nation in the world?

by Jasper on Mar 1, 2010 9:26 pm • linkreport

I would take that scenario too, Froggie - I just doubt that such a scenario is realistic. Labor costs for driving a 4 car and 6 car train are the same, hence saving service frequency doesn't rely on the length of the train.

That kind of option isn't on the table and it isn't going to be on the table, either.

by Alex B. on Mar 1, 2010 11:40 pm • linkreport

I am surprised no one suggest the about a cut in salaries? 75 percent of operating cost are salary... Cuts to service is ridiculous and only tinkering on the margins. making 75 thousand per tear with a high school education is a bit much considering area unemployment is hovering around 10%. I imagine these employees also have generous lifetime pensions as well. How is it that we have college educates teachers, engineers, health care workers, etc earning less?

by Bill on Mar 2, 2010 8:23 am • linkreport

My gripe is the notice boards at West Falls Church that frequently advertise an 8-car train in the morning that never shows up. I've wasted 20 minutes sometimes waiting for the 8-car train so I can get a seat. I have complained about this repeatedly and been told some nonsense about track repairs throwing the sensor system off. How often do they repair tracks at 6:30 in the morning? I have also asked that they remove the large banner urging us to "Look for the 8-car trains." It looks like bait and switch to me.

by Roger S. on Mar 2, 2010 8:31 am • linkreport

Per @Bill comment... Concerning cutting salaries... Although I'm not one to say what someone "deserves" to make, has WMATA investigated this possibility? I'm assuming there are union issues at work here, but I'm wondering if the people who follow this more closely have heard this discussed.

by CM on Mar 2, 2010 8:42 am • linkreport

Alex: true, labor costs wouldn't change, but there'd still be some operating cost savings.

Regarding salaries, there ARE union issues at work here. Part of the reason why the budget deficit is so high is due to the recent arbitration that pushed salary increases.

by Froggie on Mar 2, 2010 6:59 pm • linkreport

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