The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Metro by the numbers, part 2

Yesterday, I compared Metro to other heavy rail systems on ridership and fares. Those are just a few of the ways to compare Metro to other heavy rail systems around the country.

Service Span: There's probably not a person under 30 in Washington who hasn't complained about the lack of super-late service on the Metro. I've certainly been there. But Metro runs a pretty standard operation as far as evenings are concerned.

Except for the 3 round-the-clock systems in the US and Chicago's pair of 24-hour lines, America's metros close between midnight and 1 am. But Metro does have one leg up on the others. In this region, the subway runs later on Fridays and Saturdays. That's very uncommon in the States, and luckily, Metro has no plans to end that service extension.

But Metro is the first (or was when I did the analysis in December) system to start to close each evening (except Fridays and Saturdays). The last train of the day leaves Branch Avenue for Greenbelt at 11:24 pm as the day's first last train. Downtown, last trains leave Metro Center at 12:06 am after a 2 minute dwell period on the platform.

Deaths in crashes (since 1970): Metro has been in the national spotlight over the past year because of several mishaps coming in the shadow of the fatal crash of June 22, 2009. In that crash, 8 passengers were killed. It was only the second time when Metro passengers were killed in a rail crash. In December Jaunuary 1982, 3 people were killed in a derailment near Smithsonian Station.

Ryan McNeely, in his post critical of the Metro, incorrectly says that the other three top agencies have not had any fatalities since 1990. In fact, 7 passengers were killed in 2 separate New York City Subway incidents since 1990. But, by and large, America's heavy rail operators have good safety records. Going back to 1970, I could only find 3 4 heavy rail operators that had seen passenger fatalities as a result of rail accidents: Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington.

Of those 3 4, Chicago leads the pack with 13 passenger fatalities since 1970. The most recent crash killed 11 when a train fell from the loop onto the streets below on February 4, 1977.

Washington and New York are tied, each with 11 passenger fatalities since 1970. The most recent passenger fatalities in the New York Subway system occurred on August 28, 1991 near Union Square. The drunk motorman went through an interlocking with a speed limit of 10 mph at over 40 mph, and the resulting crash killed 5.

Authors note: this post originally neglected to mention a 1990 accident in Philadelphia. In March 1990, a crash west of 30th Street Station on SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line killed 4. Like the Smithsonian derailment, the crash occurred because of a split switch. The front truck (wheelset) of the 4th car went straight, while the rear truck took the crossover. It was caused when a traction motor on the 3rd car fell from its mount and was dragged along the trackway, damaging the switch.

In this category, I would say that Metro comes in last place.

System Size: We can measure several attributes to see how large a rail system is. This may give us a hint about how much of the region can be reached by heavy rail.

First, let's look at directional route miles. This metric tells us how many miles of track each system has in each direction. Once again, New York comes in first. But Metro takes second place, as it has done in several categories. In this case, Metro has 211.8 directional route miles.

Another measure is number of stations. Washington is in third place in this category with 86 stations. New York's 468 and Chicago's 144 certainly dwarf Metro, but 86 is nothing to sneeze at, either.

One more variable to consider about system size is the number of vehicles used in maximum service. This is the count of railcars used during rush hour. It is a great way to determine how much service a transit agency is running during the peak. In this case, Washington comes in 3rd. New York and Chicago again take first and second places.

Annual vehicle revenue miles and annual vehicle revenue hours can also indicate how much service an agency provides. In these cases, Washington's Metro comes in second and third places, respectively. New York wins both categories outright.

Service Quality: Unfortunately, I have not been able to unearth any national data on customer satisfaction, but we can perhaps make use of a few alternative measures.

One thing that customers value is a quick trip. In March, I discussed the average scheduled speed of all of America's heavy rail lines. The aptly named PATCO Speedline in the Philadelphia area is in the lead, with an average scheduled speed of 34.1 mph. It is followed by BART and the Baltimore Metro. Washington's transit system comes in 4th, with an average scheduled speed of 29.5 mph.

And because newer cars are probably more reliable and perhaps more comfortable, the average fleet age could indicate the quality of service as well. In this category, BART wins, with an average fleet age of 9.7 years. At 18.6 years, WMATA comes in 5th place. But these numbers are from 2007. Metro has received some new railcars since then, which would lower the number.

Efficiency & Effectiveness: Another aspect to consider is how efficient each system is in terms of the cost to operate versus the service provided. In both operating cost per revenue mile and operating cost per revenue hour, Metro comes in at 8th place. But it fares better when passengers are considered. In terms of operating cost per passenger mile and operating cost per unlinked trip, Metro comes in 5th and 6th places, respectively.

Just as important as efficiency, though, is effectiveness. The transit database provides some helpful measures in that regard. Unlinked trips per vehicle revenue mile and unlinked trips per vehicle revenue hour show the relationship between ridership and the service that is being provided. In the first category, Metro comes in 6th, in the second category, Metro comes in 5th. New York and Los Angeles take the first two slots in both categories, although not in the same order in both.

Overall, Metro scores very well in comparison to other agencies. Of course, it all depends on what you measure. There are certainly other factors out there that could be considered.

And no matter what a transit agency does, it is going to get criticism. Much of it is deserved. But as far as Metro is concerned, it does a decent job of getting people where they need to go. Sure, there are hiccups sometimes, but it could be worse—as indicated by some of the other rail operators.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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Average rail speeds are highly influenced by the spacing and number of stations and the track alignments/curvatures. All of the newer rail systems score better here because they have wider station spacing and track alignments which allow for higher operating speeds. With good maintenance and overhauls at proper intervals a rail car can still provide a pretty decent ride at 30 years old. For instance, some of NYC Transit's older car fleets have some of the best air conditioning due to overhauls and good maintenance.

by Steve Strauss on Jul 29, 2010 3:51 pm • linkreport

"2 minute dwell period on the platform"

I assumed that was officially a 15 minute dwell period at Metro Center. At least, that's how long the last train sits in my experience.

by Cory on Jul 29, 2010 4:19 pm • linkreport

It seems to me the vehicle revenue miles and vehicle revenue hours may penalize newer systems (Atlanta, DC, SF) which generally use longer cars with greater capacity than older systems (NY, Chicago). It may not be possible to adjust for this as some systems use a mix of different size rolling stock (Boston, Philadelphia, soon DC). A four-car train on Chicago's El has a very different level of service than a four car train on DC's Metro.

by Stanton Park on Jul 29, 2010 4:45 pm • linkreport


I had always thought that the trains paused for however long was necessary in order to allow people to transfer from other lines and not miss the last train home...

by Adam L on Jul 29, 2010 4:59 pm • linkreport

Great analysis Matt, as always.

I notice that the system length numbers Los Angeles paint a misleading picture. Yes, there is only 17 miles of heavy rail, which is pretty dismal. But when you factor in light rail the system length stretches to to 79 miles.

Even with the $40 billion worth of rail projects that will be built here over the next decade, only one line (Purple) is heavy rail. The other 8 new lines and extensions are all light rail. The way LA is so spread out, spending money blanketing the city in light rail just makes more sense than building a few heavy rail lines. This has always been, and will always be a light rail city.

Not that any of this is relevant to DC, so my apologies for meandering. I just can't help but stick up for my newly adopted city :)

by Chris Loos on Jul 29, 2010 9:43 pm • linkreport

Per Chris Loos--there are other quirks. Cleveland has light rial, as well as heavy rail (the "Shaker Rapid"), as does SF. Chicago and NYC have commuter rail that includes rides that are within their city limits.

by Rich on Jul 29, 2010 11:08 pm • linkreport

@Cory & Matt Mmm. I've experienced that, but for some reason, it doesn't do the same thing at Chinatown!

by andrew on Jul 30, 2010 12:10 am • linkreport

I'm intrigued by the wide variability in operating cost per passenger mile and per trip. That seems like the best metric of efficiency.

BART, which seems most analogous to Metro in terms of ridership and type of trip, spends 25% less than Metro in both of these metrics.

by Ken Archer on Jul 30, 2010 8:33 am • linkreport

@Stanton Park: The 7000's will be 75' long just like every other Metrorail car before it, so they can be struck off of the list of systems with rolling stock of different sizes. Big difference between that and the differences in loading gauge/platform length that take place in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

If you meant length of consists, even the smallest of systems run shorter trains off-peak and there are even "modern" systems with under-built stations (Bankhead on MARTA having 150' platforms while the rest have 600' platforms for example).

by Jason on Jul 30, 2010 8:37 am • linkreport

@Ken Archer,

I don't think BART is analogous to Metro at all. It has a similar track length, yes, and is of a similar era, but BART has half the number of stations and less than half of WMATA's daily ridership.

BART may be more efficient by those metrics, but it's also incredibly narrowly defined in the markets it serves.

by Alex B. on Jul 30, 2010 8:48 am • linkreport

Re: Efficiency of Transit Systems

It is a good point that BART, being an even more suburban commuter system than Metro, has fewer stations per mile and so has lower operating costs per passenger mile.

But what about Atlanta? MARTA has about 2.5 directional route miles per station, like Metro. It's a little less than half the size of Metro, but we're looking at costs per passenger mile so size itself doesn't matter. So it's operating costs per passenger mile/trip should be analagous to Metro. But MARTA actually has the 2nd highest efficiency after MTA.

by Ken Archer on Jul 30, 2010 9:42 am • linkreport

NYCT is in a league of it's own. So Metro is comparable to other agencies. It doesn't compare to its generational peers (BART and MARTA) in many areas. It does however serve more people.

by Interested on Jul 30, 2010 10:31 am • linkreport

So, MARTA (Atlanta) certainly likes to advertise themselves as the most cost-efficient transit agency, with the exception of MTA sometimes. But, this appears to be attributable to (a) lower costs of living in Atlanta and (b) holding union wages flatter than other agencies have done.

At the end of the day, there seem to be enough unique factors in each system that comparing anything across systems is fairly difficult.

by Ken Archer on Jul 30, 2010 5:00 pm • linkreport

Another blog ranks the metro systems

by Mike on Aug 3, 2010 1:32 pm • linkreport

One reason MARTA is so "cost-effective" is their lack of employees at stations...

by Matt Glazewski on Aug 3, 2010 2:16 pm • linkreport

"Going back to 1970, I could only find 3 heavy rail operators that had seen passenger fatalities as a result of rail accidents: Chicago, New York City, and Washington."

On March 7, 1990, a Market-Frankford Line train in Philadelphia derailed, killing 4 people and injuring 158.

by Glenn on Aug 5, 2010 10:02 am • linkreport

One reason MARTA is so "cost-effective" is their lack of employees at stations...

Maybe this is something Metro could explore, especially at stations on the fringe or with multiple entrances. ATU 689 can buzz off and screw since their contract fleecing is half of why Metro is in crisis as it is.

by Jason on Aug 5, 2010 11:10 am • linkreport

"In December 1982, 3 people were killed in a derailment near Smithsonian Station." Ummm... actually the incident occurred on January 13, 1982. Roughly a half-hour after an airplane crashed into the 14th St. Bridge. A friend's parents died in that crash...

by TimW on Sep 24, 2010 12:22 am • linkreport

Thanks for pointing that out. I'm not sure how the wrong date made it into the article. I have fixed it.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 24, 2010 7:33 am • linkreport

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