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Metro undeservedly bore brunt of Sanity blame

After last weekend's logistical disaster getting people to and from the Comedy Central rally, Metro has been the target of significant ridicule. Certainly WMATA has made its share of poor decisions, but the blame for Saturday's quagmire does not belong on Metro.

Photo by kristiewells on Flickr.

There has been a lot of recrimination floating around the internet following the disaster that was Metro last Saturday. WMATA chose to maintain its weekend trackwork schedule and to run a typical weekend level of service.

The results, as many readers can attest, was packed trains, closed stations and a major escalator incident.

These conditions have left a lot of people asking what happened to make things so terrible. Yes, the system broke a Saturday ridership record, but the number of rides on Saturday reflected a slightly above average weekday ridership, which the agency handles regularly without major incident. So why didn't they prepare by offering a weekday level of service?

Both Dave Jameison of TBD On Foot and Dr. Gridlock have relatively good explanations why Metro continued with its track work and didn't run any additional service.

To summarize: Metro cannot easily adjust its track work schedule because it has so much track work to complete before the end of the year. The agency had no way to know that nearly 3 times as many people would attend the Comedy Central event as were projected by the event's organizers.

The conclusion to be drawn is this: Metro could have done very little to mitigate what happened Saturday given that they were told massively underestimated expectations of attendance. As Dr. Gridlock explains, Comedy Central was expecting similar numbers to the Glenn Beck rally in late summer, which was handled without major incident by normal weekend service.

That event took place part of the mall that is primarily served by only 3 stations, all on the Blue or Orange lines. Based on the information they were given, it was perfectly reasonable to expect an event of similar size, on a section of the mall that is within a mile of at least seven Metro stations on all three lines, could be similarly handled.

The next question to be addressed is what could metro have done after the initial 10 am to noon crush to mitigate another nightmare after the rally. The answer here, again, is not much. The agency had 20 trains on call as per the original event plan, and put them into service almost immediately.

Clearly that was not enough, but after the reserve trains, adding extra service requires extra operators, which means unless additional operators on standby in rail yards, it takes considerable to time to add significant service on the lines. The chances that Metro could have called in enough operators in the 4 hours after the morning crush to mitigate a repeat in the afternoon are extremely low.

Was the situation on Saturday exacerbated by the occasional surly station manager, malfunctioning fare maching, or inoperable escalator? Probably. But solving all of those problems never could have remedied the fact that there simply were not enough trains to carry all the people who wanted to get on them.

And Comedy Central, whose parent Viacom, Inc. raked in $4 billion in profits last year, despite the invaluable press, publicity and viewership from the event, wasn't willing to shell out $30,000 to pay for extra service.

Finally, some riders suggested that Metro should have prepared for the possibility of larger crowds despite low estimates because they could have made a lot more money off of more people. Of course, anyone who understands the economics of a transit system will recognize that this is unfortunately incorrect.

Transportation systems are inherently subsidized. Even transit agencies which make a profit, like Hong Kong's MTR, generally subsidize their transit service with revenues from other sources like real estate and advertising. The cost of running train service is not actually recovered by the fares riders pay. That's what makes transit in its most basic sense a public good. Roads don't cover their costs either.

For example, during the inauguration, Metro ran 17 hours of rush hour service and carried 1,120,000 riders in one day. Does that mean they raked in the dough? Nope. They pulled in $3 million in revenue from extra passengers, but spent $5 million to run the service.

We recognize that higher ridership is a good thing, but unless you can fit the additional riders on the same number of trains, higher ridership will mean higher costs. Increased ridership only increases profitability (or rather reduces subsidization) of a transit line assuming a constant level of service.

In fact, if there is any bright side to the disastrous situation on Saturday, it's that Metro probably made a lot more money as it turned out than they would have had they run additional service. After all, the least subsidized train is the one that's bursting at the seams.

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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Undeservedly? Metro has a facebook presence and could have easily seen that over 200K had rsvped as attending the rally, regardless of what Comedy Central/Viacom's estimates were.

This IS a failure of the agency to anticipate and react to events in DC, something which it must have expertise in to adequately serve the needs of the region.

Your defense of their failure, regardless of Viacom's share of blame in this, is unmerited.

by Redline SOS on Nov 8, 2010 10:44 am • linkreport

I would be willing to pay more for an off peak ticket if service increased as well. However in this article you make it clear that more service will always cost more than any revenue gained from more riders or fare costs. There has to be a happy medium however.

Perhaps events on the mall over a specific size are required to pay some metro costs?

If we just accept this issue and allow the metro to be over crowded people will eventually stop using it, which might lower the crowd but has other consequences as well.

by Matt R on Nov 8, 2010 10:46 am • linkreport

I completely disagree with this assessment, despite generally liking Erik's blog posts.

The station I got on at - Shaw - were letting people into the station and then running announcements that trains were full and people should take the 70. If Metro knows that trains are running full, they need to either stop allowing entrance into the station, or put a sign up that indicates they are full (like they do in London). Instead, Metro probably made A LOT of money on people who entered the station thinking they could get on a train and left without getting on one - forfeiting their fare, per WMATA policy.

This is an ongoing problem with WMATA - not posting notification of significant delays and not preventing entrances where trains cannot accomodate more traffic - that was merely exacerbated by a large crowd.

Furthermore, I heard that there would be 200-250K at least 3 days before the rally, so I don't know why WMATA didn't hear it. There were likely 215-250K attendees, according to reports, so there was actually NO INCREASE in attendees above projects at least 3 days before the rally.

Also, the train I was on did not even stop at Archives, despite there being no announcement to this effect, and about 1/2 the train was planning to get off there. This is very poor practice - we should have been notified at the previous station that there would be no stop at Archives. It is just silly that WMATA can address a number of these issues by better communication, yet we blame the fiasco on Comedy Central.

Whether or not Comedy Central wanted to pay extra, it is the responsibility of the transit agency to provide service, which it flat out did not that day. This is Washington, DC. There will be a lot of rallies, a lot of extra events. Pawning this ridiculousness off as a one time deal is a disservice to those of us who live here and support (and ride) the Metro system, and an excuse to not provide better service in the future.

by Allison on Nov 8, 2010 11:00 am • linkreport

I think anyone could have predicted that Comedy Central's predictions on crowd size were not scientific and were from someone unaware of the other DC event going on that weekend (Marine Corps Marathon). Given that all of those folks had to be in town at least by Saturday to pick up their race packets, and the pick up location was a few blocks north at the convention center, it's only logical that a vast majority of those people would flock to the mall to see the rally. That was what, 100,000 fans and 40,000 runners? 100,000 should have at least been a baseline estimate for the crowd size. From there, add in all the normal crowd attendees coming from the local area and beyond...

I think it would have been safe to assume a crowd of at least 150k-200k given the events scheduled for that weekend. WMATA assumed it would be a "normal" saturday and that no extra service was necessarily needed. They definitely could have made a slightly better estimate had they actually felt the urge to.

by metro rider on Nov 8, 2010 11:07 am • linkreport

Terrific job, Erik. I don't think WMATA really could have anticipated this, and even if they could, there was a rock/hard-place spatial problem.

Do any of you guys remember the Inauguration? 17 consecutive hours of rush hour service? 1,120,000 riders in one day. That was smooth sailing for Metro, right?

WMATA brought in $3 million in revenue from passengers. Terrific stuff.

But it cost them $5 million to run all that extra service. So they lost $2 million.

WMATA is already facing a $90M budget gap for next year. What would all of you be saying right now if WMATA had spent millions of dollars to have operators standing by, to have extra trains running, administrative employees selling tickets at station, and then only 60,000 people had showed up for the Rally?

I agree that the service was not optimal on Saturday. But that doesn't mean it's WMATA's fault. And it doesn't mean that they should have borne the brunt of the blame for the fiasco.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 8, 2010 11:13 am • linkreport

The thing is, Comedy Central didn't pay, and they still got what they wanted, hundreds of thousands of people apparently having a good time and a good show streaming over the internet and on cable.

The vast majority of people who had a terrible trip or didn't make it to the rally blame Metro, so the egg is on Metro's face, not Comedy Central.

CC had every incentive not to pay for extra service. With other rallies or sporting events, maybe the incentives are different.

I'm not saying WMATA should have definitely paid for extra service, I'm saying that the incentives were in place for CC to not pay and not end up looking like the bad guy except to a very small population that knows the whole story.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 8, 2010 11:16 am • linkreport

I can't see how you can simultaneously fault Comedy Central for not paying for extra service while also exonerate Metro for continuing with their track work schedule. If Metro's doing track work and single-tracking, there's not a whole lot of service that you can add.

I also think the idea that events need to pay for more service is a dangerous precedent. It's one thing to pay specifically for longer hours, as the Marine Corps Marathon did on Sunday. But who determines what 'extra' service is? What's the threshold to trigger that kind of payment? A Caps game? A Nats game? Metro's job is to move people and events are part of the deal.

I understand that Metro faces a big budget problem, but the implication that any large event should have to pay for "extra" service is troubling. Either package that into the event fees and make it mandatory, or don't charge it at all. If you do make it mandatory, then event organizers have every expectation that things should flow smoothly.

I can see the idea of not placing the full blame on Metro, but at the same time the end result was simply unacceptable.

by Alex B. on Nov 8, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

I like the idea of requesting events over a specific estimated attendence to pay for increased service (don't sporting events get to have extended metro operating hours if they pay a fee?), but I'm not sure if it can required (unless they have to pay permit fees for use of the Mall?).

Metro should be more clear on communicating what is happening inside the station platforms to areas outside of the turnstiles. However closing stations to new passengers should be avoided unless safety concerns require it. They'd be turning away customers ("pay the cab drivers, not us") - and it would be unfair to those who want/need to take metro regardless of the crowds/delays.

by DCster on Nov 8, 2010 11:29 am • linkreport

"Metro's job is to move people and events are part of the deal."

I absolutely agree. Metro was an embarrassment to both residents and the thousands of travelers to DC that weekend.

by Adam L on Nov 8, 2010 11:35 am • linkreport

Metro was responsible for the debacle. The inability of Metro to reschedule trackwork for 8 hours only exemplifies its poor program management skills.

by OX4 on Nov 8, 2010 11:47 am • linkreport

To be clear, I never said WMATA was undeserving of any blame. Their lack of communication, contingency plans, and scenario planning that directly involves front-line employees is generally embarrassing, but that is a discussion for a different post.

The point is Metro operates under severe financial constraints and under an economic model which is quite the opposite of private-sector scalable service-to-profit correlation. They can't afford to add additional service for no good reason -- heck, technically they can't afford to add additional service even for a very good reason.

Comedy Central saw the Facebook RSVPs too, yet they chose to discount them for one reason or another, why should WMATA have done otherwise?

by Erik Weber on Nov 8, 2010 11:49 am • linkreport

This is a good defense of Metro, and it's not all their fault. But they do deserve some of the blame. Not to have adjusted their service levels in light of more recent predictions, regardless of Comedy Central's official estimate, was willfully ignorant. WMATA stuck its head in the sand and hoped nothing would go wrong. Well, it did!

Allison's point about awful communication is also critical. Why wasn't anything posted outside jam-packed stations with no room on trains? Why wasn't anything posted on WMATA's website, Twitter, etc.? The Saturday morning ridership data was vastly exceeding their expectations -- someone should have thought to tweet, "Hey, we're a lot busier than we expected today! If you're going to/through downtown, you might want to leave extra time or consider an alternate route."

by Gavin on Nov 8, 2010 11:51 am • linkreport

By all means, what Metro needs is more coddling in explaining away their failures.

by Fritz on Nov 8, 2010 11:55 am • linkreport


How do you mandate that a group pay a fee to WMATA for extra service for an event? What are the "event fees" that are charged for a major gathering on the Mall? Why is it troubling that organizations should be asked to put up money for extra service? They are strapped for cash and it's a drop in the f-ing bucket for Viacom, Fox, or whoever else has an enormous concentrated event.

Also, this event was an order of magnitude larger than a Caps or Nats game. More than 10X the crowd of a Caps game, 10X the avg Nats crowd, 5X the capacity of Nats Park.

by MLD on Nov 8, 2010 11:56 am • linkreport

Also, how could WMATA have hired any more last-minute employees for a federally unrecognised day? Seems hard to negotiate contract wise since the overtime salaries are pretty high.

At the same time, WMATA is expecting a million people per day in the coming day. If that's the case, some capacity issues seriously need to be addressed. One is whether or not the agency and local/regional governments wish to keep Metro as a hybrid commuter/rapid transit system or allow it to become more urban rail that extends into the suburbs. If the former, it must complete the DC Streetcar system to add redundancy on corridors such as K Street that will take short-trip riders off Metro (at a lower fare, nice incentive) and replace bus service, in turn allowing more people to take transit when they otherwise wouldn't. Extending to Georgetown could easily be a money-maker, especially on weekends, and hopefully bringing the line up Wisconsin and ending it at Tenleytown.

However, if WMATA deems the streetcar system to be too expensive and would rather see Metro act as a rapid transit system à la New York City, it's going to have to address car layouts, passenger movement within stations, additional exits, and improved wayfinding (and not go the way of Gallery Place, how I dread that station and its clutter). The problem is at stops such as Farragut West, which have essentially maxed out on available expansion space. Further, WMATA will at some time or another have to switch to partial longitudinal seating or four-door cars, despite the ire of long-distance riders (no one wants to stand from Shady Grove to Metro Center).

Thus, WMATA has some decisions ahead of them, and Saturday was a good barometer of that. I think they handled it about as well as they could, but it can always be better.

by Phil on Nov 8, 2010 11:56 am • linkreport

^ Decade* not day.

by Phil on Nov 8, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport


If you want a permit for a large event, you are required to provide certain items. For example, you are required to pay for having EMTs and Cops on staff for some large events. Likewise, if you want to close streets, you have to pay a fee.

The problem with paying for 'extra' service is this - what is extra service? If I'm organizing an event like the Marine Corps Marathon, and I pay Metro to open two hours early - I get a very real, tangible benefit - just like I would if I paid DC EMS to have an ambulance on hand for a large event in case someone needs first aid.

What happens if the event were just a spontaneous gathering? Many cities (Madison, WI comes to mind) have traditions for on-street halloween celebrations that just happen, for example. Police wanted to charge the OT to an organizer, but there was none.

And yes, this event was an order of magnitude larger than any DC sports event - but that's not the point. Presumably, the fee would scale to match the size of the event. See DC's Special Event Planning FAQs for more information:

The later pages have recommendations on how many extra police officers, EMTs, etc will be needed based on crowd size, and then a per-hour rate to 'rent' those staff from MPD or FEMS. The only transportation fees listed are from DDOT to put up special banners and to put no-parking signs in place.

The larger issue is this - let's say Viacom did want to pay for extra service, but Metro still didn't want to re-schedule their track maintenance. Why should Viacom pay good money and get nothing in return for it?

by Alex B. on Nov 8, 2010 12:08 pm • linkreport

I just want to take apart one part of this post: that increased service means less money.

We keep hearing how MetroRail has excellent cost recovery, and (I think Mperkins has said this) that if you've got 160 people on a train you are covering expenses.

So where does the increased costs come from? I suspect what isn't being said here is inflexible overtime conditions. If you have cheaper overtime labor, you could accomodate these crowds.

That is a bit chicken and egg for this problem, as I don't think it was WMATA's fault they guessed wrong on the size of the crowd. But it is true for other large events.

So I don't think the answer is to say "deal with sucky service." Perhaps the answer should be:

1. Better planning
2. More flexible overtime
3. Ability to raise rates at certain concentrated stations

by charlie on Nov 8, 2010 12:15 pm • linkreport

For me, it simply boils down to this: If I (a Metro patron) pay a fare to ride a train - I expect to get what I'm paying for... As in, "to my destination on schedule". You're paying a premium for a service - that service should be delivered. Period.

Metro's fares are among the highest in the nation. If I'm going to shell out nearly $4 for a ride on mass transit - then yes, I expect that mass transit agency to make arrangements to hold up their end of the deal... After all, I'm holding up mine. That's their job.

by Josh C. on Nov 8, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

@charlie: if you have 160 people on a railcar (i.e., almost 1000 people on a train), you're perhaps paying for the expenses at that moment in time (and I think my calculations only supported rush hour fares, and they need refining anyway so they shouldn't be quoted), but once the train dumps everyone off in the center of town and starts to head out, the train is a net revenue loser. Once it turns around at the end point, it might not run completely full for a few stations, so it's a net loser there too. If the trains run full less than half the time, then they don't pay for themselves.

We're trying to get good numbers and do an analysis of costs and fares.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 8, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

I'm trying to wrap my head around this claim that every trip is subsidized, and that more riders means Metro actually loses more money. That makes no sense to me; I'd expect Metro to break even once a train attracts X riders, and everyone after that is pure profit. I mean, it's not like a full train needs more conductors than an empty one. I assume the increase in electricity is negligible...?

Look at a trip from Greenbelt to Branch Ave. $2.75 for a 47-minute trip. Call it an hour to account for the train turning around at the end. One conductor can handle an 8-car train, each one stuffed with up to 175 people. Pretend each seat and standing space gets one rider who stays long enough to pay the max fare.

$2.75 x 8 x 175 = $3,850 revenue per hour per train.

Surely enough to pay for a little overtime?

And the potential for that same trip to make more money is there, since a seat can change hands several times. If one person rides from Greenbelt to U St ($2.75), another from U St to Archives ($1.60), and another from Archives to Branch Ave ($2.15), you now collect $6.50.

I know the model is flawed, and I'd perfer a system where there's always a seat available, but still. I just don't get the argument that each additional rider requires the same level of subsidy.

by M.V. Jantzen on Nov 8, 2010 12:36 pm • linkreport

Inauguration dates are set well in advance. The sanity rally happened only a few weeks after it was announced. Comparing the two events isn't entirely fair.

by Rob on Nov 8, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

@Erik - Why should Metro have done otherwise? Because that IS their JOB. That is there one and only purpose, to move people around this region.

Why shouldn't they have prepared for the largest possible crowd estimate? They are in the business of serving and moving the public.

Maybe it's time for a federal takeover.

by Redline SOS on Nov 8, 2010 1:11 pm • linkreport

@MV Jantzen--yes, the "every rider is subsidized" fact is frequently incorrectly interpreted. Yes, on average, each ride is subsidized, but as you indicate, more riders do mean more money. There in no incremental cost to adding an additional rider but there is the incremental income from his or her fare. Every rider, including the new one, is still subsidized, but with each new rider, the subsidy per passenger is less.

Metrorail's operating costs are on the order of $285/hour/vehicle, averaged over the whole year and over all operating conditions (from National Transit Database data). So at $2.75 fare, they would need just over 100 boardings/car/hour to break even. Of course the incremental cost to add another train is less than the cost for the first train, and I'm not sure of the breakdown of operating costs.

The $30,000 that they charge the Marie Corps Marathon, and other organizations, reflects the actual additional costs for running the system an extra two hours early in the morning. My understanding is that most organizations actually pay less, as WMATA credits any fares received in the extra operating hours against the charge.

I'm still not clear what WMATA offered for $30,000 that Comedy Central turned down. Was it actually additional trains during normal operating hours, which is what would have been needed, or was WMATA just offering to open the system early, as it often does, which would make little sense for an afternoon rally.

Since this was just unusually large ridership during normal operating hours, I'm undecided whether I think Comedy Central should have had to pay to increase service.

What this points to, as I think Richard Layman has pointed out, is that transportation demand management plans really need to be a part of the permitting process for large events.

by thm on Nov 8, 2010 1:13 pm • linkreport

I'm wondering why Metro wouldn't be running extra trains on a holiday weekend anyway. Comedy Central event aside, trains were running every 20 minutes (normal weekend service) on Saturday night, one of the biggest "let's go out and party" holidays of the year. This resulted in packed-to-the-gills trains even at 2am.

I get that metro has a policy as to how the run their train schedule, but they need to use some sense when it comes to figuring out when extra service will be needed to serve the public that funds them. It is their prerogative, yes, but if they continue to make poor decisions at the expense of their ridership, they will see a steep decline in ridership. I'm almost considering quitting my job and starting a low-fare cab service marketed towards people who are sick and tired of the metro BS. I could make millions.

by Chris on Nov 8, 2010 1:14 pm • linkreport

Metro's slowness to respond when it became clear that there was a problem is not so readily excused. The system needs to have the ability to call up people to spring into action and drive trains or reroute various service. This lack of flexibility by Metro is a problem they have had for a long time.

by SJE on Nov 8, 2010 1:20 pm • linkreport

Full trains I can understand being outside Metro's control (relying on a Facebook event RSVP list to plan service for the entire Metrorail system is just plain silly, you guys), Metro deserves blame for not closing stations that were full, for not adequately directing passengers to nearby stations (Archives, Judiciary Square, Union Station, Chinatown, even Metro Center were all viable alternatives to Lenfant Plaza and Federal Center SW), etc. That there was scheduled track work (like there is every weekend) and broken escalators (like there always are) is more telling of Metro's longterm systemic failures.

by Scoot on Nov 8, 2010 1:21 pm • linkreport

I really do think that Metro needs to rethink its off-peak services, given that the frequently-packed-to-the-gills trains seem to indicate that these services are, in fact, profitable.

Did that $5 million for the inauguration-day service include costs arising from the extra security necessary on that day? Regardless of whose fault it was, somebody needs to step up to the plate, and apologize for the appallingly bad service the day of the rally. It was an embarrassment to the city, and to the nation. At the very, very, very least, they could have called off the track maintenance, and ran a normal weekend service (possibly with a few 8-car trains in lieu of trains that would normally run with 6 cars). Even Amtrak ran longer trains than usual!

Don't forget that the Red Line was also a mess (and has a few stations that service the mall -- events on the east end of the mall are easily walkable from Union Station and Judiciary Square).

by andrew on Nov 8, 2010 1:42 pm • linkreport

Erik, you raise good points, but I think the point you're missing is that Metro has an effective monopoly on public transit in the Washington DC area. Either we: (a) expect Metro to keep its side of the monopoly grant and provide an acceptable level of service; or, (b) concede that Metro has failed in meeting its monopoly obligations, and open up the useful bits to people who would like to try better. Metro can't have it both ways: it cannot be a monopoly and then fail to provide its side of the monopoly agreement.

by varun on Nov 8, 2010 2:19 pm • linkreport

A way to calculate the "break-even" load at your current provided service:

Your current passenger load = passenger miles divided by vehicle revenue miles

Your current recovery ratio = fare revenue divided by operating cost

Divide passenger load by your recovery ratio and you get the average number of people you need on a vehicle to have it break even. This has some limitations: it assumes that all new passengers will have the same characteristics as your current passengers (on average they travel the same distance, pay the same fare, etc.)

You can also do the same thing using revenue hours and boardings, and figure out how many boardings you'd need per hour to break even.

by MLD on Nov 8, 2010 3:01 pm • linkreport

Question for people who blame WMATA for not anticipating the large crowd:

why would anyone EVER pay the extra money for increased service if WMATA was just going to adjust the schedule anyway?

That seems like it would be a terrible president for them to set.

by tomservo on Nov 8, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

to tomervo's point, why can't WMATA bill after the fact? Why can't WMATA decide [at noon Oct 30] they need more service, bring it on and then bill Viacom after the fact? They have the n's of riders during the time frame as proof they're not just guouging the event organizers.

by Tina on Nov 8, 2010 3:19 pm • linkreport

If you haven't had a chance, please take a look at my post from Friday which had graphs of Metro's ridership on the 30th.

Let's say that by 10:30, the crowding was clear. If Metro were to call staff at this point, staff that was not scheduled to work, how would that have played out?

Metro starts calling people in at 10:30. A process that probably would take some time. Remember, they added 20 trains right away, and that didn't help the situation. They'd have probably needed to find 40 operators or more to even make a dent.

So, perhaps by 11:00, Metro has called everybody they're going to be able to reach.

Some train operators might have been enjoying a nice Saturday at the park. Or the Zoo. Or at the shopping mall. Or just relaxing at home. What if they declined to come in?

If some did choose to come in, they would have to drive or take transit to the rail yard. That could take some time. Let's say that, on average, that takes an hour. Remember, these people weren't on call. It's already 12:00, and they're just getting on the property.

Now trains have to get built. Organized into working consists. Brought out of rail yards. Perhaps around 12:15 or 12:30, WMATA could have started putting trains into service.

But then there's that pesky trackwork. It's far too late to stop it now. Workers are already on site. Rails might not even be attached to crossties. Equipment is on the tracks and can't be taken to a rail yard without creating schedule problems.

And aside from that, as it turned out the PM peak was nowhere as steep as the morning peak, although it probably did warrant more trains.

But the fact of the matter is that the operators just weren't available.

I don't know about you, but when I get a day off, I'm not generally hanging around the office. In fact, if my boss called on a Saturday and told me I was urgently needed in the office, it would take me more than an hour to get there, even if I was absolutely ready to leave the house at that moment.

Once the level of service was decided upon, Saturday was basically fait accompli. So unless you want Metro to start spending millions on overtime to have 40 train operators sit around in rail yards every weekend, there's really no positive solution.

There's an event in Washington every weekend. Since any one of them could have 4 times the projected attendance, it seems to me your suggestion is that Metro always be prepared for a crowd like the Sanity one. From a budget and logistical standpoint, that's just untenable.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 8, 2010 3:38 pm • linkreport

Flexibility is key, and Metro needs some method to respond to unexpected demand. It sounds like they were in fact able to respond with more trains, but that more was needed.

I had been wondering about Matt's scenario myself: how long does it take to get someone on the phone and say "Hey do you want to come in for overtime?" The technology exists to basically push a button and contact all potential drivers at once. As positive responses come in, you just need to manage who goes where (I assume there is more than one place where trains are kept).

So if Metro realizes they need more capacity at 10:30, if by 12:30 you have just one more train - trust me, the people on the platform would very much appreciate one more train! Please God, just one more train! And maybe by the end of the rally at 3:00 you'd have even more trains (granted the need afterwards wasn't as pressing, but Metro was still overflowing).

The thing is, just have a plan for unexpected crushes. We don't need a miracle, just a good effort.

I left the Mall around 4:30, biking up Connecticut Ave. The hordes were thick up to Florida Ave - my guess is folks decided to ignore Metro based on the morning experience, and just walk instead. (Many folks lingered on the Mall long after the event ended.) Friends reported mass crowds on the trains.

As far as charging Comedy Central, I think that's a bit silly. Unless a sponsor asks for earlier hours, I don't see how you could justify it.

by M.V. Jantzen on Nov 8, 2010 4:07 pm • linkreport

Even if rail services were overwhelmed, so too were Metro's bus operations - something that they could have ramped up much faster. Buses I saw (that I couldn't get on) were packed to the gills, people were turned away and forced to walk. And they were running on infrequent Saturday schedules.

by Alex B. on Nov 8, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

@Matt-yes I saw the data on ridership. Why can't metro keep x number of people "on call" on Saturdays? I've had jobs where I have the day off but I know I'm on call in case I'm needed. (is there really an event on the mall EVERY Saturday that estimates crowds >85K?? I don't think so)

Other types of workers whose jobs aren't as consequential to such large numbers of people as WMATA rotate into a day off with on-call status periodically. Its not at all this scenario: I don't know about you, but when I get a day off, I'm not generally hanging around the office. In fact, if my boss called on a Saturday and told me I was urgently needed...

I don't think its as absurd as you've described it to be for getting employees.

Yes, the afternoon definitely needed more trains AND busses!

Yes it would cost, thats the point of billing the event.

by Tina on Nov 8, 2010 4:13 pm • linkreport

They did have operators on standby. Those were the 20 extra trains put into service.

My point was that it's not as simple as just pushing a button. People would have to be able to come into work, and that would take time and cost money.

Besides, WMATA would have no authority to bill Viacom for the rally. They'd probably just tear up the invoice.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 8, 2010 4:16 pm • linkreport

I don't mean "On Standby" like this: ..Metro to start spending millions on overtime to have 40 train operators sit around in rail yards every weekend.

I mean on-call. Having your day off but not leaving town and knowing in advance that if you get the call you gotta go. If what you meant by "on standby" is at home doing laundry and not sitting around at work "just in case" then clearly 20 is not enough. That's what, 4 trains/line? WE needed more busses too. An set of expresses to the ends-of-the-line would've helped ease the trains.

I don't accept your premise that "it can't be done" to improve plans to handle unexpected large crowds. I also don't accept that a legal mechanism can not be created that would hold event organizers accountable to WMATA's bill.

by Tina on Nov 8, 2010 4:30 pm • linkreport

"The agency had no way to know that nearly 3 times as many people would attend the Comedy Central event as were projected by the event's organizers. "

As I said before, there were many ways to know attendance was higher.

On one side, they had the low viacom estimates.

But on the other side they had:

-Amtrak putting commuter sets into use due to high demand (not done for Beck)
-200,000+ marked as attending on the official facebook page
-Hotels reporting higher bookings than for glenn beck

It was idiotic to rely on a permit estimate on not on real world observations

by JJJJ on Nov 8, 2010 4:45 pm • linkreport

Matt, I appreciate clearing up the organizational difficulties, but one quibble:

At 10:30 on the Red Line, the DC-bound crowding was not just "clear". It took us 5 minutes to walk past the crowd at the Glenmont farecard machines without using them. The train was completely full and turning away passengers in order to close the doors by the time it reached Forest Glen. We passed hundreds of people on the platforms from Silver Spring to NY Ave that were simply not going to get downtown.

The fact that crowding would occur was likely clear to station managers much earlier in the morning.

PS: In the afternoon of an event, when half of the passengers in the system have come back in through downtown gates that have been forced open to alleviate crowding, Metro needs a lot better system than it has to normalize things on subsequent evening trips. We took maybe 10 minutes of station-manager time 'fixing' that, then another 5 minutes later on to actually fix it with another manager. By this time the managers hated us all, and expressed that pretty clearly. If it was a normal load day the station would have come to a crawl.

by Squalish on Nov 8, 2010 4:46 pm • linkreport

By contrast, we have the proactive Capital Bikeshare folks:

I'm not saying that Metro is in any way comparable to the bike share system, but the difference is that CaBi somehow saw the writing on the wall and made plans to deal with the expected increased ridership. Even if they had failed at providing enough service they can at least hold their heads high and say that they did the best they could, and they did. Metro did not.

by Adam L on Nov 8, 2010 4:53 pm • linkreport


You're not going to get Metro train drivers to be "on call" for free. No way. The notion of "on call" without compensation only works in salaried, white-collar jobs, where the intrusion of work into one's private life is tolerated.

Work hours and the division between on- and off-duty are far more regimented in an hourly, blue-collar job such as driving a Metro train. To require an employee to stay within the area (and to stay sober) takes a significant chunk of freedom away, and that won't happen if an employee isn't somehow on the clock and getting paid for it.

This is doubly true for Metro in particular, where the WMATA Compact requires binding arbitration for labor negotiations.

by thm on Nov 8, 2010 5:30 pm • linkreport

This is the problem, people expect great transportation but are not willing to pay the price, whether road or rail or bus.
Why didn't you guys just all drive? ....(food for thought)

by David on Nov 8, 2010 6:18 pm • linkreport

This comment thread leads inexorably to the conclusion that hipsters are one of the whiniest bunches of people ever to walk the face of the earth. "I want awesome service all the time without anyone having to pay for it, especially me, and if other people need to be inconvenienced and maintenance plans need to be junked to suit me, then that is indeed right and salutary." Yeesh. I'm not Milton Friedman devotee, but the adage "There's no such thing as a free lunch" is apt here.

by Lindemann on Nov 8, 2010 6:28 pm • linkreport

"Certainly WMATA has made its share of poor decisions, but the blame for Saturday's quagmire does not belong on Metro."

Certainly not. At least not here. Never here.

If you folks demand a world class transit system in our area, you should demand that Metro act like one. And be accountable. But instead, you make excuses and enable their ineptitude.

by Mike S. on Nov 8, 2010 7:13 pm • linkreport

"I want awesome service all the time without anyone having to pay for it, especially me, and if other people need to be inconvenienced and maintenance plans need to be junked to suit me, then that is indeed right and salutary."

That sounds like the Tea PartyÂ…but hipsters are annoying as well.

by Phil on Nov 8, 2010 7:21 pm • linkreport

@ David,thm,lindemann-all I did was make a suggestion for a way in which WMATA could improve plans to handle unexpected large crowds. Its prudent public safety if nothing else to have a plan. We now know the plan they do have is inadequate. It could use improvement, whether for an event on the mall or for a city wide emergency.

In any case, not one commenter has said s/he didn't want to pay for service. Paying for service used is the point of my questioning why the event organizers don't share in the burden of the cost. Their event is creating the demand, therefore they should pay for it.

@thm -you're assuming I need a patronizing lecture on what its like working anything other than salaried, white-collar jobs I guess you think you're clairvoyant and know all about my history and work history. If thats your super power its super weak. Maybe you don't mean to come off so arrogant but that's how it sounds.

by Tina on Nov 8, 2010 7:46 pm • linkreport

This piece doesn't add anything to the discussion. Why don't you acknowledge other pieces, such as mine, that add to the discussion, explain the necessity of improving transportation demand management protocols with regard to special events such as the aforementioned:

by Richard Layman on Nov 8, 2010 9:23 pm • linkreport

I completely disagree. First before the event, even if the numbers on the Mall had been identical to Glenn Beck's numbers, Glenn Beck's fans had been specifically instructed to avoid the Metro, while the Comedy Central fans were much more inclined to use it. So WMATA should have known better.

But then during the event, Metro's employees fell down on the job. There were no in-station announcements keeping passengers appraised on the situation -- but plenty of the usual "everyone with a bag is a terrorist" messages. There was no one helping people use the fare machines. And even though Metro had several hours between the pre-event rush and the post-event rush, they did NOTHING that I could see to deal with the return crowds. No extra trains, no employees called in to work overtime, no sign that they expected anyone to ride the trains back home.

by tom veil on Nov 9, 2010 11:10 am • linkreport

I hear this argument that "blue collar" WMATA employees should not have to be on the same as-needed schedule as "white collar" salaried employees. Yet, at salary negotiation time we hear how they are professionals. WMATA employees, especially train drivers, earn good money, in the same area as many white collar employees. Well, if you want the increased salary, you may have to expect the increased hassle. Sorry, this is 2010, not 1950

by SJE on Nov 9, 2010 11:10 am • linkreport

@SJE agreed. Plenty of "blue" collar jobs that involve safety, which I think over-croweed metro does, have on-call schedules: nurses, EMT's, firefighters/paramedics, plumbers, snow-removers even waiters and bartenders. Its just part of the expectation you're told about when you agree to get hired.

Look, I have direct personal experience with some of these examples and have immediate family members or friends in others. My immediate family has at one time or another represented three different unions. I value unions. I also value pragmatic evaluation of a public safety issue (over-crowded metro) and the responsibility of the people who agree to work that job and to take on that special responsibility, similar to what firefighters do.

by Tina on Nov 9, 2010 11:38 am • linkreport

Metro Metro management decides to single track large portions of Metro on the day of a large rally. Maybe some day they will act like they are in a service business. I have ridden Metro daily for 30 years. Their performance the day of the Comedy Central rally was appalling.

by Paul on Nov 9, 2010 1:48 pm • linkreport

@tom veil:

I completely disagree. First before the event, even if the numbers on the Mall had been identical to Glenn Beck's numbers, Glenn Beck's fans had been specifically instructed to avoid the Metro, while the Comedy Central fans were much more inclined to use it. So WMATA should have known better.

In what way were people at the Glenn Beck rally specifically instructed to avoid Metro? They weren't. Are you thinking maybe about the ridiculous Tea Party guide to DC for the rally, where they told people to avoid the green line at all costs? If you look at the numbers it doesn't look like people were convinced.

Reality check: The Glenn Beck rally had 89,000 people at it and Metro provided 190,000 more trips than they do on a typical August Saturday. That's about 2 trips per person, just as with the Comedy Central rally.

by MLD on Nov 9, 2010 2:03 pm • linkreport

I'm late to this game but I didn't see anyone really address this in the comments.

A lot has been said to the effect that "the organizers are to blame for not shelling out the extra $30K."

Am I the only one who thinks this is a glaring red herring? What would $30K buy you? Really? How much extra service would that pay for when the needs are double what was anticipated? It would still have been a disaster.

While obviously Metro (or anyone) should do everything they can to plan for demand in this kind of situation, Metro needs the ability to respond in real time because as this weekend clearly shows, sometimes you just have absolutely no idea what demand is going to end up like.

And it shouldn't be up to organizers to tell Metro how much service to offer. Metro's job is to offer service. If there's a big weekend, and they aren't sure exactly how big within a factor of 2 or 3, then Metro should plan to have whatever resources on call so they can add cars to trains or increase train frequency in response to demand. It shouldn't be a matter of "well, we didn't plan to run 8 car trains, so we can't run 8 car trains."

If it's just not physically possible to do this, then nobody is to blame. If it is physically possible to do this, then Metro's organizational infrastructure should be able to react in a reasonable time to this kind of situation.

Nobody could predict how many people came, and so nobody's to blame for the demand. The question is, should Metro be able to respond to such demand or not? I think they should be.

by Jamie on Nov 10, 2010 8:16 am • linkreport

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