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Posts about 8-car Trains


Metro wants you to know when an 8-car train is coming

To make it clear when an approaching train will have eight cars rather than six, Metro has started displaying the number "8" in green on station display boards. The idea, presumably, is to space passengers more evenly along the platform. Will it work?

A PID with green 8s next to eight-car trains. Photo by the author.

Because Metro operates both six and eight-car trains, not every train services the entire length of the platform. When an eight-car train does arrive, there is often extra space in the last two cars because relatively few passengers move to the end of the train. Noting these longer trains in a different color on the Passenger Information Displays (PIDs) may encourage more people to move down the platform.

Will this help or confuse riders?

This will only serve its purpose if passengers know what the green 8s mean. While the green color does stand out against the orange and red text (for most—it might not be so easy to tell the difference if you're color blind), it is not initially clear that the change in color is intentional. When I first saw the green color, I just assumed the board was broken.

The green color could also lead to confusion for some riders. Since Metro names the different lines by color, seeing a green eight could make some think a Green Line train is arriving.

One thing to know is that the PIDS are capable of displaying only three colors (red, orange, and green), and with red and orange already used for the other information, green is the only remaining available color.

One in a series of changes

The green 8s represent one of a number initiatives that Metro has recently undertaken. A few months ago, it began testing floor decals that mark where six-car trains end on the platform. Metro is also rolling out new information screens that do a better job of prioritizing multiple streams of information.

Going back a few years, Metro even changed the programming on the PIDS so that the text is easier to read at a distance.

These additions, along with new mezzanine lighting and station manager kiosk screens, offer passengers tangible improvements in their daily commutes. No doubt the Metro system faces enormous challenges when it comes to maintenance, but it's nice to see other, smaller changes not falling by the wayside.


Metro's new stat shows how many 8-car trains may be missing

WMATA just unveiled its official stat for measuring how many rail cars are available. The number helps to show how the Silver Line brought down performance, why on-time performance isn't where it should be, and why the new 7000-series cars are so important.

Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

An entire day's operations hinges on how many railcars WMATA can use:

Railcar availability is a key driver of on-time performance and supports the ability to meet the Board standard for crowding. When the availability target is met, scheduled departures of all 8- and 6-car trains from end of line stations is possible. When not enough railcars are available, train lengths are first shortened to six cars, which can contribute to crowding.
When railcar availability dips further and there are not enough trains to depart from end-of-line stations, headways (time between trains) increase, lowering OTP for customers. - WMATA Vital Signs Q3, 2015
The statistic isn't new in the sense that it's never been computed before, but it's now public and gives us a new way to analyze the rail fleet. WMATA computes the availability statistic using two numbers.

First is the number of rail cars that were put into service by 7am, and second is the total number of rail cars in the entire fleet. Dividing the first by the second results in the percentage recorded. Data on this is only available for 2013 to the present, but it's an extra way to take a look into how system performance is partially dependent on how many cars are available for use.

If everything was perfect, WMATA would have around 20-25% of its rail cars available as "spares:" cars out for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, as well as larger "engineering campaigns" that might be needed to fix an issue on all cars of a specific series.

I've written before about how everything is not perfect, and this spare ratio doesn't exist. Recently it has dropped to around 11% due to more cars out of service and a general lack of railcars entirely. WMATA has 1134 cars in the fleet and has a maximum requirement of 954 in use at any one time, which leaves 180 rail cars left (16%).

We also know that over 60 (62 as of Thursday November 5th) rail cars were out of service waiting for parts, some of which could have been out for a month or two already. The number of disabled cars works to cut the number further to around 120, or 11% of the fleet left for maintenance.

Reliability, performance, and availability are intertwined

I took a look at some relevant data collected about the rail system and graphed a few pieces. The chart below shows three of them—rail car reliability, the overall system on-time performance, and the rail car availability statistic—and starts to get into the nitty gritty about what's gone on the past couple of years.

The daily railcar requirement of 954 cars for morning and evening service includes the 64 cars required for the first phase of the Silver Line. When the Silver Line opened in mid-2014, fleet availability rose to a maximum of 88% as 64 extra cars from the fleet were put into the system for morning and evening peak hours. However, as the fleet availability rose, the overall system on-time performance dropped and still appears to be dropping, according to the latest data released from WMATA:

Graph showing railcar reliability, fleet availability, and system on-time performance. Data from WMATA.

Railcar availability, on-time performance, and fleet reliability are all correlated with each other, although a number of other items contribute as well. A cold winter for instance, like the one we had in 2014-2015, can cause more train car issues, causing fewer to be available for service, thus decreasing on-time performance.

Chart showing three of the main reported causes of train delays, and the subtotal of the three. Data from WMATA

When digging a little further, on-time performance exhibits a loose correlation with three of the main classifications of reported train car issues - door, brake, and general "equipment" problems, however it is far from perfect. As the delays shown would affect vehicle reliability, it shares similar peaks and valleys as the reliability (aka MDBD) metric from the first chart.

Prolonged, increased use of rail cars can lead to issues

There was a distinct drop in on-time performance starting around July/September 2014 when the Silver Line opened, shown in the first chart above. As 64 cars of the rail fleet were put into service at that time, the overall on-time performance appears to have dropped. Since the Silver Line opened before WMATA was able to receive and accept 64 new 7000-series cars that would be needed for service, the ones needed were pulled from the "spare" pool.

Rail car MDBD also drops drastically from October 2014 to February 2015, but this dataset also varies much more than the others and is more affected by things like weather than the others. The drop around February 2015 closely corresponds with the sub-freezing temperatures we experienced last winter, which caused various railcar issues.

The drastic drop of availability in June correlates to when the 100 4000-series rail cars were pulled from service due to door issues. Fleet availability dropped to 79% in June in part due to the lack of 4000's, and then gradually increased to 82% in September. With a total fleet of 1126 railcars at the time, 80% availability would mean that around 900 cars were available for service on average, well below the 954 cars required for full service. This matches with WMATA's statement that "availability was below the minimum 954 car threshold every weekday in July and August and most of September."

By it's nature, fleet availability changes when WMATA adds and removes rail cars

The number of cars in the fleet will increase as more 7000-series ones are added, which changes how the fleet availability is calculated. 80% availability in June 2015 resulting in 900 available cars is not going to be the same as 80% availability in June 2016, which (theoretically) could equate to 952 or more available cars. However, the way that availability is calculated means it is not a direct relation to how many total rail cars WMATA has. 88% or greater of the fleet could be made available like when the Pope visited in September, but this does not mean WMATA received more rail cars—just that more were put into service. Fleet availability, like many things, is relative.

When fleet availability falls, on-time performance generally decreases as well. All the way back to the beginning of the data in 2013, the on-time performance metric appears to parallel and trend in the same direction as the fleet availability, but experiences a significant separate drop starting in April 2015 and continuing through to September.

The drop in on-time performance and fleet availability within the past year or so is likely being caused by several factors (not to mention the delays caused by single-tracking and other maintenance activities), but one hypothesis is that the lack of rail cars is wearing on maintenance crews. With fewer spare cars that can be out for maintenance, employees are being hard-pressed - officially or not - to fix and return cars to service as quickly as they can. WMATA dropped the number of cars they would run on Mondays and Fridays during the summer to help with the maintenance process. But with less time available in the shop, issues are being forgotten or not fully fixed, leading to more customer-facing breakdowns.

Fleet availability correlates with the number of canceled trains

As the fleet availability drops, the number of trains that don't run increases. This makes sense in theory, but is neat to also see play out in real life. The graph below plots fleet availability in orange vs the number of monthly canceled trains in blue. Both measures are relatively steady from January 2013 through to May 2014, at which point both start to increase. Cancellations drop in the fall, but then continue to rise more through to a maximum of 159 in February 2015.

In addition, while WMATA does not release public data on it, a decrease in fleet availability is very likely related to how many eight-car trains run. A story WAMU ran earlier this year showed the number of eight-car trains was not matching up with WMATA's service level goals. With the principle that WMATA generally tries to decrease the number of eight-car trains before cancelling them, this lack of eight-car trains is explained by the data.

Monthly number of canceled trains vs fleet availability. Data from WMATA.

Fleet availability takes a quick fall in May 2015 and ends at 79% in June. This drop in availability could be when new, stricter purchasing requirements were put in place, causing more cars to be taken out of service waiting for parts. The removal of the 100 4000-series cars did not occur until June when cancellations spiked to 233, then 248 and 226 for July and August.

The data suggest that railcar availability is yet again on the rise possibly due in part to the slow addition of the 7000-series cars, but has a ways yet to go to stabilize comfortably back around 80%. You can find this data and much more in the quarterly Vital Signs document released by WMATA, along with other performance indicators tracked by the agency. It hopefully helps to show the relationship between the number of rail cars available for service, the total number of rail cars in the fleet, and the resulting performance that customers experience.


Eight-car Metro trains equals widening I-66 by 2-4 lanes

Lengthening all Metrorail trains to eight cars long would add as much capacity to the I-66 corridor as widening the highway by two to four lanes.

I-66. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

If Metro lengthened all trains to eight railcars, it would increase capacity on the Orange/Silver Line through Arlington by 4,740 passengers per hour per direction, according to WMATA's PlanItMetro blog. Comparatively, one new highway lane would be able to carry 2,200 cars per hour.

Even assuming two passengers per car (likely higher than the real average), a new highway lane would only carry 4,400 passengers per hour. Still fewer than 8-car Metro trains.

Then, to account for the reverse direction, double all calculations. Bidirectional Metrorail capacity would increase by 9,480 passengers per hour, equivalent to 4.3 lanes full of single-occupant cars, or 2.15 lanes full of cars with two passengers each.

Eight-car trains would also be cheaper and carry passengers faster than equivalent new highway capacity, PlanItMetro notes.

Clearly it's time to think longer, not wider.


Maryland, Virginia, fund these projects!

Maryland and Virginia will both enact major new transportation funding bills this year. Neither bill says exactly which projects will be funded, but here are the top 10 projects in Maryland and Virginia that most deserve to get some of the funds.

Tysons grid of streets, no. 2. Image from Fairfax County.

1. 8-car Metro trains: Metrorail is near capacity, especially in Virginia. More Metro railcars and the infrastructure they need (like power systems and yard space) would mean more 8-car trains on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.

2. Tysons grid of streets: Tysons Corner has more office space than downtown Baltimore and Richmond put together. Converting it to a functional urban place is a huge priority.

3. Purple Line: Bethesda, Silver Spring, Langley Park, College Park, New Carrollton. That's a serious string of transit-friendly pearls. The Purple Line will be one of America's best light rail lines on the day it opens.

4. Baltimore Red Line: Baltimore has a subway line and a light rail line, but they don't work together very well as a system. The Red Line will greatly improve the reach of Baltimore's rail system.

5. Silver Line Phase 2: The Silver Line extension from Reston to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County is one of the few projects that was earmarked in Virginia's bill, to the tune of $300 million.

6. Arlington streetcars: The Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars both have funding plans already, but could potentially be accelerated.

7. Route 7 transit. Leesburg Pike is the next Rosslyn-Ballston corridor waiting to happen. Virginia is just beginning to study either a light rail or BRT line along it.

8. Corridor Cities Transitway: Gaithersburg has been waiting decades for a quality transit line to build around. BRT will finally connect the many New Urbanist communities there, which are internally walkable but rely on cars for long-range connections.

Corridor Cities Transitway, no. 8. Image from Maryland MTA.

9. MARC enhancements: MARC is a decent commuter rail, but it could be so much more. Some day it could be more like New York's Metro North or Philadelphia's SEPTA regional rail, with hourly trains all day long, even on weekends.

10. Alexandria BRT network: This will make nearly all of Alexandria accessible via high-quality transit.

Honorable mentions: Montgomery County BRT network, Potomac Yard Metro station, Virginia Beach light rail, Southern Maryland light rail, and VRE platform extensions.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


WMATA plan: Not $26 billion, not mostly about tunnels

New Metro tunnels in downtown DC sound really cool (and expensive), but they're not what's most important about the "Momentum" strategic plan WMATA planners showed their board on Thursday. Rather, the crux of the plan is the smaller, yet very important, projects Metro needs for 2025.

Photo by woodleywonderworks on Flickr.

The capital improvements in "Metro 2025" come to about $6 billion, and include these 7 items:

  • 100% 8-car trains ($2 billion)
  • More capacity at core stations, including pedestrian tunnels ($2 1 billion)
  • Fixing the bottleneck at Rosslyn ($1 billion)
  • More places to turn trains ($500 million)
  • Next generation communications infrastructure ($400 million)
  • Speed up buses on priority corridors ($600 million)
  • More buses and new garage to grow bus system ($500 million)

The Momemtum plan also talks about some downtown tunnels in a future phase, "Metro 2040," but Tom Harrington, Director of Long-Range Planning for WMATA, emphasized in an interview that WMATA has not made any decisions about where specifically such tunnels would go, or which they want to build.

Rather, those sections are more general placeholders than anything else. While it's likely Metro needs at least one new tunnel to add capacity, WMATA can't even begin to plan for those tunnels until the elements of the 2025 plan get funding.

Given how long it takes to design, build, and fund transit in the United States, it's not too early to start talking about and building support around the elements of the 2040 plan. But what's more important now is laying the groundwork to enable those plans to go forward. That's the 2025 plan.

Harrington added that the $26 billion figure in the Washington Post's headline, which most other reporters subsequently focused on, isn't really the price tag for WMATA's plans. Rather, that covers the total cost of all transit projects the region's governments hope to build as well as future projects for WMATA.

As we discussed on Thursday, the plan also contains a lot of priorities for WMATA to improve its own operations. They include finishing repairs on the system, ensuring it's safe, devising better plans for communicating disruptions, making the system more "self-service," lowering costs and increasing efficiency, environmentally sustainable practices, and more.

The plan is not very detailed about these, and we look forward to hearing and discussing them more when there's more to understand.

Meanwhile, let's look more at the 7 capital items:

Photo by erin_johnson on Flickr.
100% 8-car trains: The original system's designers anticipated having trains of 8 cars, the full length of each platform. However, the system didn't need such long trains at the start, since the designers knew demand would grow over time.

They didn't build enough power stations and yard space to house all of those cars, anticipating that as the system grew, the local, state, and federal governments would fund the system's growth. That investment didn't continue much after the initial system was built, however. Today, Metro is overcrowded in many places, and needs the longer trains.

Core station capacity: The main transfer stations (Metro Center, Gallery Place, and L'Enfant Plaza), plus Union Station which is a transfer point between Metro and commuter rail or Amtrak, are jammed during rush hour. Metro needs to expand key spaces inside the stations and increase the numbers of escalators, elevators, and/or stairways between the different levels of the stations.

Image from WMATA.
WMATA's proposal includes pedestrian tunnels between Farragut North and West, and Metro Center and Gallery Place. The Farragut tunnel would reduce loading on the Red and Orange Lines where people have to currently ride to Metro Center to transfer, and the Metro Center-Gallery Place tunnel would let people avoid riding the Red Line one stop to transfer there.

Fix Rosslyn: This is the system's biggest bottleneck. We'll talk about this in part 2.

Turnbacks: Many subway systems have places where "gap trains" can wait to enter service in a busy section if trains get delayed, or places to push a disabled train out of the way. The Momentum plan isn't clear on where these would be, and Shyam Kannan, Managing Director for Planning, said WMATA is finishing up a study on this now.

In the past, WMATA planners have talked about adding pocket tracks north of Fort Totten and east of Eastern Market. A pocket track north of Fort Totten would also make it possible to run Yellow Line trains to Fort Totten during rush. Here's an explanation of why it's not possible to do that today; basically, they turn around on the main tracks, which takes too long to avoid delaying other trains at rush frequencies.

Communications infrastructure: The current "PIDS" screens in rail stations use very old technology dating back to Metro's early years. According to Kannan, during a service disruption, someone has to manually modify the information in the computer system to get the PIDS to work properly. They want to replace this whole system with a more modern one that doesn't have the flaws of the old.

This project also will involve systems to help riders get real-time bus and train predictions, Kannan said. Metro would like to place large screens, perhaps 4 by 6 feet, in many rail stations and busy bus stops to tell riders about the locations of trains and buses, as well as information about other modes like commuter rail and commuter buses. Better apps for smartphones and tablets, as well as open data to help other developers make their own tools, are also part of this piece of the strategic plan.

Bus priority corridors: Let's not forget buses. As we've talked about many, many times, making the buses more efficient, with features like "queue jumpers" to bypass congested areas, is an inexpensive way to improve transit and could even save money. If a bus can travel its route more quickly, you can have the same bus frequency with fewer buses and drivers, or more frequent service with the same numbers.

WMATA has identified a set of corridors ripe for optimizing bus service, but it needs more cooperation from local jurisdictions, which control the roads, signals, and bus stops, to make it happen. Some early elements are in the works; DC is planning bus lanes on H and I Streets past the White House, for instance.

More buses and a bus garage: A lot of bus riders wait longer than they should have to. We should beef up service on busy lines and in key places, like east of the Anacostia, which need better connectivity.

Also, WMATA needs to replace its aging garages in DC with a new one somewhere; Walter Reed was a promising spot, but Muriel Bowser and Vincent Gray blocked the idea; most recently, they have apparently been eying the Armed Forces Retirement Home, at North Capitol and Irving.

These are not in the region's plans today

These 7 items are extremely important for mobility in our region. They aren't just things that would be nice to have, but necessities if we don't want terrible overcrowding and delays.

However, these items are still not in the Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP), the list of transportation projects each jurisdiction gives to the Transportation Planning Board to staple together into a regional plan. (DC just proposed adding the I Street bus lane, and already had H Street in there).

As the TPB explains:

The CLRP (Financially Constrained Long-Range Plan) includes all "regionally significant" highway, transit and High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV), bicycle and pedestrian projects, and studies that the TPB realistically anticipates can be implemented by 2040. Some of these projects are scheduled for completion in the next few years, while others will be completed much later.
That means without action by regional leaders, we could get to 2040 and still have no more 8-car trains, the same and even worse Rush Plus crowding problems, terrible jams at transfer stations, buses stuck in even more traffic, and no room to park buses to expand service.

These improvements are basically necessary to keep Metro running efficiently over the next decade and to set the stage for future expansion. But it will not be easy to build these projects unless regional leaders are able to work together to secure funding for Metro's future.


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 good—Metro 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.

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