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Without more information, riders shouldn't accept Metro late night cuts

In July, Metro proposed ending late-night service permanently to allow more time for maintenance beyond what it's getting during SafeTrack. To really weigh whether this is the best option, the public needs much more information than what Metro has made available to date.

Photo by Aimee Custis.

When SafeTrack started, Metro moved from closing at 3 am on weekends to closing at midnight every day, giving workers around eight extra hours for repairs each week. In late July, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said that Metro needed to permanently end its late-night service to give Metro more track time to do maintenance and repairs.

Metro is using an online survey to get public feedback on four proposals for different service cut configurations, and on Thursday it's hosting a marathon public hearing to get more input. It's also possible to submit free-form written comments though October 25 at 5 pm.

After that, the WMATA Board will vote on whether to approve one of the four proposals.

The public must have more information

To date, WMATA hasn't publicly shared its reasons for why it sees cutting late night service as the best way to do necessary maintenence. Or how much it will help. Or what will be accomplished with the additional work time.

Any more late-night closures should only happen after WMATA provides more information and accountability through concrete deliverables. Many advocates we've talked to have asked: instead of shutting down the whole system, couldn't Metro just follow a SafeTrack-like approach of shutting down late-night service in segments of the system? If not, why not?

Chicago, New York City, and New Jersey have all done temporary closures on isolated parts of their systems, which we know is far more efficient than continually doing track work for periods of only a few hours at night.

The mobility Metro provides is an essential service. Cuts cannot be taken lightly.

The sacrifices that Metro riders have been asked to make over the last seven years are not easy cuts to stomach. Less than a decade ago, Metro was a reliable system that was the foundation for building the region we know today.

The mass transit system's ability to quickly and efficiently deliver commuters to their downtown jobs, take residents to retail, entertainment, civic spaces, and take tourists to museums made it possible to build the sorts of neighborhoods and places that people are flocking to.

The transit villages of the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, the resurgence of Columbia Heights, the robust feeder bus ridership throughout the region; these are all things that would be impossible without Metro. Here, unlike in many parts of the country, transit is something nearly everyone uses at least some of the time. That transit culture was built over decades.

And much of Metro's ridership has been driven by people who are willing to live a car-lite or car-free lifestyle because they know that Metro will get them around not just for their work trip, but for most of the trips they need.

Metro service has been being dismantled since 2009, and it's imperiling the region we've built over decades. Metro is increasingly unreliable even during rush hour, and seems to be on the brink of ceasing to exist in the evenings and on weekends. Passengers face waits that can stretch to 25 or 30 minutes. And when the train does finally show up, it can be so overcrowded that it leaves customers on the platform to wait another half hour.

Asking riders to sacrifice their ability to travel on weekends can be acceptable, even to the car-free, for a short term. But as Metro's overhaul stretches toward a decade of inconvenience, many are rethinking that choice. And as car ownership increases, it makes it more difficult to build the types of places, like Clarendon, that we want more of. Even when it gets better, many of the households that have purchased a car in the intervening years will be unlikely to return to Metro.

Continuing late-night cuts could make sense temporarily, but not permanently

We learned in May that the way WMATA scheduled track work wasn't working, as there wasn't enough time to set up for maintenance, go through safety protocols to prepare the site, etc. and get its immense backlog of maintenance work done. The Federal Transit Administration and others did indeed recommend more track time for maintenance crews.

The cuts WMATA is proposing would give it more limited operating hours than any large US rail transit system, and at lower evening frequencies. Metro should learn from how other major US rail systems perform inspections and routine maintenance without shutting down the entire system. Clearly, other systems have figured this out. Why hasn't WMATA?

In other words, once the maintenance backlog is cleared, it's too much to ask the region to give up late-night service. Lots of people depend on late-night Metro service, and not because it's how they get home after a night on the down; Metro is the only option for many third shift workers and people with families.

Also, Metro needs to show it's using the track time it already has

Metro's core mission is to provide mobility to riders. Metro should exhaust every reasonable way to take care of its maintenance crisis without impacting service. And we need to know that it has done so.

When and only when Metro is making the most of what it has can it reasonably ask for more maintenance hours. People want to know that the sacrifice of late-night service will actually be put to good use.

Particularly in the wake of a May 6 incident where track workers couldn't use over half of their allotted 5-hour access block, what is going to be any different if workers get an additional eight hours of late-night track access per week?

What does that look like in terms of feedback to the WMATA Board? Before it approves late-night cuts, it should require proof that staff is actually at work on tracks at least 80% of the track time already available.

If extending late-night cuts is truly necessary, certain strings should be attached

Transit is critical to our region. It would be catastrophic to have WMATA fail. Our colleagues at the Coalition for Smarter Growth are proposing that if the WMATA Board is serious about turning the system around and doing what's best for the region, it could allow a 12 month extension of Metro closing at midnight. But they also say the Board should only approve a one-year extension if and only if that extension comes with the following conditions:

  • 12 month limit on late-night cuts
  • Hard, measurable maintenance goals for what to accomplish in that time. If targets aren't met, the late-night service cuts cannot be renewed for another 12 months
  • Quarterly reporting on track time used for maintenance. If they don't use at least 80% of available track time, service cuts cannot be renewed
  • Publicly-stated projection for when Metro service will be back to 2007 levels (or another target level of service)
  • Night owl bus service must be provided at no more than 20 minute headways on weekends to provide alternative mobility for late-night riders
Even if you don't agree with this list of the strings that should come with late-night cuts, you should speak up and say whatever you do think to the WMATA Board.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has put together an editable email to the WMATA Board. You can send an email with their tool here.


The service cuts Metro is floating are draconian, harmful, and could further damage Metro's reputation

Closing 20 Metro stations except during rush hour? Cut bus service around the region? Raise fares? WMATA is facing a budget crisis, and some of the solutions on the table look grim. Even these ideas don't get serious consideration, our contributors say putting them on the table is a door we should leave closed.

Metro should be very careful about what it says is on the chopping block. Photo by Michael Coghlan on Flickr.

On Thursday, WMATA's staff will give a presentation to the Board of Directors on potential ways to close a $275 million budget gap. Or, put another way, staff will warn the board that without more money, some drastic measures may be inevitable.

The draft presentation that came out on Tuesday lists options like closing 20 stations during off-peak hours (nine of them on the east end of the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines, along with three on the west end of the Silver Line) and shutting down a number of bus lines, including the brand new Potomac Yard Metroway.

Under one possible proposal, stations with red dots could only get service during rush hour. Image from WMATA.

The first thing to remember is that this isn't an official proposal; it's a cry for help. It's WMATA saying that it needs more money to operate the entire rail system, and if that money doesn't come in, these are possible options for cutting costs to a level commensurate with current funding.

"These sorts of things are usually setting the doom an gloom in hopes that the jurisdictions up their contribution or become more amenable to higher fares," said Steven Yates.

WMATA has certainly done that before, like in 2011 and in 2015. Payton Chung also pointed out that Chicago's CTA spent much of the mid-2000s preparing and releasing two budgets per year: "a 'doomsday' budget that assumed no emergency funding, and included savage service cuts, and a business-as-usual budget that could be implemented if additional operating subsidy were granted."

Do you know the story of the Metro who cried wolf? Photo by sid on Flickr.

But even if this is just a play in the game to get more funding, it's a move that has real consequences in and of itself.

"I don't know how well that plays anymore given the very short leash that Metro is on," said Travis Maiers. "I get the sense patience has run thin and everyone is tired of Metro crying wolf and/or begging for more money, coupled that the system never seems to visibly improve. "

Justin Lini, an ANC Commissioner in DC's Kenilworth neighborhood, where the Metro stop would be one of the ones affected, said that even floating this idea sends a message to an entire portion of the region that's already disadvantaged:

I'm a big supporter of Metro—I chose a job, bought a house and basically planned my life around the system. I've worked with their staff on issues big and small. I publicly laud them when they do something right, even small victories.

But then WMATA publishes a document that says "We'll just have to stop providing service to the black folks east of the Anacostia." How am I supposed to support them when they're using all of east of the river as a bargaining chip? At best this is a tone deaf distraction, but I can guarantee you most people east of the river aren't going to see it that way.

Travis continued:
No one wants to stand up and vouch for Metro, and frankly, it's very difficult to do that even if you want to. In many ways Metro is its own worst enemy, with the subpar service it provides, the constant breakdowns, and its poor accountability and maintenance record. And I feel this kind of proposal only makes it more difficult in persuading people to contribute more money.

Either way, what a lousy situation we are in. WMATA acknowledges that poor service is hurting ridership, so what does it propose? Make service even worse and charge more for it! Even if it's bluster, it's a sad state of affairs.

Mike Grinnell was particularly concerned about Metroway BRT:
Potomac Yard's Metroway route is an important investment in the region's first BRT line. Alexandria and Arlington have over $40 million and years of planning and construction invested in the project. It seems very short-sighted to cut the program only two years after it came on line as the large apartment buildings start to fill with potential riders. Service cuts will only sour the region's opinion of this affordable option.

That said, it does receive by far the largest subsidy listed on slide 36. It should make for an interesting discussion.

Canaan Merchant agreed with Mike, and pointed toward what giving these possibilities serious consideration would say about our outlook on public infrastructure:
That and the Silver Line are two sad examples of the way we've gotten about transit projects in this country. If they are not an instant success then they're deemed failures. It's not like we built either to just stick around for a year or two and then take out if they "didn't work".

It's not how we planned those projects and it never was a goal to treat them like that and now we have one group saying its better to abandon it now despite all the other plans that has gone into all of this work.

And it unfortunately provides one answer to the question of "what should we build first, transit or density?" because apparently if we build the transit first we might just end up threatening to take it away faster than you can get a building permit for an apartment building nearby.

"Considering how many mixed-use developments will be coming online in Tysons, Reston, and in Loudoun over the next 5+ years," said Kristy Cartier, "Not giving the Silver Line a chance is extremely short-sighted."

Do you agree? Is WMATA crying wolf, and if it is, are the townspeople going to come save it or leave it alone because of all those other times?


WMATA is up against a budget deficit. Today, it floated ideas for some very big, very difficult changes.

WMATA is again estimating that its operating costs will far outpace revenues. To close the gap, the agency is considering closing several stations during off-peak hours, decreasing how often trains run, and cutting some bus routes.

Under WMATA's new proposal, stations with red dots could only get service during rush hour. Image from WMATA.

The official budget proposal for FY2018 won't come out until November, but a draft of a presentation that WMATA staff will give to the Board of Directors on Thursday gives some insight into big changes the agency is considering in order to close an estimated $275 million budget gap.

One option would eliminate service to 20 low-ridership stations during off-peak hours (midday, evening, and weekends). Many of these stations are located east of the Anacostia River, but White Flint and Tysons are also on the list.

Another option would eliminate service for bus routes with the highest operating costs per rider. One of the routes listed is Metro's new bus rapid transit service, Metroway, which runs largely in dedicated bus lanes with bigger, better bus stops.

Some other options on the table include cutting more employees, increasing bus and rail fares, increasing peak-period rail headways from every six minutes to every eight, making weekend service less frequent, and asking Maryland, Virginia, and DC to contribute more funding.

These are bleak choices, but absent an infusion of funding, WMATA has to balance its budget somehow. What do you think it should do?


On Thursday, the WMATA board heard about why Metro keeps catching on fire. Then on Friday, Metro caught on fire.

At the height of Friday afternoon rush, an insulator caught fire at Metro Center, kicking off a meltdown on the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines. A smaller but similar incident hit the Red Line Sunday evening as well. The day before, the WMATA board received a briefing on the power system that both issues were related to and how problems with it continue to plague the system.

Photo by John Grant.

Friday's fire right around 5 pm at Metro Center on the Orange/Silver/Blue lines caused trains to halt service for around 40 minutes and then single-track until the system closed, delaying thousands and adding an hour or more to some commutes. Sunday's issue happened at a time where delays were an inconvenience for fewer people, but it was certainly a problem nonetheless.

Issues can crop up at various points in any power system, which makes routine maintenance so important. Substations that receive power from the supplier (Dominion and PEPCO, primarily) have cables that run to the third rail, which runs alongside the tracks that trains run on and which supplies power to the trains. Trains use this power, which is then fed back through the rails through the "negative return" back to the substation.

The likely culprit in both incidents is what's called stray electrical current, which can happen when a power circuit is created through a path that isn't the one intended. Instead of making a circuit from the power substation through cabling to the train then back out through the rails, an alternate circuit path could be created across insulators or through the stud bolts that help secure the tracks.

This unexpected path can create arcing, smoke, and fires, which cause harm to the equipment and are dangerous for passengers. Dirt, dust, and other contaminants, all of which aren't exactly uncommon in Metro tunnels, can increase the severity of stray currents.

When these mixtures stick to the third rail insulators, the insulator's function starts to break down. Instead of preventing the current from "escaping" the third rail through the trackbed, the debris lets the current travel to unintended portions of the system not meant for it. These stray paths can case bolts to heat up and glow, smoke, or spark, or cause the insulators to arc or even catch fire if they've broken down far enough. These side-effects are just a few reasons why proper maintenance of a power system and making sure insulators, supply and return cables, transformers and other components is important.

The stray current and other power issues aren't new to Metro; a current issue across an insulator led to an explosion at Federal Center in May, and arcing insulators are almost a common occurrence, especially on the Red Line.

Metro's General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, requested an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) peer-review of portions of its third-rail power system back in June, and the report was made available after WMATA's September 22nd board meetings. The peer review request was part of Metro's safety department's larger holistic review of the power system to try and help pinpoint and solve its various power issues once and for all.

The APTA review provided a list of observations about Metro's third rail system that could potentially cause issues. One of the primary ones (which isn't a new idea, or even new to Metro) is that the reviewers found "insulators seemed to be excessively contaminated" both in the rail yard they visited as well as on open track. This contamination, a combination including brake dust from train brake pads, oils, and various other types of dust and debris, can stick to the insulators that hold up the third rail which provides power to the trains.

A cracked insulator, which the APTA peer review noted. Image from WMATA.

APTA gave Metro two recommendations for the contamination. One, Metro should analyze what the deposits on the third rail insulators are to figure out where they come from, and determine how to cut down on how much is generated. Second, they suggest Metro develop and maintain an insulator cleaning program. A tunnel cleaning program did exist at Metro up through the early 90's, but was terminated.

APTA reviewers also found that Metro staff are "constantly in a catch-up mode" when it comes to the power system, so they don't have much time for preventative maintenance that might also help cut down on smoke/fire incidents.

Metro's Board of Directors has heard about many of these issues before

The lack of an active cleaning program was one issue the NTSB found that contributed to the January 2015 smoke incident that killed one passenger and injured dozens others. Metro's deputy general manager in May of 2015 told the Board that the agency was to reinstate this program, and wanted to become "so proactive that these incidents don't happen."

Smoke and fire incidents, many caused by stray or imbalanced current, continue to occur in the system—more have happened in 2016 than had up to this point and last year.

Metro is certainly more active now than it has been in the past regarding tunnel cleaning (said to be part of SafeTrack and partially restarted after the L'Enfant incident) and insulator replacement from ceramic to fiberglass within underground station limits is complete (but still needs to be done for above-ground stations and in tunnels), and many power cables and equipment have been replaced in the meantime as well.

But becoming a proactive organization requires hard analysis to detect issues and get to the root causes before they become larger problems, not simply when an outside organization finds them or when somebody gets hurt. It's a long road to walk down, but with the proper management it's an achievable goal and results in a safer and more reliable transit system for riders to use.


Metro ridership is dropping. Here's what some experts think is the cause.

Ridership on both Metrorail and Metrobus dropped off in a big way over the past year. Possible reasons include cheaper gas and a struggling economy, but those probably aren't substitutes for two staples: safety and reliability issues.

Photo by Kevin Harber on Flickr.

According to WAMU's Martin Di Caro, overall Metro ridership (both rail and bus) fell by to 321 million trips, or about six percent, during the 2015 fiscal year (WMATA's fiscal year runs from July-June). Rail ridership declined even more steeply than the system as a whole, falling seven percent.

All images from WMATA unless otherwise noted.

With bus ridership dropping too, it's apparent that commuters displaced by SafeTrack did not turn to Metrobus as an alternative. These declines compound other factors that have affected ridership, says DiCaro:

Demographic changes, the rise of telework, the proliferation of transport alternatives such as Uber or Capital Bikeshare, the economic downturn and reductions in federal spending, constant weekend track work over the past five years—all have combined with consistently poor rush hour service to drain Metrorail ridership.
Experts disagree about the main factors affecting transit ridership

Last week, a George Mason professor who focuses on policy and transit, a top official at the American Public Transportation Association, and planners from within Metro briefed Metro's board of directors, which is preparing for budget discussions, on the reasons for the decline.

Their explanations for the drop varied.

George Mason Professor of Public Policy and Regional Transit Stephen Fuller presented a handful of factors affecting Metro's ridership. "Levels and quality of service" topped his list:

APTA Vice President of Policy Art Guzzetti listed lower gas prices and fare prices as the top two factors potentially affecting ridership:

Metro's Managing Director of Planning Shyam Kannan laid out the agency's analysis of ridership. Among the largest factors in Metro's own theories about declining ridership are the economy and the rise of Uber and bicycling as alternate commuting methods. Those, however, are outside of WMATA's control.

What WMATA can control are service levels and reliability. That is what WMATA believes will bring back ridership.

Quicker, more frequent, and more reliable service would encourage people to ride more often:

Correction: The original version of this post overlooked a few of Metro's slides. While Kannan did discuss a number of factors that explain lower ridership, his presentation centered on safety and reliability as the top drivers of ridership. The original also said that Metro ridership has dropped by 321 million trips, when in fact it has dropped to 321 million trips.


How to give Metro's safety commission real teeth

Erek Barron and Marc Korman are members of Maryland's House of Delegates, representing Prince George's County and Montgomery County, respectively.

Photo by Kurt Raschke on Flickr.

A 2012 federal statute requires the jurisdictions that make up WMATA to establish a safety oversight commission to oversee Metrorail safety. This will succeed the discredited Tri-State Oversight Committee, a partnership between Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia that was supposed to oversee safety but has been blamed for many of Metro's safety-related woes.

Recently, the federal government has increased its pressure on the jurisdictions to create the new safety oversight commission by having the Federal Transit Agency take over Metro safety oversight and threatening federal funding should the commission not be stood up by early 2017.

As state legislators that would have to vote on establishing the commission and funding it, we support meeting the federal requirement but would like to go even further in bringing real improved oversight to Metro by merging Metro's Inspector General (IG) into the commission.

The Federal government is rightfully concerned about Metrorail safety. Unfortunately, we know that Metro's issues go far beyond safety and include significant issues related to fiscal management, operations, communications, and more. We support creating the safety commission as required, but why just check that box for the feds when a relatively simple, structural move may succeed where other oversight efforts have failed?

Metro oversight is complicated by the multi-jurisdictional nature of the system: the Federal officials, Maryland, DC, and Virginia each have a role to play—and we have worked from our perch at Maryland's WMATA-Metro Work Group to improve oversight—but with so many players the buck stops with no one. In theory, Metro's Board is charged with oversight, but how is that working out?

The Metro IG was established in 2007 out of the old Auditor General's office. It was created by WMATA's Board and then passed into law by the jurisdictions as part of the WMATA compact. But it has never lived up to its potential and many of its recommendations, including those related to safety, have been left unheeded. Moving the IG from WMATA to the new commission will place more oversight power in the hands of the new independent agency and help the IG grow from its historical background as just an auditor.

Congress passed the federal IG Act in 1978 amid historically low public confidence in government. Since then, IGs have been watchdogs, annually saving billions in public funds and providing an $18 return on every dollar invested.

But Metro's IG is chained to an institutionally ineffective board, unable to harness its potential. Its limited powers are vague and subject to change by board resolution. And, its budget and resources are weak, especially its short-staffed investigatory arm.

Several factors prove critical to an effective IG, including independence, jurisdiction, investigatory and enforcement powers, and complainant incentives and protections. We have a lot of thoughts on how to shape the IG position under the commission in a way that positions it to do the best job possible with regard to each of these factors, and they boil down to allowing the IG to operate as it truly sees fit, having it oversee all of Metro, including the board, and giving it the ability to actually take action if it finds a problem.

We have heard a few criticisms of the proposal to move and empower the IG, all of which are unavailing.

First, we are told that the IG is responsible for supervising Metro's annual independent audit of financial reporting and is one of just three Metro employees that reports directly to the Board. But Metro has a Chief Financial Officer and Audits and Investigations Committee that can provide those functions and, if necessary, the IG could continue to do so as well from its new position. Moreover, the Board functions no better institutionally now than it did before it had an IG reporting to it.

Second, some observe that the safety commission will only have oversight of Metrorail, not the entire Metro enterprise. But so what? The Metro IG does not have regulatory power now. Reports unrelated to safety can still be transmitted to the Metro Board—and hopefully more robust reports will be acted upon in a more transparent and effective matter—but at least those related to safety will be implemented and enforced through the new power of the oversight commission.

Third, critics note that this does not solve every problem Metro has like the lack of a dedicated funding source or an insufficient quantity of track inspectors. Fair enough, but Metro is in a significant hole and no one reform is going to solve every issue.

Fourth, we have heard some fret that this threatens a federal mandate to establish a safety commission. But the federal government should embrace efforts by the jurisdictions not to just meet the bare minimum requirements but actually put forward a reform that could significantly improve Metro oversight and performance. Indeed, many elected officials in Maryland and Virginia do not appreciate Metro and this reform would be an important step in demonstrating that the region is getting serious about fixing Metro, not just careening from one crisis to the next.

We are both supporters and users of Metro. This proposal is not designed to make the work of the General Manager or Metro staff more difficult. Our vision is for a truly useful oversight agency. We are committed to doing the right thing for Metro, not the most expedient thing.

We must do something—both the federal government and the region demand it, so why not make it meaningful. For a better Metro, unleash the IG.


Metro is proposing the most limited hours of any large rail transit system in the US

At Thursday's WMATA board meeting, Metro leaders proposed making SafeTrack's cuts to late-night service permanent as well as deepening them even further, offering several proposals that would only have the system be open 127 hours per week. These proposals would turn a system that already had some of the most limited opening hours in the US into the least-available large rail transit system in the country.

Image by Craig on Flickr.

The table below compares Metrorail's hours and to those of the other nine largest rail transit systems in the US, by ridership. To get an idea of earlier evening frequency, I looked at the time between scheduled trains on the line that ran trains most often between the hours of 8 and 12 pm on Friday evening (the choice of Friday was arbitrary, but I wanted to compare nighttime frequency before the really late hours.)

Rail systemMinimum hours openMaximum hours openFriday evening frequency
New York City Subway168168every 5 minutes
Metro pre-Safetrack135135every 15 minutes
Metro Safetrack129129every 15 minutes
Metro proposed127127every 15 minutes
Chicago 'L'125168every 10 minutes
Boston MBTA Subway124135every 10 minutes
Bay Area Rapid Transit134134every 20 minutes
Philadelphia SEPTA147148every 10-12 minutes
NY/NJ PATH168168every 10 minutes
Atlanta MARTA139139every 20 minutes
Los Angeles Metro Rail136146every 20 minutes
Miami-Dade Metrorail133133every 15 minutes

In ridership terms, Metro ranks second in the nation, though way behind the New York City subway. It's closest to the Chicago 'L' in ridership.

Three of the ten largest systems run all (NYC subway and PATH) or some (Chicago) lines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Keep in mind that only one of these, the NYC subway, has extensive portions of four-tracked line that allow it to both run express tracks and perform maintenance on one set while using the other. Chicago has some portions of four-tracked lines where two lines run alongside each other, but the Red and Blue lines (which provide 24 hour service) use only two tracks each. Similarly, PATH does not have extensive stretches with more than two tracks.

Chicago, Boston and LA run more limited service on some lines. In Chicago's case, the spur Yellow line is open far less than the other lines. In systems, hours are generally uniform across lines.

Frequency is the other major characteristic of evening service compared here. I examine the time between scheduled trains on the line with the highest frequency between the hours of 8 and 12 PM on Friday evening. On this metric, Metro lags New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and PATH. Only BART, MARTA, and LA have worst nighttime frequencies, though two of these systems (BART and LA) rely on significant interlining to yield much better frequencies in the downtown core.

What do these other systems tell us?

First, and most obviously, the cuts Metro is proposing would give it more limited operating hours than any large US rail transit system.

Second, even before these cuts, many other systems were running for much longer hours while performing inspections and routine maintenance.

And finally, before and after the cuts, Metro would run trains in the early evening at lower frequency than many major systems. In addition to limited hours, limited frequencies make Metro a less dependable option for travel outside of peak hours.

Metro should learn from how these other systems perform inspections and routine maintenance without shutting down the entire system. Clearly, other systems have figured this out, but WMATA has not. Additionally, when major work is needed, Metro should adopt the approach of other major systems by shutting down lines for extended periods of time, as Chicago, New York City, and PATH have all done. These shutdowns are painful, but as we have seen with Safetrack, temporary reductions in service are much easier for riders to plan around than long-term low-quality service.

Area stakeholders need to decide if Metro should be one of the better rail transit operators in the country, or if it is acceptable as one of the worst. The proposed cuts in hours, along with already low frequencies in the early evening hours, would unquestionably resign Metro to being one of the worst systems for riders outside of peak hours.

Even before these cuts, other US systems have managed significantly longer service hours and much better off-peak frequency. Why can't WMATA adopt the strategies these systems have used to get maintenance work done?


Metro is pushing ahead to cut late-night service with three unsatisfying options

We first heard about Metro's hope to permanently cut late-night service in July. Now, Metro has released three specific scenarios to cut late night service, but it offers still few specifics on why it's necessary or what alternatives there can be.

Photo by Howard Ignatius on Flickr.

At the regular WMATA Board of Directors meeting on Thursday, Metro staff will ask for formal approval to hold public hearings to cut late-night service. This is a legally required step before Metro can make any service cuts.

In July, we heard an initial proposal to end service at midnight Monday to Saturday and 10 pm on Sundays. Following public outcry, Metro has devised two other options, which staff estimate will harm about the same number of riders.

According to the presentation for Thursday's meeting, if the board approves public hearings, public comment would be open from October 1 to 24 with a public hearing on October 17. The board could vote to cut service in December, and the new hours would take effect next July.

The presentation also says Metro will take public input on ways to extend bus service to meet some late-night riders' needs, but offers no specifics.

Metro does need more maintenance, but is this necessary?

These closings will give Metro 8 to 8½ more hours a week when the system is closed, which will allow for more track work. It's certainly true Metro needs to catch up on track work, and single-tracking constrains workers too much so they can't get as much done.

Beyond the urgent safety-related fixes, Metro could use track time to fix lighting in stations (which requires closing the stations), installing cables for cell phone access in the tunnels, and much more, said General Manager Paul Wiedefeld when a few Greater Greater Washington contributors and I spoke with him recently.

However, what this proposal does not explain is why closing the entire system at once is necessary. Why not, for instance, pick one line per weekend to close at night? Heck, if they need more track time, it might even be fine to close a line for the entire weekend.

Surely the track workers can't be on every line at once.

Wiedefeld said he worries this would be too confusing for riders. Instead of knowing the system was closed, they would have to keep track of which lines are open. Plus, already low late night ridership would be even lower without the opportunity to transfer between as many lines.

I'm still not persuaded. Metro certainly could devise clear infographics to communicate, and if it made the closures really simple, such as one line (or a set of lines that overlap) per weekend, it could work.

We shouldn't armchair quarterback Wiedefeld's difficult job, but cutting late night service permanently will force a lot of people to give up on Metro and end the aspiration for it to offer a comprehensive alternative to driving. Many late night workers and entertainment patrons, especially those who live far from their jobs and destinations, will be stuck, as Tracy Loh explained this morning.

Riders should have more information before public comment and hearings

Maybe a one-line-at-a-time closure is worse for other reasons, but the board should ask about this and other options that don't give up on service entirely for parts of the day. They should ask for this before the proposal goes to public hearings.

The presentation also suggests adding late-night bus service, but has no specifics. I hope the planners are hard at work on devising the best ways to serve the most people without Metrorail. But it seems that riders will have to comment on the rail proposals without seeing what alternatives exist.

How about lengthening the temporary SafeTrack closure to give time to really figure out these alternatives before, not after, committing to permanently cut service? Because permanent is a big deal. Riders deserve to have all the details and a fully baked plan first.


For Metro's plans to cut late-night service, big questions remain unanswered

If you were waiting for a big debate over eliminating late-night Metro service at Thursday's WMATA Board meeting, you'd be disappointed. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld presented the same information he'd announced publicly, the board asked no questions, and that was it.

Officials definitely heard from riders loud and clear, however. Riders have sent over 2,400 emails through our petition to Wiedefeld, Chairman Jack Evans, and the board. You can still contact them using this form or just sign up for updates as this issue progresses here.

This wasn't the meeting to really debate the (very bad) proposal. That would come later. Before any proposal would take effect, as I understand it, several things would have to happen:

  • Paul Wiedefeld would more formally propose the change as a board agenda item.
  • A board committee (presumably the Customer Service and Operations Committee) would discuss the issue further. This is where board members would hopefully ask the tough questions.
  • The committee would send it to the full board, which would also discuss it.
  • The board would have to vote to start the formal public hearing process.
  • Metro would organize public hearings around the region.
  • Separately, Metro would have to do a Title VI analysis to be sure the change doesn't unduly burden lower-income riders. That's far from a foregone conclusion—Boston's MBTA is facing federal scrutiny for not doing this analysis before cutting its late-night service.
  • The board could then vote to cut the late-night service, if it chose.
One major hurdle: DC could veto this (as early as the first board vote). Under Metro's compact, at least one vote must come from each of DC, Maryland, and Virginia for any proposal to pass. Both of DC's voting members, Jack Evans and Corbett Price, have publicly stated their opposition. Unless one of them changes his mind, the cuts can't happen.

(Meanwhile, Maryland rep Michael Goldman has said he's for it. Goldman is also the same guy who refused to put money in a fund for retirement benefits, refused to pay Maryland's share of the 5A bus to Dulles, and opposed using new 7000 series cars to make more 8-car trains.)

Here are the questions that need to be asked

The public needs and deserves much more information so we can weigh in before board members start debating this. It's too bad some of the members didn't take the opportunity of Thursday's meeting to ask, but riders can, we can (and will), and board members will have more chances later.

There are three major questions right now:

  1. Why is closing the ENTIRE system necessary, as opposed to targeted closures? What are the other options here? Could Metro close one line, or one segment, early on each weekend (or, heck, close it all weekend) for repairs? Metro workers won't be on every bit of track at once, right? So why does this have to be a blanket thing?
  2. What would be the best alternative? Let's say Metro persuades us that ending late-night service is necessary. How can Metro still provide a way for workers and entertainment patrons to get home safely and affordably, without using rail? A robust night owl bus network whose routes mimic the rail routes as much as possible? Or what about companies that are trying to offer more flexible, on-demand shared van transit especially for low-ridership scenarios?

    Wiedefeld said he's not secretly doing this to cut costs. But it's true that running Metrorail late is expensive. With all or even just some of that money, what's the best way to get people where they need to go?

  3. What about big events? Also, though, late night service is not always low-ridership. When there are sports contests, major concerts, and other big events on weekends, huge mobs enter the system at places like Navy Yard or Gallery Place at once. Rail can handle this; buses can't. Will event organizers pay to extend service? Would Metro even allow them to, if closing the whole system every weekend is supposedly necessary for maintenance?
I, at least, don't want to ever say "no way, I won't hear it" from Metro about anything. But neither is "we need to, just because, and no we don't have an alternative plan" sufficient. I hope before moving forward with any proposal, Metro officials will thoroughly and publicly study other scenarios for closing less, and alternatives that still achieve transit's purpose if closing early really is necessary.

We'll be doing more actions on this issue as it progresses. If you want to stay up to date on that so you can speak up at the right time, fill out the form below.

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