With service disruptions common and a fare increase under review, Metro’s performance was the top issue during my online chat today . Many riders had specific complaints, but here’s a big-picture question I didn’t get a chance to address.
Metro: Noting everything you know now about the Metrorail system, when if ever do you think most people will feel that a good level of service has been established? Or is the two-track system and escalator design an inherent flaw that will never be overcome?
DG: I expect that over the next decade, the D.C. region’s transit system will go through what the New York City subway went through in the 1970s and 1980s. A period of sharp decline will be followed by gradual renewal and improvement.
I don’t expect I’ll ever see a Dear Dr. Gridlock letter from a rider saying: “It's fixed. Everything’s okay now.”
Metro officials have not identified any point in the next few years when they'd be likely to declare victory. Rather, says Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, the riders will see a gradual improvement. Metrorail rides will become smoother and more reliable, because of upgrades to the track system and train equipment.
And that's the boss, giving what’s probably the most optimistic outlook you’re going to hear. But even Sarles doesn’t suggest there’s a date when riders will say they are satisfied.
In any given Metro trip, a rider can experience two inconveniences: things that are busted, and things that are getting fixed. They’re not depressed about the former and upbeat about the latter. It’s all the same to them — and quite understandably so.
A cracked rail is a disruption. And a station shutdown to maintain track equipment is a disruption.
See how that came up in another question from a rider.
Shuttles From Rosslyn: I have to head into the District from Rosslyn to Foggy Bottom on Saturday evening for a basketball game. How efficient are the Metro shuttles that are put in place when a station is closed?
DG: The free shuttle buses that bridge the gaps created when Metro splits a line for weekend maintenance are pretty efficient. Metro has plenty of time to plan the bus bridges and gather sufficient resources.
It’s still a delay, and it means that riders have to get off a train, get to street level, wait in whatever the weather is to board the bus, then get dropped off on the street near another station.
It’s possible a rider gets off the bus thinking, I’m okay with that as long as they get the rail fasteners fixed.
What service provider expects its customers to react like that when they don’t get the full service they think they paid for?
To illustrate, let me share another question from a rider.
Free or Reduced Metro Rides: I’m a big Metro supporter, and I actually look forward to my ride each morning and afternoon on the Orange Line so that I can prepare for work and decompress on my way home. Most days, Metro works just fine and I’m content.
However, on those days that there are inconveniences, like being offloaded from a train because the doors won’t close, or nightmares, like. a crack in the rail requiring shuttle busing around the problem, I just feel like Metro lacks in customer service.
Certainly, Metro never seems to take any steps to make amends for their issues. My suggestion? I think we should be entitled to a free or discounted ride (based on the issue).
When I get off the train at Vienna after I’ve lost 15-20 minutes because I was offloaded, why should I have to pay for that train ride? I wasn’t really offered the promised service.
Sure, it got me to where I had to go, but why should I reward them by paying full price? Certainly, if I was in a cab and a door flew off, I don’t think I’d have to pay for that ride. I know this is just pie-in-the-sky thinking, because there’s probably no way that Metro could make sure that only those affected by a service problem would get a free or reduced ride, but I think it’s something worth considering.
DG: Metro service will get better, but that means fewer rails will crack, not that we’ll reach a day when no rails break.
Weekend shutdowns of stations for maintenance may gradually decline, but it’s not a technique Metro officials will abandon. Meanwhile, single-tracking for maintenance will continue.
Metro has many repair programs going at once. It’s replacing rail switches. It’s replacing track circuits. It’s rehabilitating the stations and equipment along the Red Line, and preparing similar programs for the other lines.
For any given rider, contact with all this work will vary in intensity over coming years, but it’s unlikely to become avoidable.
Meanwhile, Sarles has decided that it’s a losing battle to rehabilitate many of the problem-plagued escalators, so Metro now plans to replace scores of them. But that plan is part of the capital budget program through fiscal 2018. As riders who use the south entrance to Dupont Circle know, it can take more than half a year to replace escalators.
And it’s not like escalators won’t continue to break down.
So as the first questioner asked, is this the product of inherent flaws in the system’s design? Two-track systems aren’t rare. Neither are systems that open early and stay open till midnight. Metro is more dependent on escalators than most other transit systems, but that’s been a known element for four decades.
When your environment creates a problem, then, over time, you either change the environment or adjust to the environment.
Metro hasn’t made all the adjustments it needs to make to satisfy its customers.