Over the Memorial Day weekend, Metro plans to close three stations on the Green Line, so workers can install a new switch recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Service disruptions of this magnitude used to be rare. A couple of years ago, Metro would have scheduled a news conference a week ahead to detail the plan and to explain how riders could deal with such an unusual event.
Now, such events are routine. After this weekend, there will be 25 more during 2012 in which buses replace trains on some line segments. And those are just the disruptions considered major because they split lines. On most weekends, Metro also will set up work zones that require trains to share a single track to get around them.
It’s the new normal.
The transit authority told us this would happen last year, when it announced its more aggressive approach to the repair program. And Metro told us why it would pursue this strategy: Lack of investment in the transit infrastructure had led to alarming deterioration, and it would take a massive — and disruptive — repair program to bring it back.
But Metro officials don’t say when it will be back. In fact, they say that the required repairs will continue for the foreseeable future.
To lessen the disruption by slowing the repairs would be to deliberately delay the time when the rail system will be safe and reliable, they say. But they can’t tell us when we’ll reach that point.
So a rider who knows those things knows that for two days out of seven for the foreseeable future, the rail system will be deliberately disrupted. And sometimes it also will be unintentionally disrupted, because equipment fails.
If a car dealer told a prospective customer that the engine wasn’t particularly reliable, the air conditioner might not work when it was hot outside, and the brakes could smell like dead rats if pressed too hard, would the customer be likely to buy that product?
During my online chat Monday, I asked travelers why hundreds of thousands of them continue to ride on weekends.
They’re paying for an inferior product. Even Metro said so. But they still pay for it.
Metro’s most recent quarterly report said this about rail ridership: In this fiscal year, it’s 1 percent above last year. “Weekend ridership in March [the most recent month in the quarterly report] was strong at 620,000 trips, greater than it had been since last fall and above FY2011.”
Some people say they have to ride. During the chat, one commenter wrote:
“Why ride Metro on the weekends? Are you serious? I don’t have a car. I am disabled and cannot walk far. I am disabled and have limited funds. What choices do you think I have?”
Many people say they have to ride. Some have disabilities, but many others say they have to get to work, or made decisions about their lifestyles based on access to transit.
This comment, published during the chat, talked about people’s decision-making about housing and transportation.
“Why ride?: D.C. has seen such a renaissance in the 20 years I have lived here, and a huge factor has been the flourishing neighborhoods that have developed around the Metro stops. People literally purchase houses and pay higher rents because living near the Metro means they don’t need to have a car or deal with horrific traffic.
“That is how it should work, and hundreds of thousands of people have made decisions about where they live and play based on the Metro. And, now things have fallen apart, and it galls people. So, people feel like they are paying for the right to public transportation in all sorts of ways and it is really psychologically difficult to say screw it and not take advantage of what they have bargained for.”
That’s a good answer. It reflects the rational decision-making of individuals, and also of the D.C. region’s planners. Still, there’s no getting around the commenter’s statement of the new reality: “Now things have fallen apart, and it galls people.”
Here are a few Twitter messages I saw over this past weekend from riders who experienced planned and unplanned delays:
* “I’m pretty sure Godot will arrive before the next wmata train.”
* From a baseball fan: “Worst #wmata #metro experience ever. Green line packed. Red Line single tracking. Game trains to mtvernon only.”
* “4 trains designated “No Passengers” and not a single Green Line train in 30 minutes.”
* “Being held captive at Farragut West in a rail car with malfunctioning doors. 15 mins so far.”
That’s a lot of gall riding around on steel wheels during weekends. Some of them must be on those trains because they feel they have no choice. But knowing what we know about the weekend service, should the no-choice category account for an average of about 600,000 trips?
There’s another element in our pattern of behavior that was identified in a rider’s comment that I didn’t get a chance to publish during the chat.
“Riding Metro: You ask why people ride Metro, even on weekends when delays are at the peak? It’s because authorities tell us to. From the sports teams to the museums to the radio, TV and newspaper outlets. Every major attraction downtown says “Ride Metro” at the top of it’s directions Web page, and for just about every major event, the news outlets all say to ride Metro.
“There are even variable signs on the highway if you are considering driving downtown that make you think twice as you read ‘Ride Metro’ on every single sign on the weekends during major events.”
There was a time — not that long ago — when those take-transit advisories on weekends made a lot of sense. Now, not so much.
I’m not calling for a mass exodus from Metrorail on weekends. Many say they simply have no choice but to endure this. But I think riders with a choice should consider those choices and not act simply out of habit.
Many people haven’t explored the locations for nearby bus stops, or car-sharing stations or Capital Bikeshare stands. Some simply don’t realize the time they could save by walking to avoid having to transfer from one weekend Metro train to another. The D.C. Circulator buses, scheduled to arrive every 10 minutes, offer another option. What others should be considered?