Metro to set new rail service standards


The new standards for frequency and comfort will apply to service during midday and evenings. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

After taking a bit of a beating from riders on the setting of rush-hour service standards last year, Metro staff will ask the board of directors Thursday to approve standards for off-peak service.

This will be the standard for frequency of trains under normal conditions: At midday, trains are expected to run no more than six minutes apart in the rail system’s core and no more than 12 minutes apart in other segments. At night, Metro expects trains in the core to run no more than 15 minutes apart and no more than 20 minutes apart in other areas.

This will be the standard on capacity at off-peak times: Metro will desire a minimum of 80 riders per car and a maximum of 120. The optimum would be 100 people per car in the parts of the system where ridership is heaviest.

The latest round of standard-setting was presented to a board committee two weeks ago, and has not generated as much controversy as last year’s round.

In neither case did the proposed standards actually change the times for trains or the conditions aboard the cars. The standards are a policy initiative by Metro. For example, one of the strategic goals adopted by the board is to “Meet or exceed customer
expectations by consistently delivering quality service.” The setting of standards at least provides a way of defining “quality service.” It also provides a basis for meeting federal rules barring discrimination in service.

But the proposals for peak service standards were confusing to riders, with some expecting that their adoption would decrease the level of service. Also, the debate over the peak standards came as Metro was introducing Rush Plus service, which actually did decrease the frequency of rush hour trains on the Blue Line. So the peak standards debate provided a focal point for riders’ anger.

A year later, those elements are missing from the discussion of the off-peak standards, but I do have several concerns.

Metro gives itself a couple of exemptions. The service frequency standards do not apply to what Metro calls the “shoulder” periods, the times of day when trains are being added and subtracted to adjust to changing ridership. Also note that the standards apply to “normal” operations, defined as periods when their are no scheduled disruptions or special events.

Also, Metro has no way of recording how crowded the train cars are at off-peak times. So managers can tell how frequent the service is, but not how comfortable. Metro is looking into automated systems of passenger counting that do not require the deployment of staff to do the counting, something performed only at rush hours now.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Robert Thomson · July 22, 2013