Metro report to show service improvements


Riders don’t always see their own experience in Metro’s statistics. (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)

Metro’s latest report card on itself addresses a concern many riders have with these quarterly performance overviews: Your experience may vary.

The report is not designed to measure the experience of individual customers using Metro’s services, according to the document prepared for presentation to the Metro board’s customer service committee on Thursday. “Instead, the Vital Signs Report communicates if the Metro system’s performance is improving, worsening or remaining steady.”

Rather, the analysis addresses two major questions: Why did overall performance change and what actions are being taken to improve performance?

The quarterly reports instituted in 2010 under General Manager Richard Sarles are a form of accountability for the managers of Metrorail, Metrobus and MetroAccess, but they’re not the form of accountability that customers relate to. For example, Metrorail riders who have endured weeks of erratic performance on the Red Line are going to look at the stats for rail system reliability and wonder what transit system is being measured. (See the Vital Signs report as a pdf.)

Besides taking a really big-picture look at Metro, the performance summaries go quarter by quarter, so this latest report accounts for July through September, comparing them with the same period in 2012.

Five of 10 measures improved compared with the same period last year: Bus on-time performance was at 80.5 percent; bus fleet reliability was at 7,915 miles between failures; rail on-time performance was at 92.2 percent; rail car reliability was at 63,576 miles between delays; and escalator availability was at 93.1 percent.

These are fine measures for presentation to congressional committees or local legislatures, but they don’t go over so well with commuters seething because what’s normally a 30-minute trip took an hour and a half. The trouble with the big-picture statistics is that a train is a train, whether it’s serving Arlington Cemetery station at 11 p.m. on a Sunday or Metro Center at 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. And an escalator is an escalator, whether it’s a shortish mezzanine-to-platform ride or the long trip from mezzanine to street at Bethesda.

The report attributes the improved performance of Metrorail to better training of new operators, more reliable rail cars and infrastructure and better management of train spacing, especially during rush hours.

The writing style in the presentations is relentlessly upbeat: “The rail car fleet has now consistently exceeded expectations since the same period last year.”

Door problems, a major issue with rail car reliability, had less impact than in the past. The amount of time trains were delayed because of mechanical problems declined more than 45 percent from the 2012 quarter to the 2013 quarter.

Riders, however, tend to take things day by day, rather than quarterly. The Metrorail service report for last Wednesday, Thanksgiving eve, shows that:

  • At 6:13 a.m. a Yellow Line train at Columbia Heights experienced a brake problem.
  • At 8:31 a.m., a Red Line train was offloaded at Takoma because of a brake problem.
  • At 9:08 a.m., a Green Line was off loaded at Suitland because of a door problem.
  • At 2:15 p.m. a Red Line train experienced a door problem.
  • At 3:35 p.m., a Red Line train was offloaded at Judiciary Square because of a brake problem.
  • At 4:04 p.m., a Yellow Line train was offloaded at Mount Vernon Square because of a door problem.
  • At 4:25 p.m., a Red Line train was offloaded at Metro Center because of a brake problem.

Hundreds of other trips were successfully completed on Wednesday without door or brake problems. They all will blend together in the next quarterly report as the overall statistics are calculated. But thousands of riders who got less reliable service than they thought they were paying for last Wednesday or on the many other days with similar service reports will be keeping their own scorecards.

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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 · December 3, 2013