The Red Line experience: another day, another delay

December 12, 2013

Riders await a Red Line train at Gallery Place-Chinatown station in this file photo. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

The argument I made in a recent column that the Red Line isn’t really cursed would have been a tough sell on the crowded platforms Thursday morning, as many trains were delayed during the morning rush. So I went back again to look at Metrorail’s service reports, selecting the most recent full week, Dec. 2-6.

Once again, I found the badness spread among all five lines, but the Red Line, the most heavily traveled, had by far the most disruptions. Here’s the raw count, then I’ll describe what’s being counted.

  • Red Line: 21 incidents.
  • Orange Line: 11 incidents.
  • Green Line: Nine incidents.
  • Yellow Line: Eight incidents.
  • Blue Line: Six incidents.

 

On the week’s worth of daily service reports, Metro lists disruptions that include rail car equipment or track problems that forced trains out of service or caused lengthy delays. Also listed are incidents in which trains skipped stations to close the gap with the train ahead and get back on schedule. This is an inconvenience for passengers if it’s their stop being skipped, and it also indicates a schedule problem on the line.

Metro identified problems with train doors as the cause of delays or offloadings in five cases. Eight offloadings or delays were attributed to brake problems. Seven incidents were attributed to signal problems.

Brakes, doors and signals were the problems cited most often. Three times, trains were delayed because of sick passengers. Ten times, trains skipped stations to adjust the schedule.

The longest delay listed during the first week of December occurred during the Wednesday morning rush. Yellow and Blue Line trains outside King Street were delayed by a switch problem. Several trains were offloaded and turned back to adjust the schedule. Metro reported that riders experienced delays of up to half an hour.

Other significant incidents included a 27-minute delay on the Yellow Line because of a signal problem during the Tuesday morning rush, and a 21-minute delay, also on the Yellow Line, because of a brake problem during the Friday morning rush. No delay is minor if it’s the delay you are experiencing, but many of those listed were under 10 minutes.

Many riders question Metro’s accounting of delay times. In fact, it’s difficult to calculate the impact of some of these incidents, which may initially affect one train, but can delay riders all along the line for varying periods. Even when the train schedule returns to normal, riders may find they must wait for several crowded trains to pass before they can squeeze aboard.

Five of the incidents attributed to brake problems occurred on the Red Line, along with four of the door problems. The Yellow Line topped the list of signal problems with three. The Red Line had two.

The Red and Orange lines tied at four on reported incidents of station skipping.

Nineteen of the listed disruptions occurred during the morning peak, and 23 during the afternoon peak. The rest were at midday or at night.

Metro officials have commented frequently on such incidents and delays. When I was at Metro headquarters last week, I noticed the samples of decaying wood and corroding steel, used by former deputy general manager Dave Kubicek to demonstrate the impact of delayed maintenance, are still sitting near the Metro Board room, several years after Kubicek displayed them.

Metro management’s response to rider complaints about breakdowns and delays goes like this: We know the equipment is in poor shape. That’s why we’re putting you through the scheduled delays and disruptions that are part of our $5.5 billion rebuilding program, which will continue at the current aggressive pace into 2017. If we didn’t know it was busted, we wouldn’t be spending so much so fast to fix it.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said that despite the bad November for Red Line riders, the transit system “had a very good year.” Two years into the big rebuilding program, the general manager looks at service through the lends of Metro’s quarterly Vital Signs scorecards.

In the July through September quarter, the latest to appear on Vital Signs, Metrorail’s weekday on-time performance improved to 92.2 percent. For the fifth quarter in a row, that was above Metro’s target for itself. Performance was better on all five lines, compared with the same quarter last year.

Riders don’t experience transit as a quarterly report. For many of them, it’s more like the most recent Daily Service Reports — just one bad experience after another.

While Dana Hedgpeth was reporting on the two Red Line incidents that caused Thursday morning delays, we saw many blog comments like this one from AgentSunshine: “In other news, the sun is rising.”

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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Lori Aratani | December 12, 2013