Metro riders will wait a long time for some fixes


Metro’s next budget will include money for the first full year of Silver Line operations. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles referred several times to “Metro 2025” when addressing travelers’ questions during our Feb. 3 online discussion, and this proved disheartening to some who saw the responses. They don’t want to wait a decade to see today’s problems solved.

Here’s one exchange from the chat that should illustrate what discouraged those riders bothered by train delays and crowding.

Q. Eight-car trains
“Why aren’t all of the Orange and Blue trains in rush hour eight-car? Often in Rosslyn you have to wait for two-three trains to go by before you can get on in the morning. It’s going to get worse when the Silver Line starts and Orange Line service is cut.”

A. Richard Sarles:
“We would like to operate all eight-car trains during rush hour, and that’s the goal we’ve set for ourselves under the Metro 2025 plan. It requires more than just additional train cars, but also upgrades to the power system and additional storage space and maintenance facilities. Funding is key to advance this project. More info is available at wmata.com/momentum.”

Metro board members and top managers are focused right now on getting the goverments that support the transit system to commit to supporting the long-range plan known as Metro 2025. On Wednesday, Sarles, Shyam Kannan, Metro’s planning chief, and Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille, a Metro board member, will discuss this program at a meeting of the regional Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board. They hope to win support from the board in their efforts to gain federal funding for part of Metro 2025.

Sarles is on a mission, and his answer during the chat reflected this. He’s taking a lot of heat from riders because of the disruptions incurred during the rebuilding program, as well as the disruptions caused by train breakdowns and equipment failures. He thinks the aggressive rebuilding program will show dividends for riders by the time it eases up in 2017, but he doesn’t want to see that followed by a new period of decline. Hence his focus on this plan for 2025, which as he said in his answer during the chat is supposed to bring us all eight-car trains at rush hours, among other things.

He could have addressed the rider’s question in several other ways, as he and his top officials have in the past. They don’t have enough rail cars to create all-eight-car trains on the Blue and Orange lines, or any other lines, today. Metro has plans to buy more than 500 new rail cars. But riders won’t begin to enjoy them till next year. And the new cars coming in are meant to accommodate the demands of the new Silver Line and to replace parts of today’s aging fleet.

They won’t make much of a dent in today’s crowding, though they are likely to have fewer door and brakebreak problems, which would keep more trains in service.

He might also have told the Rosslyn rider that the start of the Silver Line this year won’t decrease the number of trains coming through that station. The Rush Plus trains on the Orange Line will be eliminated. But the new Silver Line trains will join the Orange Line tracks at East Falls Church. So the number of trains reach the Rosslyn platform at peak periods should be the same as today. That particular rider won’t be better off, but won’t take a hit either. Off-peak riders between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory will find they have more trains, because of the Silver Line’s addition.

Now, I don’t mean this as, “Everything’s going to be okay.” Far from it. The most obvious concern with the Silver Line is that Blue Line service will be further reduced, to the point where even rush hour trains are 12 minutes apart.

Yes, the 2025 plan contains lots of promises. Besides eight-car trains at rush hour, there’s completion of a rapid-bus service network along 24 corridors, pedestrian tunnels to create new rail-transfer options downtown, new switches and side tracks to add flexibility in train movement, and more rail service between the Pentagon and Rosslyn, which would help those Blue Line riders.

But the 2025 plan is financially ambitious. It requires a big, long-term commitment from the governments. It’s possible the transit authority will get only part of what it’s asking for. If so, the top priority would be those eight-car trains, and other forms of relief could be further delayed.

And meanwhile, what of today’s riders? The fare hikes that the Metro board is likely to approve in March are to run the trains, buses and paratransit vehicles for the next fiscal year, not to buy those goodies in the long-range plan. They can expect some gradual improvements, but not the kind of dramatic leap forward that many would wish. They’ll see better lighting in the underground stations over the next year and carpets in the newer rail cars will be replaced with hard, easier to clean flooring over the next two years.

In the next year, 12 stations will get a full rehabilitation and another dozen will get spruced up; Metro will replace, rather than repair, 14 escalators; it will replace 100 buses and rehab 100 others; and it will replace 150 of the MetroAccess vehicles for the paratransit service. This is in addition to extending the rail system by 11 miles with the Silver Line and receiving the initial order of the new rail cars, the 7000 series.

These are all good things, but riders will notice them only gradually, if they notice at all amid the train delays, crowding, garbled announcements and out of service escalators.

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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