Metro evaluates its summer performance

Columnist December 10, 2011

Metro’s performance evaluations are a useful tool for riders who want to take a step back from the delayed trains and busted equipment and see if the overall picture is getting better or worse. The quarterly score card attaches numbers to the difficulties riders perceive, and they can measure progress — or the lack of it — over time.

Like many self-evaluations, Metro’s “Vital Signs” reports tend to sound upbeat, even when the score suggests a serious downbeat. Service problems are often blamed on weather that was too bad or tourists who were too numerous.

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. View Archive

Metro’s self-evaluation for the July-September period reads, “July rail car availability was dramatically impacted by record setting hot temperatures resulting in stress and failure of rail car air-conditioning systems.” Mother Nature is the villain, and Metro is the victim.

A rider’s evaluation of the same numbers might read, “Metro bought air conditioners that don’t work when it gets hot and can’t fix them fast enough to keep the trains on schedule.”

This is what Metro said about itself on three services that carry hundreds of thousands of riders each day.

Metrobus

Performance: About three-quarters of the buses were marked “on time.” That was 4 percent worse than Metro’s target but 2 percent better than the comparable period last year. Overall, the results for 2011 have been better than for 2010, the score card said. A bus is considered on time if it reaches its stops no more than two minutes early or seven minutes late.

Performance got a bit better from July to August, despite Hurricane Irene and the earthquake that shook up traffic, but the congestion that throws off bus schedules in other months declines in August, because of summer vacations, so it’s generally a good month for Metrobus.

Traffic picks up again in September, and on-time performance declined, as it often does when vacations end and schools open.

Prospects: The transit authority says it can take further steps to lessen severity of disruptions because of bad weather, such as adjusting routes to avoid flooding and creating more effective detours. Metro also can improve the assignment of staffers to help riders in such situations.

Metro continues to adjust bus schedules and routes to improve performance. The next such round of changes is scheduled for next Sunday. Dozens of changes will occur on routes across the D.C. region.

A few examples: To reduce crowding on Route D6 (Sibley Hospital-Stadium-Armory), a new weekday trip will leave Stadium-Armory at 8 a.m. heading for P and 22nd streets NW. Schedule adjustments on Route 94 (the Stanton Road Line) are intended to reflect the realities of heavy traffic by scheduling the buses every 12 minutes rather than every 11. Schedules for some off-peak trips will be adjusted by a few minutes to make better connections with Green Line trains, the transit authority said.

Metro also is trying to better use of technologies such as NextBus that track bus movements. The program is intended to help bus operators adjust their progress when the buses are getting off schedule.

Metrorail

Performance: About 90 percent of the trains were considered on time during the July-September period, meeting Metro’s target. During peak service, trains that arrive at their stations within two minutes of schedule are considered on time. During off-peak service, trains that miss the scheduled arrival by no more than half the time between trains are considered on time.

The rail fleet’s reliability — measured by the distance rail cars travel between mechanical failures that result in delays of more than three minutes — was 30 percent below Metro’s target and unchanged from the same July-September period in 2010. If there’s a bright side, it was that the reliability improved significantly after July.

Prime sources of failures were the air conditioners, brakes and doors. Metro said the July heat and the high number of tourists riding the trains in the summer contributed to the number of delays and breakdowns. The heat stresses the air conditioners. The tourists — unfamiliar with Metro train operations and rail car features — stress the door operations. New operators who aren’t as skilled as the veterans can stress the brakes.

Over the past year, the on-time performance has varied slightly among the five lines, with the Orange Line doing somewhat better than the others and the Blue Line slightly worse. Some types of rail cars are more reliable than others. The 6000 series, the newest cars, are doing best. These are the only ones with an average reliability rating well above Metro’s target over a year. The 4000 series cars have the poorest record on reliability.

Prospects: The transit authority says it’s working on improving its supervisory techniques to get the trains properly spaced and provided with the required 860 rail cars for peak-period service.

Management has prioritized repairs on the most problematic cars. For example, maintenance crews are working on a special program to overhaul the poorly performing air conditioners on the 5000 series cars so they’re ready for next summer.

Metro also is investigating the door problems, doing additional cleaning of the door systems and adjusting their tolerances to reduce breakdowns.

Many riders ask whether the rail cars now on order will have improved air conditioners and doors. Metro Deputy General Manager Dave Kubicek answered with an enthusiastic yes on both. The air conditioners will be more efficient and much easier to maintain. The doors will be much more robust, and the train operators will be able to diagnose problems much more easily from their cabs.

Escalators

Performance: Escalator availability, measured by the percentage of time that they are in service during operating hours, was 7 percentage points below Metro’s target for the July-September period and 7 percentage points below the same period last year.

A drop in escalator availability in August was attributed to heavy rains that damaged electrical components and high winds that caused power outages. After the Aug. 23 earthquake, escalator staffers had to spend time examining all the equipment for structural damage.

The intensive maintenance program underway throughout 2011 has reduced the availability of escalators. Escalators under repair or halted for use as staircases count against Metro on the availability score card.

Prospects: Seasonal conditions affecting buses, rail cars and escalators come up a lot in Metro’s performance report. During a Metro board committee meeting Dec. 1, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles took note of that. “Our goal, even when it comes to seasonality . . . is to get that smoothed out,” he told the board members. “Smooth those types of variations out.”

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