Metro runs shorter trains as ridership drops


A mostly empty Blue Line Metro car arrives at the Capitol South metro station on Tuesday. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

Metro said Wednesday that it will run shorter trains as ridership during the morning commute dropped 22 percent on the first full day of the federal government shutdown.

The transit agency said it will run only six-car trains instead of a mix of six- and eight-car trains on the rail system. Each rail car can carry roughly 120 passengers, so riders typically favor trains with more cars.

As of 10 a.m. Wednesday — five hours after Metro opened — there were about 212,000 riders on the rail system. That’s compared to 270,000 riders during the same time frame last Wednesday.

“For the first five hours of service, we were missing 58,000 rides,” said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.

To get your brain around that, it’s the equivalent of roughly 60 empty trains.

They planned for months and travelled far and wide to visit Washington, D.C., but tourists have been greeted by the government shutdown, which means closed museums and sites. The Post's Zoeann Murphy talks to some of them on the National Mall. (The Washington Post)

“We’re right-sizing capacity for the lower ridership we’re experiencing,” Stessel said. “Eight-car trains are simply not necessary.”

Metro’s ridership was down between 20 and 25 percent during the Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning rush hours, he said. Roughly 750,000 rider trips a day are taken on Metro— 200,000 of them during the rush hour. Of the rush hour riders, roughly 40 percent of them are federal workers.

Stessel said Metro will not save money on its labor costs in cutting back the number of rail cars it uses, but it expects to save money on “preventative maintenance” of the equipment. He said it also helps to lower the agency’s electrical costs because six-car trains use 25 percent less electricity than eight-car trains.

But shorter trains were not welcome news for many riders who complain that Metro’s trains are too crowded. The Orange Line, for example, is often so crowded during rush hours that regular riders have dubbed it “Orange Crush.”

On Twitter Wednesday, riders asked why Metro would continue to charge full fares when they were running shorter trains. One poster who goes by the moniker MeenaMariam wrote “Because the extra two cars have been furloughed?” as news of two fewer rail cars on a train spread.

The early morning numbers for Metro showed just how many riders stayed off the system.

At Virginia Railway Express, which typically carries 19,400 riders a day into the region, officials said they did not have ridership figures for Wednesday morning’s commute, but their parking lots still looked “relatively full,” according to a spokesman. VRE’s ridership Tuesday was down about 5 percent.

About 65 percent of VRE’s riders are federal workers so officials said they figured that the bulk of those who ride their system may be essential workers who are still expected to come into their offices.

They also believe that because of the base realignment efforts of the Pentagon, many more of their riders have relocated to areas that aren’t transit accessible but “have been backfilled with other contract workers or those in the private sector,” said Mark Roeber, an agency spokesman.

Signs that ridership was down were easy to spot on Metro trains, as some were near empty during the morning rush.

Some early bird Metro commuters used social media to describe eerily quiet stations and trains. One tweet from a poster who goes by the moniker “Lance Uppercut” showed an empty train with the headline - “Furlough train.” Another poster,@MDScot, wrote: “Ghost train/ snow day feel to the Metro this morning.”

Metro is a quasi-public entity that receives some federal money but is mostly funded by the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Stessel said the “longer [the shutdown] goes, the more pressure it puts on the budget.”

By 8 a.m., the platforms at one of Metro’s busiest stations — Metro Center — were bustling but not as packed as usual, riders said. Trains still had empty seats — usually a rare commodity during rush hour. Riders posted on social media outlets that MARC services appeared to be operating normally. MARC officials said they did not immediately have ridership figures available.

On Metro, some riders said they enjoyed the lighter-than-usual commute, others said it was frustrating to know that the empty seats were because other workers were furloughed — not working, and not getting paid.

“It’s sad because people have to pay their bills. They have mortgages to pay,” said Tanya Wilson, a federal contractor as she waited for an Orange Line train at L’Enfant Plaza.

Rail lines weren’t the only ones that had fewer riders. Linda Cahaelen of the District’s Glover Park neighborhood was surprised to find her Metrobus to Dupont Circle carrying only three passengers.

“It’s usually packed by the third stop! Even our bus driver said she couldn’t believe it,” said Cahaelen, a federal worker who boarded a Red Line train to Metro Center after getting off the bus. “Even on this train I found an empty seat today. That never happens.”

“It’s a nice commute. But the thing is, you know why it’s like that, and it’s not just a light day,” said Cahaelen, whose agency, while currently still funded, could shut down in a few days. “It’s sad. It’s a very terrible situation.”

Traffic volume on Washington-area roads was “a little lighter,” said Valerie Weeks, an operator for the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination (MATOC) program, a regional traffic monitoring system based in College Park.

Weeks said she noticed the biggest impact in the HOV lanes and at key choke points inside the Capital Beltway, such as the inbound 14th Street bridge. By 8 a.m., those areas were green on her computerized maps — representing free-flowing traffic — rather than the usual red, which signified a 25 mph or less crawl.

Even so, many motorists faced the same old back-ups in a region where a minor fender bender can quickly trigger snarled traffic. Motorists on eastbound Interstate 66 lost a lane between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. to an incident, Weeks said. Those on northbound Interstate 395 in Virginia lost time to rubber-necking at an overturned vehicle in the southbound lanes near Duke Street.

Weeks said it will take longer than a day to determine how much impact the shutdown will have on the region’s rush hours. Analysts need about a week, she said, to establish a trend and make comparisons to historical data.

A portion of Beach Drive in upper Northwest Washington, which is normally administered by the U.S. Park Police, is closed because of the shutdown. The road is off-limits to traffic between Wise and Broad Branch roads, which is lined with a stretch of picnic areas and restrooms.

Luz Lazo contributed to this report.

I'm a Washington Post reporter, working an early morning shift that deals with crime, lottery winners, traffic, you name it.
Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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