Metro staff and riders will have plenty of chances to refine weekend practices

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Does Metro have any plans to increase the frequency of service on Saturdays and Sundays? As it stands, taking Metro on weekends is just not reliable and takes too long.

— Tim Curley, Alexandria

DG: Don’t look for a significant change in the pace of the weekend work and the associated disruptions before 2017.

When I say that to riders, it’s like telling them that someday the universe will cease to expand. For the average Washingtonian, one event seems as remote as the other.

I think some Metro board members sense that, too, because they also hear about this from riders.

At the transit authority’s June 13 meetings, board member Terry Bellamy, who represents the District, noted that riders are asking, “Can you get the pain over quicker?” But Deputy General Manager Rob Troup was reluctant to say we would need only so-and-so many weekend shutdowns of stations.

Here’s how one rider looks at that issue, and I know this letter channels the thoughts of many others.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I chose to ride Metro to a monthly function on a Saturday. It will be the final time. Back to driving I go. I spent 70 minutes in delays between Bethesda and Rockville, and this is completely unacceptable.

The Route 47 Ride On bus can make it to Rockville faster. Not one, not two, but three trains terminating at Grosvenor passed through the station before I could get a train to Shady Grove, and it was overloaded.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles can’t be serious. He says he wants to repair the system, yet shuts down stations or single-tracks trains only on weekends. Why? This is ludicrous. Shut the Red Line down in segments and get the work done, seven days a week.

Quit wasting time and money moving equipment down from Shady Grove every Friday night, then moving it back every Sunday evening. Single-tracking is dangerous for the workers at all times and should be ended except in emergencies.

If Chicago can close down several stops of one line for needed track and station work for five months, so can Metro. Close it down and fix it!

— Mitford Mathews, Rockville

DG: Sarles said in 2011, when he launched the aggressive track work program, that shutting down lines was the last thing he would want to do, because of the huge effect on riders and the regional economy.

Troup contrasted Metro’s five-line system with those in other big urban areas, some of which have parallel lines. In such an environment, he said, it would be reasonable to shut a line and direct riders to a nearby alternative. “We can’t do that,” he said. Much as the track work planners would love to have unfettered access to a line, the consequences on the outside world would be severe.

Some riders might recall that as the major rebuilding program got underway, Metro managers asked whether they could cut back the late-night service on weekends to give workers a few more hours of uninterrupted access to the tracks and stations.

The idea upset business and civic leaders, and it was rejected by the Metro board.

It isn’t just Sarles holding the line against more extensive shutdowns.

However, the board members have been asking more questions related to the rebuilding strategy and its effect on today’s riders. Mortimer L. Downey, a federal representative, and Tom Downs, the board chairman and a D.C. representative, suggested that Metro management develop new ways to explain what people are getting out of these seemingly endless disruptions.

Mary H. Hynes, a Virginia representative, focused on making the weekend disruptions a bit less painful. She asked managers to examine whether it would make sense in some circumstances when train stations are shut to have the shuttle-bus routes extend to the end of the line, reducing the rail-bus-rail transfers for riders.

Sarles said he understood the potential value to riders and would look into it.

The transit staff is evaluating the idea to determine the feasibility and the potential cost, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

“Doing so would require more buses, more operators, more overtime, more expense,” he noted, “but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing under the right circumstances.”

Meanwhile, Metro continues to make adjustments in the weekend program, both in the actual operations and in the communications about the operations.

The transit authority now routinely operates express and local shuttle-bus services, which can save 10 to 15 minutes for riders who need to bridge the entire gap between the working parts of a rail line.

On Friday afternoons and evenings, Stessel said, Metro is using the electronic screens at the kiosks in stations that are affected by maintenance shutdowns to advise riders that the stations close at 10 p.m. This is likely to help some riders who are heading to a night game at Nationals Park and need to know that their return trip will include a bus ride.

Also, train operators now have a scripted announcement they can read to riders Friday afternoons to advise them of shutdowns that start at 10 p.m.

Metro also is looking at the possibility of placing big signs at the entrances to parking lots and garages to advise people about the start of track work, and to give them the option of driving to another station, where the train service wouldn’t be disrupted.

For example, if buses were replacing trains between Shady Grove and Twinbrook, the signs at Shady Grove and Rockville would suggest that people consider driving to Twinbrook for an uninterrupted train ride.

I applaud all these steps — anything to make a weekend ride a little easier — but they do involve many moving parts, with many chances to give and get confusing information.

It certainly looks as though transit employees and riders will get plenty of chances to practice.

 
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