Red Line isn’t really cursed: Riders on other lines also share the pain of Metro disruptions

Columnist

Some Red Line riders have been suggesting that they are cursed among travelers. Indeed, the recent meltdowns on Metro’s most heavily traveled rail line have been spectacular .

But a review of Metro’s daily service reports for November shows that most riders get to share the pain at some point.

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

Nov. 13 is a good example, because it stood out even among the string of bad days for the Red Line. Here’s a summary of that day’s Metrorail report.

6:22 a.m. A Green Line train at West Hyattsville was delayed because of a door problem.

7:10 a.m. A Red Line train operator at Woodley Park saw a low-hanging cable in the tunnel. Trains shared a track between Van Ness and Dupont Circle. Some were off-loaded and turned back.

7:27 a.m. A Yellow Line train was off-loaded because of an equipment problem.

7:49 a.m. A Red Line train was off-loaded because of a brake problem.

8:23 a.m. A Green Line train was off-loaded because of a door problem.

10:51 a.m. An Orange Line train was delayed because of a track problem.

12:06 p.m. A Yellow Line train was delayed because of a brake problem.

12:37 p.m. An Orange Line train was off-loaded because of a track problem.

1:45 p.m. A Blue Line train was off-loaded because of a brake problem.

2:27 p.m. An Orange Line train was off-loaded because of a brake problem.

3:50 p.m. A Blue Line train was off-loaded because of a door problem.

3:54 p.m. A Red Line train was off-loaded because of an equipment problem.

4:11 p.m. A Red Line train was off-loaded due to a brake problem.

4:51 p.m. A Green Line train was off-loaded because of a brake problem.

The cable problem on the Red Line was the day’s crowning event. Most of the other delays were very short by comparison. But the other problems listed on the service report suggest that Metro doesn’t have a favorite color.

Confusion and skepticism about Metro’s long-term rebuilding program, now more than two years old, is not confined to Red Line riders.

These daily customers ask a very legitimate question: Shouldn’t things be better by now? Metro officials respond that things are better, and they point to overall performance statistics or cite the number of track fasteners replaced.

I’m not dismissing that. I think they really have made progress. Some stations have better lighting, platforms have been repaired so people aren’t stepping on chunks of torn-up terra cotta, many signs have been improved, that nasty ceiling at Farragut North looks a lot better.

The overall score card that the trains authority keeps on itself shows improvement in the on-time performance of all five lines. The report comparing April through June 2013 with the same period in 2012 found there were 42 percent fewer train delays, because there were fewer incidents of all kinds, including rail car problems, track troubles and operational issues.

The overall on-time performance for the rail system was measured at 91.9 percent, which Metro officials say is the cumulative effect of all those rail fasteners, track bed improvements and other aspects of the rebuilding program.

Riders don’t experience overall performance, and they don’t experience a percentage. Their perceptions of the rail system more closely match the daily service reports.

A review of Metro’s reports for Nov. 18 to 22 shows that the number of daily delays and train off-loadings ranged from seven to 14, spread over all five lines. Headliner problems, such as the delays of 90 minutes for some of those Red Line commuters on Nov. 13, are rare.

But the little ones add up, day after day, for riders who are being told to hang in there, because there’s a plan.

The rebuilding strategy launched in 2011 is just that: a strategy. The path we’re on — a $5.5 billion program to replace and upgrade infrastructure that will remain intensive into 2017 — wasn’t the only possible approach to the transit system’s deficiencies.

Maybe it was the best course, or at least the most practical way of maintaining service while still doing the rebuilding. But how would riders judge that based on their daily experiences?

The quarterly score cards introduced under General Manager Richard Sarles were a good step. But sometimes the broad measurements seem of greatest value as shields for Metro officials to deploy against the anger that flares during the worst delays.

When today’s riders determine they can’t relate to such grand, long-range views, they channel Charlie Brown: “Tell your statistics to shut up.”

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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