Riders see Metro’s proposed minimum standards as a threat to service

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 21, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the new 15-minute peak and 30-minute off-peak on-time standards mean that Metro isn’t going to be announcing any delays up to those limits, right?

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

So, now, when we hear of a delay, that time is tacked onto the “on-time” limits, because there’s no delay when you’re on time, right?

So, now, when they actually bother to announce a 20-minute “minor delay,” it’ll mean we should expect waits of up to 35 minutes during rush hour and 50 minutes on the weekend, right?

Nuts to that. This just makes Metro even more unpredictable and unreliable.

— Rebecca Johnson,

College Park

The transit authority staff and Metro board members may not mean the proposal to set a minimum standard on train service as a precursor to an actual change in the train schedules or to on-time performance measures, but they should pay close attention to riders’ perceptions.

Johnson is far from alone in seeing Metro’s effort to set minimum operating standards as a threat to service, even though it does not change current train schedules. If the full Metro board adopts the proposed standard at its meeting on Thursday, it will not mean that a rider standing on the Court House platform will have to wait 15 minutes for an Orange Line train at rush hour. What the rider sees on the platform’s next train arrival sign won’t change after board action.

What I find most disturbing is the way the transit staff and board members handled the presentation of the proposed standard. It bothers me for what it shows about Metro’s relationship with its riders.

The original resolution that the staff presented July 12 for approval by the board’s customer-service committee said, in part: “Resolved, that the Board of Directors approves headway [the gap between trains] as a Metrorail service criterion, and sets thresholds such that during peak periods, trains on all lines shall be scheduled to depart from terminal stations no more than 15 minutes apart and during non-peak periods, trains on all lines shall be scheduled to depart from terminal stations no more than 30 minutes apart.”

Now, the riders know that Metro’s aging equipment is breaking down, causing delays. They know that Metro is in the midst of a rebuilding program , causing further delays. They know that last year, the board and management agreed to lower the goals for on-time performance. They know that many Blue Line riders refer to the Rush Plus service as “Rush Minus,” because it created a 12-minute gap between some Blue Line trains at peak periods.

They also know that many of them began paying more for these rides on July 1.

So, if you’re on the Metro management team or board, and you get asked to choose among walking over hot coals, juggling poisonous snakes, rolling naked in a cactus bed or telling your customers you can tolerate a gap of 15 minutes between rush hour trains, you should pick from the first three.

Instead, the staff and board plowed through a rather low-key review of the proposed standard. The review of the standard for a train ride lacked the level of attention that some board members lavished on proposals to change station names.

The discussion did include staff assertions that the standard is meant to protect riders rather than cut service and that the actual, scheduled gaps between trains are much lower.

Some board members expressed concern about the resolution’s language. They adopted board member Mortimer L. Downey’s modification, saying that those upper time limits would apply to unusual circumstances.

Board members said they needed to be sensitive to the message they were sending to Metro’s customers. Then they approved the resolution.

Something’s still missing: something about ensuring that riding Metro will be a positive experience.

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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