Weekend Metro riders say trains too few, too far between, but plenty crowded

Robert Thomson
Columnist June 14

A frequent contributor to the column erupted when he saw one of my weekly reports on Metro’s weekend service cutbacks.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

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

You warned us that the Orange Line would operate every 24 minutes on Saturday and Sunday. It may squeeze by on Sunday, but somebody should be fired for setting it up for Saturday.

Last year, I had the displeasure of getting caught in an Orange Line 20-minute Saturday headway. It was inhuman crush loading.

No. Metro should run the regular schedule to protect hourly bus connections, but turn the trains back at East Falls Church. Single tracking from East Falls Church to Vienna will affect many fewer passengers, so a 15-minute headway with four-car trains should suffice. No shuttle buses.

Ed Tennyson, Vienna

Metro changed its strategy on weekend train service last year. It seemed like a logical switch that would benefit riders, but many tell me they don’t like the results.

The intent was to reduce the guesswork about travel times on lines where weekend service was disrupted by Metrorail’s rebuilding program. The problem with the earlier strategy was that trains were getting stacked up at the point where they had to take turns getting through a work zone where only one track was open.

There was no real schedule for trains on those lines. Just show up, wait for the next train and board with only a vague idea of how long the trip will take.

There were at least a few ways to fix that for riders. Maybe slow down the rebuilding and stretch it over more years. But as is, the rebuilding is scheduled to continue into 2017.

Metro’s managers chose another course: On some weekends, depending on what type of work they do, they space out the trains more. A normal schedule would have trains 12 minutes apart during the day on Saturday, 15 minutes apart during the day on Sunday.

Putting fewer trains on a line reduces the chances they will bunch up around the work zones. It also means that Metro can set up its online Trip Planner guide each Friday to give riders an actual schedule.

Yes, the theory goes, there’s more time between trains, but if you have a schedule to look at, you can see what time you should reach the platform and what time you will reach your destination station.

That’s better, when it works just like that. But riders have raised three main concerns: They say trains can still come to a halt at the point where they enter the work zones, adding back some uncertainty about the length of a trip. They can be very crowded. And — whoa — some of those spacings between trains are double what they are on a normal weekend.

You feel like those guys in “High Noon,” waiting for the train to show up.

Here’s the weekend of May 31-June 1 as an example: With crews working on the tracks between East Falls Church and West Falls Church and on platforms between Stadium-Armory and Cheverly, Metro needed two zones for single tracking.

So all along the line, trains were scheduled to operate every 24 minutes.

Do keep in mind that the Orange Line shares tracks with the Blue Line through the busiest part of the region. So a rider who’s just going between, say, Smithsonian and Foggy Bottom can take whatever train arrives first.

But if you’re out at the west end of the Orange Line in Vienna, where Tennyson is, you do have 24 minutes between trains. Build in a transfer with the Green Line to get to and from Nationals Park, and you’re talking some serious train time.

Add in the need to connect with a suburban bus, operating on a limited weekend service, and you’re pushing the edge of what a weekend transit rider will endure.

Metro officials haven’t shown much interest in train shuttles, because of the difficulty of turning back trains at most stations, including East Falls Church. If they’re going to split service, they prefer to do it with a bus shuttle. They can close an entire section of track and concentrate work projects there. Meanwhile, train service on the rest of the line is normal.

They do try other techniques. This weekend, for example, trains leave the end of the Red Line every 24 minutes. During the daytime, though, extra trains are operating along an inner zone between Grosvenor and Judiciary Square. The effect is that trains reach those platforms about every 12 minutes.

But if you board at Glenmont, or Silver Spring, or Shady Grove or Rockville, you’d better check that Trip Planner schedule and hope it holds up. Because the last thing you want to see when you reach the platform is a set of red taillights on a train just pulling out of the station. You won’t see headlights for 24 minutes.

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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