Short Trains At Night Irk Metro Riders
Cost-Cutting Move Leaves Passengers on the Platform
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page A01
Higher Metro fares and fees generated the most attention this week, but a more subtle change by the transit system is affecting thousands: It shrank the trains.
After 10 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays -- on every line -- the subway has cut the length of its trains in half, operating trains with two cars instead of four.
Since the policy took effect this week, it has created a late crunch, especially on the heavily traveled Red Line in downtown Washington. At the Farragut North, Metro Center, Gallery Place-Chinatown and Union Station stops, angry crowds have found themselves competing for space on the trains at an hour when most had been accustomed to relaxing their urban combat skills. Those unable to push themselves aboard have to wait 15 to 20 minutes for the next train, as a new crowd forms around them.
"Did they do any research before they made this change?" asked Irena Sadbaraite, a 28-year-old accountant who failed to fight her way aboard a packed train to Vienna at 10:25 p.m. Tuesday at Metro Center. She waited 20 minutes for the next train, steaming. "I can't believe they've done this, especially in summer, when people stay out for dinner and come back late."
Donald Centner, 23, of Centreville takes Metro to his computer class in Tenleytown every Tuesday and Thursday. It ends at 10 p.m. "It's a mess," he said as he waited for a two-car Blue Line train at Metro Center. "Metro service has slowly, progressively, gotten worse. But this is ridiculous."
Metro board Chairman Robert J. Smith, the architect of the change, said the cash-strapped transit system will save $1 million by running shorter trains late at night when ridership drops off. The average ridership between 10 p.m. and midnight last month was 12,600. The savings come from the cost of supplying electricity and labor and parts to maintain the cars. A Metro rail car can carry about 181 passengers, both seated and standing.
The cuts come as local governments and businesses in the District, Bethesda and Arlington are promoting nightlife and have been celebrating the region's transformation into a thriving metropolitan area.
"We are moving full speed ahead to create a 24-hour downtown and city, and Metro is the lifeblood," said Joseph Sternlieb, deputy director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District. "The right response isn't to reduce service. Bethesda, Arlington and we are all cruising at 1,000 miles an hour to create good restaurant venues, good entertainment venues. We want people to take Metro. We don't want them drinking and driving. We don't want them to have any anxiety that they're going to have trouble taking Metro to get home."
In addition to revelers, plenty of late-night riders are sober, tired workers trying to get to and from the job.
"A lot of people work late in this town," said Scott Glabman, a 52-year-old lawyer at the Labor Department who sat on a bench at Farragut North at 11:15 p.m. Tuesday, waiting for his Red Line train home. "This is a terrible idea. These rail cars tend to be very crowded at this time anyway, before the change. There's not enough room to sit down or comfortably stand."
Dennis Watson, 47, works the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift as a security guard at the Army-Navy Club in Farragut Square. "There are a lot of people who work at night who take the Metro," said Watson, who rode a two-car train from the Takoma Station to get to work Tuesday night. "Security workers who work downtown, restaurant workers. If they can't get on the train, that's a problem. I don't mind the fare increase, but I mind the short trains. It's kind of stressful."
One oddity about the short trains is that they take up just 25 percent of the platform, forcing panicky passengers to sprint to board the train after it stops in the station.
Smith said he isn't worried about whether Metro's late-night riders get seats.
"If we have people standing on the trains, I don't have a problem with that," said Smith, who represents Maryland on the board. "These trains were designed to have so many people sitting down and so many people standing. We should use it how it was designed."
Smith said he was unaware that passengers were being left on the platforms because they couldn't board a shortened train. "We certainly don't want to be leaving people on the platform," he said. "But I'm planning to let it run for some period of time and see how it works out."
When a special event attracts unusual crowds, such as a concert or a sporting event at MCI Center, Metro will operate four-car trains immediately after the performance or game and pare back to two-car trains later, spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.
Operating short trains every 15 to 20 minutes doesn't leave much room for the unexpected. On Monday night, Tom Peterson shoved himself aboard a packed Red Line train at Metro Center. It broke down at Gallery Place-Chinatown, and he and his fellow passengers got off, he said. Fifteen minutes later, another packed two-car train arrived -- but only about a quarter of the people on the platform could fit inside. Peterson, 50, barely made it onto the next train.
"There's no margin of error for breakdowns," said Peterson, who sent an angry e-mail to Smith. "These cars are filled to their limit. People are looking at two or three trains to get on. That is not world-class service."
Metro board member Jim Graham, who represents the District, said he would move to restore the four-car trains if riders are being left on the platforms. "We did this really hoping it might reduce the cost," said Graham, a D.C. Council member whose district includes the nightclub neighborhoods of U Street and Adams Morgan. "If it's resulting in overcrowding and this type of discomfort, it's just unacceptable."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company