Metrorail Reports 17-Month Slide in On-Time Service

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Metro's latest performance data confirm what subway riders have been saying for months: Train service is getting worse.

On-time performance has been declining for the past 17 months; not once did the agency meet its performance benchmark of having 95 percent of all trains run on schedule. On-time performance was worst during the evening rush, when it hovered in the 80 percent range. The steepest drop occurred between July and November, when service disruptions increased 30 percent from the same period the previous year.

Deteriorating infrastructure and equipment problems that affect as many as half the rail cars in the 1,070-car fleet are driving up the numbers of breakdowns, delays and disruptions, officials said. The chief culprits were mechanical and door problems.

Riders' chief concern about Metro is its reliability, the expected focus of discussions at a Metro board committee meeting today. The latest data come on the heels of the largest fare and fee increases in Metro's history, which went into effect Sunday.

Officials say the downward trend in performance reflects, in part, more rigorous reporting methods. But the problems are rooted in an aging transit system that is bulging at the seams. Parts are failing on Metro's oldest rail cars, which are more than 30 years old, and door controls are malfunctioning on its most problematic cars, built by Spanish manufacturer Construcciones Y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, officials said. Together, the two series of cars make up almost half the fleet.

In November, on-time performance during the morning rush fell to 85 percent, down from about 90 percent the year before. The evening rush was worse, with an on-time average of 82 percent in November, compared with about 87 percent the previous year.

At the same time, the number of track fires more than doubled. From July to November, there were 75 reports of smoke or fire, according to an analysis of service disruptions, about 2 1/2 times as many as the 29 reported for the same period the previous year.

In August, performance plummeted because of a power failure that resulted in smoke and fire incidents that shut down 11 rail stations, crippling the system for two days. In November, trains were running at reduced speeds because morning dew on heavier-than-normal leaf buildup was causing slippery tracks.

Despite the drop in performance, ridership is growing. Average weekday ridership in October was 739,000 trips, up 6 percent from the year before, according to the most recent budget figures.

To improve reliability, Deputy General Manager Gerald Francis said yesterday, officials are replacing worn equipment faster and doing a better job of cleaning up newspapers and other debris that can spark fires on track beds.

Agency managers also are trying to pinpoint which rail cars are having the most failures and why. For example, among the 300 oldest rail cars, a host of mechanical and electrical malfunctions can cause the braking mechanism to lock up, rail chief Dave Kubicek said. When that happens, safety mechanisms prevent the train from moving, and passengers have to get off the train.

During rush hour, about 140 trains an hour are moving through the stations in the downtown core, and one breakdown can quickly lead to backups on the line, Francis said.

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