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.

Metro personnel so far have identified one component that is failing on the oldest cars. "But not all of the cars are having that problem," Francis said.

On the series with the door problems, an electronic control is failing and needs to be replaced in all 192 cars, Kubicek said. It is likely to take up to 18 months to make repairs when trains are not in service or during less-busy times, he said.

From July to November 2007, almost 60 percent of the 1,825 service disruptions were caused by mechanical and door problems, according to Metro data.

Metro officials said they will increase spending to improve train and bus reliability in the budget year that begins in July. The first draft of the budget, to be presented today, also calls for more eight-car trains during rush hours, with the number rising to 50 percent on all five subway lines by spring 2009. Most trains now have six cars. The agency is also trying to reduce the number of four-car trains it operates. A car carries 180 to 200 passengers.

Metro will also be spending more to buy needed bus and rail parts.

One obstacle to better performance, officials say, is that Metro, alone among major U.S. transit systems, does not have a dedicated source of revenue for capital improvements, such as new train cars, buses and other heavy equipment.

At the same time, the few hours when trains are not running allow little time for track maintenance and other repairs to be done. That's why such work also takes place almost every weekend and during off-peak hours.

Yesterday, officials announced several major projects on the Red Line that will mean additional weekend delays through mid-February.

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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