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In survey, Metro still gets high marks after a year of low points

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By Jon Cohen and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 5, 2010

After a year in which Metrorail was buffeted by the worst string of accidents in its history, most riders give the system high marks for comfort, reliability and generally the ability to take them where they want to go, according to a new Washington Post poll.

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"They've had some issues over the past year, but I have no fears riding it," said Lucy Swartz, 55, of Kensington, who often takes the subway to meetings in downtown Washington.

Two-thirds of rail users rate the safety of the system as excellent or good, but regular riders are about evenly divided on how Metro has responded to the accidents, including a June 22 crash on the Red Line that killed eight passengers and a train operator: 42 percent approve, and 45 percent disapprove.

Just as in 2005, when The Post conducted its last comparable survey, about a quarter of Washington area adults say they take Metrorail very or fairly often, and one in eight commuters uses the rail system as the primary way to get to work.

But a third of users say they're riding less than they used to, and some of the shine is off a system once considered a national model for urban transit.

Positive ratings have held up across a range of areas, but the percentage of riders rating the overall system as excellent has been sliced in half.

Among Metrorail's most frequent users, the percentage giving it the top rating is 8 percent, down from 26 percent in 2005. Assessments of the system's reliability have slipped as well among those users, from 78 percent in 2005 to 60 percent. (There was no poll measurement of safety as a separate area in 2005.)

"It's on the lower end of the scale of reliability and safety," said Danielle Jean-Pierre, 34, a lawyer who said she often faces delays during her commute on the Red Line from the District to Bethesda. "At least once or twice a week, the Red Line is running on one track," she said, noting that she gets several e-mail alerts a day from Metro about trouble on the line. "It's just very frustrating," she said, echoing other regular riders, most of whom singled out the Red Line as the most problematic.

An intangible that Metro has going for it is a widespread public perception that conditions are deteriorating on roads, with six in 10 poll respondents saying that traffic has gotten worse over the past five years. Asked to identify the region's most pressing transportation problem, about four in 10 say it's gridlock on the roads -- more than say so of any other issue.

Overall, 80 percent of those who have used Metrorail give it good marks -- down, but not dramatically so, from five years ago, when 86 percent viewed it positively.

Just as they did five years ago, most Metrorail users rate the system's convenience and comfort levels highly. But there were also dark spots regarding comfort. "The trains are very herky-jerky" in manual mode, said David Stempler, 62, of Friendship Heights. Metro switched trains to manual control after June's Red Line crash as a safety measure and also reconfigured trains, which may consist of different models of cars whose braking systems can be out of sync.

Escalator and elevator outages also irked Stempler. "Normally, they are not working at any given time. It's almost shocking," he said, recalling seeing people struggling up a long escalator at the Bethesda Station during an outage in the fall.


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