Metro track work hours add up

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 5:03 PM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

There has been a lot of discussion lately about ending late-night Metro service on weekends. My understanding is that this is motivated more by a desire for additional maintenance time than for the relatively small savings such a move would bring. Why doesn't Metro just single-track large parts of the system from 12 to 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays? That would allow for a good deal of maintenance, and late-night trains are so infrequent already that it would hardly disrupt service.

- Ben Keller, the District

Keller understands Metro's difficulty in balancing the needs of the present and future. Many thousands of riders have become all too familiar with that balance. In fact, Metro does a great deal of single-tracking on weekends, weeknights and - increasingly - in the middle of weekdays, because that's when the maintenance effort is least disruptive to the train schedules.

But times are changing. The transit authority spent its first few decades expanding the rail system, adding stations and rail cars. The new general manager, Richard Sarles, isn't so much into adding. He just doesn't want to subtract. Sarles thinks the train service and equipment have deteriorated far enough.

So far, so good. But now comes the pain: His plan for fixing the trains, platforms and escalators means that the transit authority will be pouring more resources into repairs. If you ride the trains this weekend, chances are you'll encounter a zone where Metro has trains sharing a single track or has cut the service altogether.

This stepped-up maintenance and repair program has not reached its peak. So Metrorail managers are eyeing those late-night weekend hours, when ridership is very low. They don't want them for single-tracking. They already do that. They'd like to have the extra time for unfettered repair efforts, to get the work done faster. Dave Kubicek, the deputy general manager for operations, says he could get more than an extra month per year of maintenance time from those hours.

There are reasons - some good, some bad - that this isn't going to happen right away, if it happens at all. The District is going to object. Metro board member Tommy Wells, also a D.C. Council member for Ward 6, said Thursday that he wants an analysis of the economic impact of an earlier closing.

Wells isn't wrong to mix transit and economics. No transit system is only about getting people from Point A to Point B. It's also about helping communities develop. (Exhibit A: the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor on the Orange Line.) But for Metro's leaders, Job 1 in 2011 is making the train system safe and reliable, not catering to bar owners.

You'll hear cries that we can't retreat from the current hours of operation because it would make us less of a world-class metropolis. "A city that doesn't sleep" is a fine lyric but a bad transit policy. Riders would whistle a happy tune knowing the trains and escalators were safe and reliable.

On the other hand, not everyone riding the night-owl trains is intoxicated. Some are people trying to get to and from work. So Metro board members need to make sure that the transit managers would use those extra hours to maximum advantage and that the riders would be the long-term beneficiaries. If this is not just about saving money, they also need to provide more bus service or other alternatives for the night owls.

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