Metrorail ridership, buoyed by a strong local economy and vibrant tourism, set an annual record for the fiscal year ending June 30, increasing by about 1 million boardings to reach 157.2 million trips, according to newly released agency figures.
Metro also continued to rebuild its bus business, boosting the annual ridership by about 2 million trips to reach 110.8 million for the year. Together, this represents a 1.1 percent annual increase.
"Rarely do you see ridership go up based on one isolated thing," said Metro spokesman Murray Bond. "Employment is booming here, and so is the tourist industry, and we feel like we've put in a lot of customer conveniences in the last couple of months."
Since the spring, the agency has introduced new electronic Farecards for Metrorail, has simplified the bus fare structure while reducing the charge for some routes and has allowed customers to pay with credit cards. These programs have accelerated the ridership growth already being registered by the system, officials said.
The rising passenger volumes on Metrorail are part of a broad national trend that has seen nearly all major urban subway systems boost their ridership over the past year. Only in Philadelphia, which suffered a major transit strike last year, did the number of subway passengers drop, according to the most recent figures from the American Public Transit Association.
"It's been a real banner year for transit all over the country," Bond said.
Although Metro officials trumpeted their record ridership, the number of trips grew more slowly than the national average for subway systems, which the transit association reported had registered a 5.8 percent increase over the year that ended March 31. So, too, the growth on Metrobus also lagged the 2.7 percent increase in the national average for bus systems over the same period. More recent national figures were not available.
The sharpest rise on Metrorail came at Gallery Place, which recorded a 21 percent increase largely because of traffic for the newly opened MCI Center built directly above, and at Franconia-Springfield, where ridership was up 16 percent last year after its debut as a Blue Line terminus in 1997.
The popularity of Metrorail was reflected across the system, with all but seven stations showing more business than a year earlier. In Maryland, the strongest growth came at Greenbelt and Prince George's Plaza on the Green Line. In Virginia, sharp increases were recorded at Van Dorn on the Blue Line and Eisenhower Avenue on the Yellow Line.
But most of the largest increases came in the District, including at Federal Triangle, Federal Center and Potomac Avenue on the Blue and Orange lines; and at Waterfront, Navy Yard, U Street-Cardozo and Shaw-Howard University-Potomac Avenue on the Green Line.
Besides setting an annual record, Metro also recorded seven of its busiest days ever in June, including two days in excess of 600,000 trips, according to agency figures. (The highest one-day mark is 811,257, set the day President Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993.)
The growing number of passengers has posed a challenge to Metrorail, which now often finds itself stretched to capacity. In early April, as the agency set records for daily ridership, the subway system sagged badly under the twin strains of huge tourist crowds, attracted in large part by the cherry blossoms, and mechanical failures of an aging train network.
Passengers suffered through the worst fortnight in the system's history, as Metro managers struggled with an epidemic of train breakdowns, long delays and teeming crowds. Many of the mechanical problems were attributed to Metro's decision to switch from automated train control to human operation because of the failure of a few of the electronic devices designed to regulate movement along the rail lines.
Since then, Metrorail has largely returned to normal, smooth operation, though trains continue to be controlled manually. This comes in large measure from the intensive retraining of operators and their growing experience in running the trains, officials said.
Bond, however, said the system also has been better able to accommodate record ridership because the summer tourist crowds have been spread more evenly through the day--unlike in April, when they poured out of museums and into stations just as thousands of commuters were leaving their offices.
"That doesn't happen to be happening now," Bond said, noting that museums have later summer hours. "The tourist rush goes on during the day."