The Metro board yesterday discussed a plan to make trains longer and less frequent to address crowding and delays during peak hours.
Under a proposal introduced at a board committee meeting, 20 percent of trains would be eight cars long by December 2006, and half would be that long in about three years.
With that increased capacity, Metro officials said, the transit system could make do with fewer trains, which would help prevent backups on particularly congested lines.
The plan is contingent on a series of power upgrades necessary for the system to operate many eight-car trains at the same time. If the upgrades proceed, riders might see longer trains as early as the fall.
However, there would be no immediate increase in the number of cars in the system. The agency has purchased 184 cars for $316 million, but the first shipment will not arrive until next year.
Metro managers hope that longer trains running at longer intervals will reduce the number of train delays, the top complaint received by the agency.
The chief cause of the delays is too many trains on certain lines. For example, 29 trains per hour travel Orange and Blue line tracks between the Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory stations during rush hour, though the lines were designed to handle 26.
The idea of increasing wait time between trains troubled some board members.
"A longer wait for trains? Not a good idea," said Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County on the board. "We want longer trains. We don't necessarily want fewer trains."
In an interview after the meeting, Jim Hughes, Metro's acting deputy general manager for operations, said the wait changes probably would amount to just seconds more, a half-minute at the most.
Most trains now are six cars long, and a few consist of four cars. Eight-car trains run only during special events.
A system of longer but less-frequent trains was proposed in February by a panel of outside experts hired by Metro to come up with ways to improve the operation of the rail system. The group, made up of top officials from subways in Boston, New York, London and other cities, also recommended rearranging the interior of the trains to better handle crowds.
This is the first of the panel's recommendations to be championed by Metro officials.
"Our ridership continues to grow every year," Hughes said. "Our task is figuring out how we can adapt to that."
Since 1996, rail and bus ridership have increased by 33 percent, according to Metro.
From April 2004 to April 2005, Metro received 1,593 complaints about rail delays. Such complaints are a mainstay of many of the Metro rider blogs and online bulletin boards.
"I think Metro really has no choice but to approve this measure," one writer posted on the Metro transit portion of www.dcist.com, a Web log about Washington. "Train crowding has simply gotten out of control."
Peter Buryk, a frequent contributor to the forum MetroRiders.org, compared riding a crowded train to stepping into the Land of Oz.
"It is a sometimes dark and overwhelming place that can leave riders confused, frustrated, scared, and yearning for home," he wrote on the site. "We pack into cars in numbers thought only possible by munchkins and react with the viciousness of flying monkeys when trying to catch a train."