Metro's rail cars are breaking down nearly twice as often as they did three years ago, creating increasing delays across all lines at a time when ridership is surging, transit officials said yesterday. Statistics for Metrobus also show more and more buses sidelined with mechanical problems.

Executives of the transit agency spent much of Tuesday in a brainstorming session, trying to find ways to turn around Metro's deteriorating performance.

A key measure of a railroad's reliability is the mean distance a train travels before it breaks down. That figure was 70,547 miles in fiscal 2002, but it has dropped steadily since then, reaching an average of 38,103 in the current fiscal year, which began in July. That means trains are breaking down nearly twice as often as they did in 2002.

James Gallagher, the deputy general manager for operations, said the rail cars are running into trouble more often partly because Metro is carrying record numbers of riders who are jamming themselves onto crowded trains and inadvertently causing doors to jam. Door problems are among the most common malfunctions, he said.

But other factors -- including deferred investment -- are driving down reliability, Gallagher said. The oldest of Metro's rail cars, manufactured by Rohr in the mid-1970s, needed a mid-life overhaul in the early 1990s. To save money, Metro officials opted to rehabilitate just two major components on those 30-year-old cars, the propulsion control and motors. As a result, the brakes and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems on the Rohr cars are frequently malfunctioning and causing the cars to be pulled from service for repairs, Gallagher said.

Age isn't the only culprit.

Metro's newest cars, those with the red, white and blue interiors that were manufactured by CAF Inc., have been hobbled by software problems since they began running in 2001. The latest problem is a tendency of the rail cars to overshoot the station platform and come to a stop anywhere from several feet to several hundred feet inside the tunnel past the station.

The train operator is directed to either reverse direction and back into the station, delaying the trains behind it, or travel ahead to the next station, requiring passengers to board another train in the opposite direction to reach the station that was overshot.

Metrobus reliability isn't much better, though it has shown signs of improving in the past several weeks, said Jack Requa, Metro's chief operating officer for buses. Age is the biggest reason for the mechanical problems that are sidelining buses, he said. "We're maintaining older equipment, making them run longer than they would normally be in service and fighting component failures and that sort of thing," he said. About 200 of Metro's 1,426 buses are more than 18 years old; the average life span for buses in the transit industry is 15 years.

Wheelchair lifts are prone to malfunctions and are the "Achilles' heel" of the older buses, Requa said. Metro expects to start receiving 250 new buses in August, and that should improve reliability of the fleet, Requa said.

Alarmed by the data, Metro executives said they are newly focused on reducing delays and getting stalled trains back on the tracks.

"It means everyone we can afford has to be out on the system, out on the platforms, ready to react. If we do that, we'll make some saves," Gallagher said. "If there's a door problem with a train, if we can fix that problem quickly and get that train underway, then it's a two-minute delay instead of a 10-minute delay, and we get people home on time."

Steven Feil, Metro's new chief operating officer for rail, has ordered the supervisors of each subway line to get onto the platforms and look for problems that can be solved before they create lengthy delays. "We want them to be pro-active," he said.

Metro officials say the answer to restoring quality service lies in their quest for $1.5 billion to purchase new rail cars and buses.

Yesterday, Maryland became the first local government to commit to its share of the plan, known as Metro Matters. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan signed a funding agreement under which Maryland will give Metro $329 million over the next six years. Flanagan said that the first payment of $60 million will come from the state's transportation trust fund but that state officials have not decided how to finance the remainder. Officials from Virginia and the District have indicated support for Metro Matters but have yet to commit money.

Metro needs local governments to endorse the plan soon so it can order 120 rail cars at a discount. The money would also finance the purchase of 270 buses.

Buying additional rail cars will allow Metro to operate eight-car trains for the first time and carry an additional 30,000 riders during peak travel hours, transit planners said.

More people rode Metrorail in the past year than in any year since the subway opened in 1976, at one point breaking the record for single-day ridership. Average weekday ridership was 652,578 on the trains and 502,971 on the buses.

The result is a growing dissatisfaction among riders, who say they can't rely on the rail system to get them to their destinations on time, Metro managers said.

"The only surprise is that they admitted it," said rider Tom Peterson, who has been traveling on the Red Line daily for the past six years between the Forest Glen and Metro Center stations. Peterson said his commute has been deteriorating for years but got sharply worse in the past year. "Their track record with me is pretty bad."

In the past two weeks, Peterson said, he has endured a delay every time he boarded the Red Line. "There's always something," he said.

Metro safety officer Victor Size, far right, gives a lesson to passengers. Managers say the system's unreliability is causing dissatisfaction.