Many a Metrorail rider would like to hear this line more often: “We’ll turn down no opportunity to talk to customers.”
It’s a quote from Jim Hamre, a transit authority official who was speaking to Metro board members about Metrobus’s latest plan to review routes and schedules with customers.
In recent years, I’ve seen Hamre many times at community meetings where he talks with bus riders about how to solve problems on their routes. The riders do more than ask questions. They participate in solving the problems.
When potential changes in Metrorail service are presented to customers, the question usually is framed this way: Do you want to pay more or have your service cut?
Why can’t Metrorail be more like Metrobus?
Well, maybe this summer and fall the conversation can be a little bit different.
Both Metrorail and Metrobus will ask riders what they think about a variety of service changes.
Metrobus is going to do what it has done periodically in recent years: present riders with a menu of changes that could affect scores of routes in Maryland, the District and Virginia.
The best part of these reviews is that they’re not about the Metro budget. They’re about better use of existing resources. Are there routes that don’t carry many passengers? Are there routes where the buses are filled to capacity? Would a corridor be better served if an express service were added?
Planners describe these reviews as “revenue neutral.” Money saved by cutting some schedules is invested in more popular bus services.
Of course, it’s easier to do this with bus lines than with rail lines. Metro isn’t going to move the Red Line to pick up more riders. But there are plenty of customer service topics that rail riders would like to discuss with management.
Now they’ll get a rare chance to do that. Metrorail managers have proposed a service change that would affect five of the six lines. As with the bus review, the Metrorail plan is not pegged to the transit budget. The Metrorail officials say they think they can make the service more reliable if they peg the time between rush-hour trains at eight minutes on five of the six lines.
This would reduce the rush hour schedule on the Orange, Silver, Green and Yellow lines. The scheduled gap between trains would widen by two minutes. Only the Blue Line would have more frequent service, but that’s because the Blue Line trains now are scheduled to operate 12 minutes apart.
Metro officials think that if they do this, you’ll have a better shot at knowing when your rail trip is going to start and when it’s going to end.
Knowing the answer to that question is supposed to be one of the basic reasons to use transit rather than drive. But these days, you’re as likely to find the answer in the Magic 8 Ball as in Metro’s Trip Planner schedule.
Restoring reliability to a rail commute is a worthy goal. But if Metro widens the gap between trains, those that are left almost certainly will be more crowded. If riders complain about anything as much as the unreliable schedule, it’s crowding.
Riders will have a lot to talk about with Metro. But this is a chance to have the same sort of conversation with the rail officials that riders have engaged in for years with bus officials.
This schedule change could take effect early next year, but it’s far from a done deal.
In their comments at the July 9 meeting where the rail service proposal was introduced, Metro board members made plain that they were endorsing the idea of taking the proposal to the public, rather than endorsing the proposal itself.
Several board members expressed concern about widening the gaps, but none more strongly than Leif Dormsjo, who also directs the District Department of Transportation. He noted that the board this year touted its new budget as containing no fare increases or service cuts.
“That’s a dramatic reduction in service,” he said, referring to the proposals to make the rush hour trains less frequent. “We have a high threshold to explain why we would even consider this.”
Metro Deputy General Manager Rob Troup said that the transit staff was aware of some other options that might help make the train schedule more reliable, but came to the board with the one plan it considered workable.
The key problem they’re trying to ease is the train congestion at rail junctions, particularly in Rosslyn, where inbound Blue, Orange and Silver Line trains need to take turns entering the station. Widening the gap between trains lessens that congestion. Metro would ease the passenger crowding by lengthening many of the remaining trains from six to eight cars. But it doesn’t have the power supply to make all the remaining trains eight cars long.
“This is what we feel is the best option,” Troup said. Of the other options, such as having Silver Line trains bypass Rosslyn, he said, “We don’t think any of those are sustainable.”
Riders should take advantage of upcoming opportunities to say what sort of service they can sustain.