Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans and member Corbett A. Price said earlier this week they would block Metro’s plan to continue the shortened service hours for a third consecutive year. The veto would have effectively restored late-night service to the system.
Metro has proposed continuing the early closings to expand a preventive maintenance program implemented in the wake of its SafeTrack rehabilitation work.
“Before SafeTrack . . . we had a period of expanding service and reducing maintenance time,” said Laura Mason, acting assistant general manager for rail. “This combination led to deteriorating rail service, including a record-low customer on-time performance of just 68.9 percent in May 2016.”
So would a restoration of the old hours reverse trends such as improved on-time performance and a reduction in track incidents?
“Correct,” Mason said definitively, laying out Metro’s argument in response to a question from board member Clarence C. Crawford, chairman of the panel’s operations committee. Crawford said he was scrapping the vote so Metro officials could return to the panel early next year with proposals that would give the agency the maintenance time it needs and address concerns about late-night service.
Still, it is not clear that Metro’s improved on-time performance — nearly 90 percent in September — is a direct result of the preventive maintenance program or that the agency could find the additional maintenance time elsewhere if it restores late-night service.
Metro says that track incidents were down 86 percent between the 2017 and current fiscal years, and that emergency work was down 76 percent. But Metro embarked on its year-long SafeTrack program during that time and has also cut rush-hour service 25 percent on five of six lines. It stands to reason that there would be fewer incidents with the system running less service.
“We’ve asked the general manager to study other alternatives and see . . . if there are other options that we can pursue to get that track time and also conserve late hours,” Evans said. “From our perspective in the District, it’s more than a popular position. It’s a real critical position for our workers and our industry as a whole.”
Metro contends, however, that the preventive maintenance program is a work in progress, with some projects — such as the cleaning of track beds, and the testing of cables for stray current and quality of insulation — is about a third complete and that work to address track defects is progressing steadily.
The agency, which initially asked for a two-year moratorium on late-night service, declined to say whether this year’s request would be the last. But Wiedefeld sought to reassure riders who wonder when the painful service disruptions will end.
“I think there’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel,” Wiedefeld said. “But we do also feel that we’re not there yet. And that’s why we had to propose more time to get this under control.”
Board member Steve McMillin, who represents the federal government, expressed disappointment in the District’s position — so far an uncompromising push to restore late-night hours.
“It’s very rare in this type of work you see a more convincing presentation of cause and effect,” he said of Metro’s argument. “It’s so clear from these numbers what the right solution is, and I hope we eventually get there. If we don’t, this area is going to have a transit system that’s less reliable, less efficient, less safe and, I’m guessing, less robustly funded.”
The incoming Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) also appeared to disagree with the push from D.C. officials — including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — for Metro to return to its previous schedule. Those hours were 5 a.m. to midnight on weekdays, 5 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Fridays, 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturdays and 7 a.m. to midnight on Sundays.
“Metro has provided data that show that having additional overnight hours to turn off power to inspect cables and test components for electrical safety has enabled it to find and fix problems, thereby reducing the risk of fire and smoke events,” David Mayer, chief executive of the WMSC, said in a statement. “Although the WMSC is not currently serving as [Metro’s] safety oversight agency, we expect to become certified early next year. And we are paying close attention to issues such as whether expanding service hours could erase these safety gains, so that we will be prepared to take action that may be warranted after we are certified.”
Meanwhile, the board approved charging riders peak fares for special events, basing the decision on the agency’s contention that customers should bear more of the cost burden. The vote gives Metro the authority to charge the higher fares, but it does not mean peak fares will automatically be in effect for all special events.
The panel also voted to move forward with public hearings on a proposal that would expand rush-hour service windows to 10 a.m. from 9:30 a.m., and to 8:30 p.m. from 7 p.m. as part of Wiedefeld’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Train frequency during rush hour is greater than at nonpeak times.
The change is among $20 million in service improvements Wiedefeld has proposed to expand rail ridership, which has fallen sharply over rider frustration with service disruptions.
But some board members balked at expanding the rush-hour window without charging riders peak fares for the extra service.
The board agreed on an alternative that would expand the rush-hour windows but also charge peak fares, even as Metro argued that this solution — which would cut by about $4 million the cost burden on the jurisdictions that fund Metro — would also erase any anticipated ridership gains.
“It will have an impact,” said Wiedefeld, who favors expanding rush hour without charging peak fares for the extra service. “It always does. But the logic is sound.”
The board, however, ruled out the possibility of any across-the-board fare increase, which member Michael Goldman had proposed putting up for consideration as a way to spare the funding jurisdictions the cost of any service increase that the board ultimately approves. The District had said it would veto any fare increase.
Goldman, who represents Maryland, then voted against the measures to charge peak fares for special events and expanded rush-hour service, calling each proposal effectively a “backdoor fare increase.”
He said charging peak fares for special events would discourage families from taking Metro to the Mall for the Fourth of July fireworks, or to large events such as the record-setting Women’s March — the second-busiest day in the agency’s history.
“This is bad policy,” Goldman said. “This is poor policy. And I think the board will regret having passed it today.”
In comments after the board meeting, Wiedefeld conceded that the expanded rush-hours approved for consideration by the public would constitute a fare increase for those who ride in the extended windows — say, someone boarding a train at 9:45 a.m.
“That’s true, but the service will be much better,” he said.