Metro’s leaders have said publicly that they have no clear solution to the system’s ridership decline, but an internal document dated May of this year shows otherwise; it lays out a detailed plan for increasing riders on the nation’s second-busiest subway.
Those measures could add more than 20,000 daily rail trips, Metro says, and, paired with measures such as bus priority and free rail-to-bus transfers, could net tens of thousands of additional daily trips for the struggling transit agency.
The document was circulated between Metro’s offices of planning and performance and comes on the heels of a Washington Post report that highlighted the board and management’s uncertainty on how to address Metro’s ridership slide. It is perhaps the most candid assessment of Metro’s operating challenges — positing that the transit agency is largely responsible for its own ridership woes and acknowledging in plain language that service is a key factor that drives ridership, along with population and jobs, tourists and reliability.
Neither the Metro board nor the agency’s general manager had seen the report before it was published by The Post on Wednesday, officials said, though it was unclear how a comprehensive report on such a critical problem could not have crossed agency chief Paul J. Wiedefeld’s desk.
“Most American transit agencies have recently faced declining ridership, but Metrorail’s declines are more significant than most peers, with the difference likely accounted for by factors specific to Metro and the Washington region,” according to the document obtained by The Post and confirmed by a person with direct knowledge of its contents but who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. “The fundamental factors — fares, location, speed, frequency, and reliability — matter most and Metro’s recent actions have put downward pressure on ridership.”
In July 2017, Metro raised fares, reduced service and curtailed late-night hours to save money, reduce wear-and-tear on its tracks and implement the agency’s first preventive maintenance program following the year-long SafeTrack rebuilding effort.
Train frequency was reduced to every eight minutes from six on most lines, and the agency’s span of service was cut by eight hours a week; Sunday service hours, for example, were changed from 7 a.m. to midnight, to 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Off-peak ridership suffered the most, with losses “two to three times larger than peak declines,” according to the report.
Metro’s overall declines have been most severe among its most frequent riders; “super riders” (who take more than 40 trips per month) make up 60 percent of the subway’s trip declines, while tourists who ride the least make up about 25 percent of the losses since 2015, the report says. Service increases could offset those losses.
“For every 10 percent increase in the number of trains serving a station, ridership is expected to increase by 0.3 to 0.9 percent,” according to data it cites.
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the document is an internal report meant to aid the agency’s planning as it looks toward budget discussions. But ultimately, he said, Wiedefeld’s forthcoming budget proposal will serve as the “starting point” for discussions on fares and service for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“Metro’s goal is to provide the best service possible for customers while operating efficiently and within our available budget,” Stessel said. “This document, now five months old, is an example of a work product resulting [from] those efforts.”
Still, the plan raises questions about whether the agency and board members will back a service increase — something none were willing to commit to when asked for a prior story.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said Wednesday that the report puts pressure on Wiedefeld to include increased service in his budget.
“The facts are, we’ve had a very precipitous decline in ridership. How are we going to reverse that?” Connolly asked. “Because that decline in ridership threatens the whole enterprise.”
But the Metro board’s chairman, Jack Evans, said the onus is on regional and federal officials to provide the funding that would enable Metro to do the things outlined in the report.
“Given the detail, if this report ever gets done and gets out, they have no excuse not to put up the money in order to get this system into reliable and convenient and affordable shape,” Evans said.
Connolly, for one, backs the idea that the federal government could provide operating funds — which would be feasible if one or both houses of Congress flip to Democratic control in November.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) were not available to comment on whether their governments would consider providing additional operating funds.
The report captures the rapid growth of ride-hailing services in the Washington region. Uber and Lyft are catching up to Metro as a preferred transportation mode for residents of the region, it says. Metro officials, including Wiedefeld, have said repeatedly that it is difficult to account for the impact of ride-hailing services because of a lack of data. However, according to the analysis in this report, on a daily basis, the app-based services transport about half as many passengers as Metro, providing about 300,000 passenger trips in the region.
To compete in an environment flush with alternatives, the plan says, Metro must operate at consistent eight-minute headways through 9 p.m. every weekday instead of shifting to 12-minute headways midday and longer evening waits. That kind of service increase would cost between $10 million and $30 million, according to the report.
The document, “Stabilizing and Growing Metro Ridership,” acknowledges Metro’s efforts to improve reliability and service quality but lays bare the corrosive impact of Metro’s ongoing maintenance on service in the wake of its year-long SafeTrack program. (Among the other actions Metro could take: restoring automatic train operation, a measure that would eliminate herky-jerky rides and ensure proper train spacing to save time.) Metro’s evening and weekend service declines have cost the agency 150,000 trips per week and $20 million in annual revenue, the report says.
“The default for many customers is to assume that weekend track work has disrupted their travel plans and not even consider Metro as a viable option,” it says.
The report charts Metro’s decline from an all-day-all-week subway into, effectively, a five-day-a-week commuter system, citing the “longer-term erosion of weekend ridership as track work-created disruptions have become more common in the last decade.”
“For example, in February 2018, trains single-tracked around crews executing capital work in three locations every evening — beginning at 10 p.m. — and on all weekends.”
The report concludes that Metro could operate all-day peak service without interfering with most of its maintenance needs because “early-out” single-tracking typically does not begin until 10 p.m. Such an effort could add between 10,000 and 20,000 additional weekday trips. Extending Yellow Line service, meanwhile, could net an additional 3,000 trips at a cost of $1.5 million to $3 million. While population increases are the biggest driver of ridership improvements, service also has a measurable impact, it says.
Metrobus is another area of focus. The impact of fare increases is most acute for bus riders, the report says, while factors such as service frequency, travel speeds, and population and jobs tend to also drive ridership. With every 10 percent bus fare increase, for example, bus ridership falls 3.4 to 5.5 percent, it concludes. Metro is undergoing a regionwide bus study to determine the best business model for the system, which has been steadily decreasing in recent years, falling about 7 percent since last year. The report recommends a mix of passenger-friendly initiatives to improve ridership: signal priority and off-board fare collection to make bus trips faster, allowing seamless transfers between the rail and bus systems and making trips more affordable for low-income commuters using local subsidies. Those measures, which would cost local jurisdictions more than $75 million combined, could bolster bus ridership by more than 100,000 daily trips, the report concludes.
Around the region, the reaction ranged from optimism that Metro has a clear understanding of its ridership problem to outrage about the apparent about-face put on by management — though it was unclear how much top officials had known before Wednesday.
Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said in a statement that the report “exposes that Metro knows what to do to increase ridership although General Manager Paul Wiedefeld says the problem is out of his hands.”
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocates service increases, saw it as a positive step.
“Of course, what’s wonderful is that it confirms important concepts: Frequency of rail and bus service is one of the single-most- important things they could do,” he said. “It’s our hope that every elected official in the region take a look at this report and these recommendations.”