Metro’s new message to the region’s disgruntled riders is akin to an exhortation from a repentant ex: We’re getting better, and we want you back.
At Thursday’s Metro board meeting, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, citing the latest round of performance statistics, said the transit agency has “moved the needle” on rail reliability and on-time performance.
Board members generally agreed the glowing picture painted by Wiedefeld and his staff in the latest report, which captures the system’s performance from July to September, was a signal the state of the system is indeed improving.
“I’m very excited about the customer satisfaction numbers, particularly on the rail side,” said board member Malcolm Augustine, referring to data that showed the number of satisfied train riders increased to 74 percent from 66 percent. “It’s time to start talking to people about giving us another shot, giving us another chance.”
According to the quarterly performance report, rail car reliability surpassed Metro’s target — with the system logging 86,000 miles between significant delays, more than the 75,000-mile target.
In addition, 88 percent of riders arrived at their destinations close to the expected time, more than 20 percentage points higher than during the same period last year, when the SafeTrack maintenance program was in full swing.
There also were 46 percent fewer train offloads than the year before, a development attributed to the introduction of the new 7000-series trains and the retirement of older models, as well as ramped-up efforts to refurbish train cars in middle age.
Though rail ridership has yet to make a comeback, at the very least, it has stabilized — with peak-period ridership on the system at roughly the same level as it was before SafeTrack began, according to the report.
“It shows that Metro is turning the corner and coming back,” said board member Robert Lauby. “This isn’t a dean’s list performance, but it’s certainly first honors.”
What the report didn’t say: Metro is operating fewer trains than it did a year ago, and there are longer waits between trains. It’s easier to run an incident-free commute when the longer time between trains provides more cushion when things go wrong.
Wiedefeld disagreed with reporters who asked whether the flattering statistics painted an overly glowing picture of the state of the system.
“You have to go back to where we were at first. We had an unsafe system, where people were saying they were afraid to use it,” Wiedefeld said, pointing out improvements in performance have also accompanied improvements in safety.
“It’s not a matter of patting ourselves on the back,” Wiedefeld said. “I think there is a recognition in the community that people have to understand that we have moved the needle. Please come back and try us.”
Board chairman Jack Evans said he has noticed a shift in riders’ perspectives, people who tell him it’s been a while since they’ve experienced an egregious Metro meltdown, and their normal commutes have grown less infuriating.
“I’m seeing a slight change in people’s attitudes, I have to say,” Evans said. “I think we’ve certainly stopped the free-fall, and I think we’re maybe kind of on our way back up.”
Still, the report wasn’t all positive. Bus ridership has decreased dramatically from last year — to about 29 million quarterly rides from about 32 million — an early but potentially ominous indicator Metrobus might be entering its own downward spiral.
Wiedefeld said the agency is looking at the data to determine the cause of the decline, though across-the-board fare increases may be related. Though both rail and bus fares increased in June, bus riders tend to be more sensitive to price changes because as a group they have lower average incomes than rail riders.
“We ought to be vigilant that there’s not erosion happening on the bus side, and not just dismiss it as a statistical anomaly,” board member Christian Dorsey said.
The decline in bus ridership is of particular concern this week.
A report compiled by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, aimed at identifying solutions for Metro’s governance and funding problems, recommended revamping bus service — including eliminating some routes and raising fares.
LaHood’s recommendation is out of sync with what many local leaders want. For example, the board voted Thursday to increase bus service in the District, with the city offering to increase its annual operating subsidy to pay for service along the 14th Street corridor, to the District’s up-and-coming Wharf neighborhood, and to other growing areas within the region.