Metro officials acknowledged for the first time Thursday that SafeTrack’s repairs won’t be enough to stanch bleeding ridership, and board members fear fare hikes and service reductions may only accelerate the system’s downward spiral.
Officials painted an increasingly dismal picture of the rail system during its board meeting. The transit agency is in a bind over how to address a $275 million budget shortfall. And despite the time and money poured into SafeTrack, Metro officials don’t expect reliability to improve enough by next summer to start winning back customers and make up any of the shortfall.
Instead, members of the budget staff said, they’re expecting a continued decline in ridership.
“And frankly,” said Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike, “it could be worse than that.”
Metro officials said fare increases, service cuts and station closures may be necessary to help make up the system’s budget deficit and keep pace with needed repairs.
In the most recent quarter, Metro reported an 11 percent drop in rail ridership. And that was just as Metro was ramping up to launch SafeTrack.
Maryland board member Malcolm Augustine appeared dismayed by the assessment.
“I simply cannot take this the way it’s being presented,” Augustine said.
“Where is the light?” he asked. “Where is the light? Is the light coming? If it’s not, then we need to be having a very different conversation.”
Augustine wasn’t alone in his view.
“Fare increases, service cuts and then taking capital dollars for operating expenses — these are what got us into this death spiral,” said Chairman Jack Evans, who is also a Democratic D.C. Council member representing Ward 2. “These aren’t new ideas. This is what Metro’s been doing year after year. . . . If you continue to do this, you’re continuing to kick the can down the road.”
Metro said rail ridership is down 9 percent to 10 percent from previous years.
Ridership revenue is expected to be $60 million lower than projected for the 2018 fiscal year. Officials said the only way to help would be to make severe changes.
General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said he could not promise the situation would improve in the immediate future. He said that Metro is experiencing more unplanned service disruptions and that riders are suffering more because serious track problems that would have gone unnoticed or ignored under previous general managers are now being detected — and supervisors are choosing to fix the problem right then and there, rather than taking a risk by running trains over defective tracks.
“How we dealt with the things in the past [is that] either we weren’t identifying them or were putting them off. And we’re not doing that. We cannot do that. We cannot drive a vehicle across a cracked rail. It’s just not acceptable,” Wiedefeld said.
He added that he rejected the “death spiral” characterization. He said that as reliability improved, and more new 7000-series train cars were ushered into service, riders would return.
“The key to getting revenue up is reliability, the way to get reliability up is you focus on the cars and you focus on the tracks,” Wiedefeld said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
But to bring improvement to the system, Metro said, significant changes in operation will have to be made.
Metro has proposed closing stations; nine of the 20 proposed would be in Northeast Washington and Prince George’s County.
But any plan to close stations — especially without proof that it would help — would run counter to the mission of providing riders with an improved system, board members said.
Metro has also proposed a permanent end to late-night service to create larger windows for critical maintenance and safety inspections.
But Leif Dormsjo, a board member representing the District, termed the plan “SafeTrack 2,” saying Metro would need to fully restore service to bring back its revenue stream — the ridership.
“I think it’s the right intervention,” Dormsjo said of SafeTrack. But, he added, “at a certain point, the near-term effects can offset much of the long-term gains if we’re not careful.”
Board members’ concerns reflected passengers’ growing sense that SafeTrack has done little to improve Metro:
Throngs of riders stranded on platforms. Crush loads on rush-hour trains. Single-tracking at all hours of day and night. And those incidents are taking place outside of the SafeTrack surges.
Why, board members asked, were problems being discovered on stretches of track where SafeTrack surges had already passed through? Weren’t those exactly the problems that SafeTrack was supposed to be fixing?
“I really want to hear how this process has thus far made our system more reliable,” Augustine said. “Have we seen an uptick in reliability in those areas? We should see it.”
Board members made it clear that they want more hard evidence of SafeTrack’s impact on reliability, and they want more data to justify the prospect of eliminating more nighttime service at the end of SafeTrack.
“We don’t have any of the information regarding what that time will actually buy us,” Dormsjo said. He requested that Metro provide a detailed outline of what work would be done in the extra hours. “Wouldn’t it be important to know why you’re doing this?”
Wiedefeld, who has been the strongest advocate for ending late-night service to provide Metro’s inspectors and maintenance workers more access to the tracks, may have given riders a brief glimpse of hope. He said the end of late-night service may not be permanent — just until mid-2018. Then Metro’s board could reassess whether it would be time to revive the service.
“I need more time,” Wiedefeld said, “to get the system to where it needs to be.”