Metro emerged from the first weekday commute since it launched a massive rebuilding program with no major breakdowns Monday, but that was of little comfort to the thousands of riders facing months of lengthy delays, crowded trains and commutes that may only get more difficult.
The first day of Metro’s SafeTrack program brought complaints of conflicting or incorrect information from staff in stations, and trains arriving on wrong tracks, causing commuters to miss their rides. But although commuters faced long waits on crowded platforms, ridership was down compared with a normal weekday.
It is too early to tell whether the education campaign designed to discourage people from riding portions of the system affected by Metro’s SafeTrack program kept riders away Monday. But Metro officials reported that ridership was lower than normal at the stations directly affected by the first portion, or surge, of the program, something that would probably surprise riders who endured crowded trains and platforms.
According to preliminary figures, about 26 percent fewer passengers boarded at Orange and Silver line stations west of Ballston when compared with a similar Monday in May.
The first phase, or “surge,” of the year-long maintenance blitz that launched over the weekend involves 13 days of continuous single-tracking between East Falls Church and Ballston, affecting the Silver and Orange lines.
“This is the third day of almost 300 days,” General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said.“We have a long way to go.”
Indeed, this surge is only the first of 15 projects that are part of Wiedefeld’s plan to make Metro’s rail system safer and more reliable.
Earlier in the day, Jack Requa, Metro’s executive managing officer, said the decline in ridership showed that people paid attention to the message that commuters should find alternative transportation during the project.
Officials across the region had launched a massive information campaign designed to warn commuters about SafeTrack and offer them commuting alternatives.
Still, Requa cautioned that Monday’s results do not mean riders should immediately return to the rails.
“Just because the morning went well, don’t necessarily think everyone can come back to rail and everything will be fine,” he said.
Given the fear that platforms would be packed, trains overcrowded and tempers short, it was one of the few times Metro officials seemed happy to report that fewer people were riding Metro.
“What I’m trying to do is maintain service for those people who have no other options — if you don’t have a car, or you don’t have the financial means,” Wiedefeld said at an afternoon news conference. “That’s really the goal. . . . If they have options, we hope they use them.”
Wiedefeld said despite the drop in ridership at stations west of Ballston, ridership across the system remained relatively stable. He predicted that any impact on the agency’s bottom line related to SafeTrack would be modest.
He estimated that SafeTrack repairs will cost the agency about $60 million, but he has said the number could go up or down, depending on what crews find. He said he is committed to completing the project within the agency’s current capital budget and remained optimistic that work will be completed in March as scheduled.
While Metro officials reported no major incidents Monday morning, a switch problem was reported just before 8 a.m. outside of East Falls Church, further slowing trains already delayed by SafeTrack work. That was followed by a train malfunction outside the Dunn Loring station and problems on the Yellow Line. Even so, trains continued to move through the 117-mile system.
Wiedefeld acknowledged that some trains were too full. In one instance, he said, people were so packed in one train that they were pushing up against the doors.
“If you lean against those doors, it basically shuts down,” he said. “It won’t let the train go.”
The train was emptied, and riders were able to board a so-called “gap train,” an extra train lined up to relieve overcrowding, like what Metro uses after a Nationals game.
He said Metro will continue to monitor trains for overcrowding. If the stations are too packed, officials may start “metering” – letting only a certain number of passengers down to the platform, he said.
A snapshot of Google Maps’ live traffic tracker showed that area roadways were a bit more crowded. Traffic was particularly heavy on Interstate 66 and the Dulles Toll Road, two of the roads most likely to be affected if Metro riders return to driving. But it may be too early to tell whether that was the result of the SafeTrack or other factors.
At a meeting convened Monday by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, one of the region’s largest business groups, transportation officials detailed new steps they are taking to ease traffic congestion. They said they are redoubling efforts to get workers to telecommute or shift their work schedules so that so that roads and transportation systems aren’t overwhelmed.
In the District, Greer Johnson Gillis, deputy director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, said the city has instituted extended emergency parking restrictions.
For example, officials have extended parking restrictions in place during morning and evening rush hours by 30 minutes to keep traffic flowing from the Key Bridge in Arlington to the city’s central business district. The District also has created priority bus corridors on other key D.C. roads, including M Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington Circle, H and I streets and adjacent streets.
And the city’s plans — along with plans in other area jurisdictions — will evolve as SafeTrack work moves forward. Metro’s next project, which starts June 18 and involves the closure of the Orange, Blue and Silver lines between Eastern Market and Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, will likely have a bigger impact on D.C. roadways.
“We’ll be flexible,” Gillis said.
Dan Waetjen, regional president of BB&T Bank and chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said that the business group is “very supportive” of Metro’s maintenance endeavor but realistic about the widespread effects.
“This will be a difficult and challenging year,” Waetjen said. “This certainly is a disruptive undertaking.”