Metro is about to begin the most extensive conversation it’s had with riders in recent years about the bus and train schedules.
The Metro board’s customer service committee on Thursday unanimously approved resolutions that will present the transit staff’s proposed changes to the public, possibly leading to board votes on the changes in October. Approved changes for buses could begin to take effect in December. The rail changes could occur near the start of 2016. Thursday’s resolutions on public outreach still need approval by the full board later this month, but the unanimous committee vote by board members from all three of Metro’s major jurisdictions makes that approval highly likely.
Metro officials have not yet published a full list of the proposed bus changes, but said they could affect scores of routes throughout the District and its suburbs. The list definitely will include a proposal to eliminate the 5A Metrobus, which links the District with Dulles International Airport.
This will be the sixth such review of bus service in recent years. The reviews are designed to adjust schedules and routes to boost ridership and improve the overall efficiency of the Metrobus system. The periodic checkups on bus performance are independent of Metro’s budget process. The overall result is unlikely to either raise or cut costs of Metrobus operations.
What’s unusual this year is that Metro is reviewing bus and rail service at the same time, while inviting its customers to join in the process. The rail service changes would be the most extensive since Metro instituted the Rush Plus program, modifying routes and schedules to accommodate the addition of the Silver Line and to run more trains through the middle of the District.
In fact, they are a reaction to that last round of changes. Transit officials told the board members Thursday that opening the Silver Line last summer contributed to a decline in the reliability of the Metrorail schedule. Not only are commuters less certain when the train trip will start, but they also are less certain when it will end.
The transit managers said they think they can improve the reliability of the schedule by pegging the gap between trains at eight minutes on the Blue, Orange, Silver, Yellow and Green lines. On four of those lines, the rush hour gap today is six minutes. Only the Blue Line would gain more frequent service, because the gap between Blue Line trains today is 12 minutes. The proposal also would eliminate Yellow Line Rush Plus service between Franconia-Springfield and Greenbelt, the one remaining part of the original Rush Plus program.
In their comments, board members made plain that they were endorsing the idea of taking the rail service proposal to the public, rather than the service proposal itself.
Several board members expressed concern about widening the gap between trains, but none more strongly than Leif Dormsjo, who also directs the District Department of Transportation. He noted that the board this year touted its new budget as containing no fare increases or service cuts.
“That’s a dramatic reduction in service,” he said, referring to the proposals to make the rush hour trains less frequent. “We have a high threshold to explain why we would even consider this.”
Dormsjo also said he was concerned that the board and the riders were being asked to consider only one idea to improve the train schedule.
Metro Deputy General Manager Rob Troup said that the transit staff was aware of some other options, but came to the board with the one plan it considered workable.
Asked about other options, staff members mentioned these: having Silver Line trains pass through the Rosslyn station without stopping, terminating Silver Line trains at East Falls Church and requiring riders to board Orange Line trains for the rest of their trips and setting the time between trains at seven minutes, rather than eight.
The key problem they’re trying to ease is the train congestion at rail junctions, particularly Rosslyn, where inbound Blue, Orange and Silver Line trains need to take turns entering the station. Widening the gap between trains eases the congestion but would increase crowding on the remaining trains. Metro would ease the crowding by lengthening many of the remaining trains from six to eight cars. But it doesn’t have the power supply to make all the remaining trains eight cars long.
“This is what we feel is the best option,” Troup said of the resulting plan. Of the other options, he said, “We don’t think any of those are sustainable.”
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