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Metro ridership continues to plummet along with service

While the Tysons Corner Metro station was a bright spot for Metro ridership last year, the rail system has yet to recover from stresses imposed on service by the addition of the Silver Line. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Metrorail ridership in the second half of 2015 “dropped to levels not seen since 2004,” according to a new report from the transit authority.

The details are unrelentingly dismal. “On a year-to-date basis,” the report says, “overall weekday ridership was down six percent compared to FY2015 [the fiscal year that began in July 2014 and ended in June 2015], and weekend ridership was down twelve percent.”

The staff’s quarterly report, prepared for presentation to the Metro board’s finance committee on Thursday, said that “the drop was pervasive and not linked to any particular event or weather. Weekend rail ridership fell 12 percent versus FY2015, as service levels were reduced more than last year for track rehabilitation. Weekday bus ridership also fell by three percent” in the last six months of calendar year 2015.

It gets worse.

The staff found that “the ridership declines have impacted nearly all stations, time periods and trip types and cannot be attributed to poor weather, as the autumn and early winter were relatively mild.” Exceptions: The Greensboro and Tysons Corner stations, two of the Silver Line stations in Fairfax County that opened in mid-2014, saw ridership growth in October 2015, compared with October 2014, and November was a good month for the Silver Line’s McLean station.

Weekend ridership got a one-time bump from the Million Man March anniversary in October, but the average Saturday ridership was down 17 percent.

In yet another measure of the overall decline, use of the Metro parking lots and garages was down 2 percent. The opening of the Silver Line continued to cause some shifting around in station use, so Wiehle-Reston East and East Falls Church did better.

Silver Line a mixed blessing for riders

Overall, the staff said, the declines in parking were concentrated along the New Carrollton and Largo branches of the Silver, Orange and Blue lines. The northern part of the Green Line saw some growth, notably the College Park station near the end of the line.

As in its previous quarterly report, the staff focused on some customer service issues that made riding Metro more unpleasant in 2015, most notably the increasing unreliability of the train schedules. It’s yet more evidence that Metro wasn’t ready for the Silver Line and that the start-up had bad effects on service throughout the rail system.

“It is difficult to determine how long it takes for riders to react, or by how much,” the report says, “but rail reliability began to decrease for customers around the time of the Silver Line launch, turning down particularly since May 2015.” This was around the time that Metro managers acknowledged that the Silver Line start-up had stressed the transit authority’s ability to put out an adequate number of rail cars each day. Managers also acknowledged that they couldn’t maintain the service schedules they had committed to for the Silver, Orange and Blue lines.

This was before the power station fire near Stadium-Armory created a new crisis, leading the transit authority to further space out the time between trains on the Orange and Silver lines.

The staff report adds that during 2015, these things got worse for Metrorail’s morning commuters: median travel times, the unpredictability of travel times and the frequency of severe delays. The report says that’s a systemwide result, not something isolated to the power problem created by the Stadium-Armory fire.

This is a quarterly financial report, not a program for corrective action. But it does note some of Metro’s prospects for improvement. The staff forecasts that Metro will have received at least 60 of the new rail cars by the end of June, though this is way behind the original schedule for delivery of the 7000-series cars. Metro will continue to rehab tracks, stations, escalators and elevators. Power stations will be upgraded, though not as many as originally planned in the fiscal 2016 budget, a problem stemming from the Stadium-Armory fire.

Unmentioned in this report is any ridership and revenue boost Metro could get from the increase for 2016 in the federal transit benefit.

If it weren’t for the transit benefit — in other words, if so many people weren’t paid to ride — the Metro numbers for 2015 might have looked even worse.

Late last year, Metro released its survey of rail and bus customer satisfaction, through the third quarter of the year.

That report said the survey results made “clear that the only way to substantially improve satisfaction is through sustained and consistent service delivery.”