Metro riders: If your train schedules have seemed a bit random during SafeTrack, you’re not imagining things.
When it came to sending trains through SafeTrack surge zones, Metro was improvising at various points this summer, according to newly released inspection reports from the Federal Transit Administration. And riders bore the burden of the lax scheduling.
The FTA released a trove of inspection reports Friday highlighting issues with how the SafeTrack work is being performed, as well as comments, criticisms and recommendations inspectors have for Metro as it continues the massive rebuilding project.
As the reports show, Metro failed to establish clear service patterns multiple times during SafeTrack, over the course of at least three surges. The problems began with SafeTrack’s launch in June, and persisted through at least August, the month for which the most recent data is available.
FTA inspectors noted the issue at separate times during surges 1, 5 and 7. Here is an FTA inspector’s assessment of train service at Ballston on June 16, when Metro was single-tracking from East Falls Church to Ballston– a surge that lasted 13 days.
WMATA did not have a clear pattern of where trains were going today, in the past there was a pattern 2 left side going back to DC, 2 right side going to Vienna/Reston, then those 2 trains came back on right side and went toward DC. Today there was no pattern at all. Twice they had 4 trains in a row run on right side toward DC while holding a Vienna train in the tunnel for 10 minutes.
The lack of a clear service pattern can lead to crowded conditions and, as riders know, commuter frustration. Metro has warned of excessive wait times in the immediate area of surge zones, and even asked riders to seek alternatives to rail, but for those who have no other choice, even the promises of 18-minute headways have been unreliable.
“The trains they were holding for extended periods of time in the tunnel were very crowded with the aisles full of standing passengers,” the FTA inspector said on June 16. “The WMATA employees on the platform were very confused on why the trains were running this way and were having to wait until they physically seen the train going to the left or right before they could make announcements sometimes.”
Metro appeared to have corrected the issue by the time July’s SafeTrack surges on the Blue and Yellow lines began– at least on the day an inspector noted.
“WMATA did have a clear pattern of where trains were going today, all blue trains were on one side and all yellow trains were on the other side,” an inspector noted during Surge #4, between National Airport and Pentagon City.
But later that month, during Surge #5 between East Falls Church and Ballston, an FTA inspector found Metro was still having trouble sticking to a schedule.
“There was no traffic pattern for trains,” an inspector wrote July 21.
A few weeks later, on Aug. 9 and 10 when Metro was single-tracking from Twinbrook to Shady Grove, the problem cropped up again, when Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center failed to adhere to a plan, according to the FTA.
“WMATA ROCC did not have a clear pattern of trains today, one would come to Shady Grove, and then two trains would come back to back,” an inspector said.
The inspectors’ observations illustrated the impact a lack of a clear pattern can have on passengers, and the FTA urged the ROCC to make a fix.
“Recommend better planning by ROCC to keep from sending to many trains in one direction without having a train going back,” the inspector said. “At times there was 3 trains going toward shady grove and nothing going back toward DC. There were a lot of trains going out of service. Passengers had to offload and then get on next train, at one point the same passengers offloaded at 2 stations in a row.”
A Metro spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment on whether the scheduling issues have been corrected.
Metro currently is in the midst of its ninth SafeTrack surge, encompassing 42 days of continuous single-tracking from Vienna to West Falls Church. The transit agency has turned to some unconventional measures to assist riders through the disruptions, which included a full rail service shutdown in the surge zone over the weekend. To compensate for lost service, Metro ran special Orange Line trains to Wiehle-Reston, surprising riders who may have thought the adjustment was a glitch. Wiehle-Reston is the terminus of the Silver Line. Metro is also running special “shuttle trains” from Vienna to West Falls Church during the week.