Red Line riders this week see the crowding on the platforms and trains caused by the SafeTrack project that has trains on most of Metro’s busiest line set to run six minutes apart. The chart above, part of the Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s preliminary budget presentation for the Metro board, shows the gaps between trains proposed as part of the service cuts meant to balance the budget — along with fare increases and higher contributions from the D.C. region’s taxpayers.
The budget that the staff presents each fall is an opening argument. It gets modified by the board and is the subject of public hearings before the board adopts a final budget in the spring for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Often, proposals in the transit staff’s budget draw attention to a particularly repulsive option, and it gets modified when some better-sounding revenue option is thrown in later.
But this proposed Metrorail schedule really ought to get the attention of riders, employers and civic leaders. The scheduled gap between Red Line trains, for example, would increase by two minutes for rush-hour trains departing the ends of the line at Shady Grove and Glenmont. Right now, the schedule calls for trains to depart every six minutes, with more trains and more frequent service in the zone between Grosvenor and Silver Spring. These timing changes won’t sound like a lot to commuters who don’t use the rail system. But riders who arrive at Red Line platforms at the height of rush hour know exactly how much a difference it makes in terms of crowding when the gap between trains increases a couple of minutes.
The proposal also reinstitutes the train turnbacks at Grosvenor during off-peak hours, with every other Red Line train to Shady Grove ending its trip at Grosvenor.
While the plan won’t please riders on most lines, there is some good news for the Blue Line riders who travel to and from Virginia at rush hour. Right now, they experience the biggest gap between rush hour trains on any line. It’s 12 minutes. Under the staff’s proposal, the gap between trains would be reduced to eight minutes, the same as on every other line outside the system’s core.
You can compare the newly proposed gaps with today’s system by looking at the chart below.
In a way, the new version is a balanced schedule, but it will affect different riders in different ways. Some of those Blue Line riders switched over to the Yellow Line Rush Plus service from Franconia-Springfield when the gap between their Blue trains was widened. But the new plan eliminates Yellow Line Rush Plus.
Also, riders in Metrorail’s core will experience more frequent service than those on the outskirts. We see that on the Red Line with the extra trains between Grosvenor and Silver Spring. But a rider who travels just a few stations in the tunnel between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory could see a train every two or three minutes, because the rider could take a Blue, Orange or Silver Line train. Meanwhile, someone traveling from, say, Metro Center to Vienna would experience that eight-minute gap between Orange Line trains.
Riders on the new portion of the Silver Line traveling from Wiehle-Reston East to Metro Center now have trains scheduled to operate every six minutes. But if this new plan goes into effect, the gap will become eight minutes.
In its budget presentation, the transit staff says this new schedule would result in a net savings of about $12 million a year. That’s an estimated $20 million in cost reduction offset by a loss of about $8 million in fare revenue from reduced ridership.
But the staff also characterizes this plan as “right-sizing” the rail service for this era’s reduced levels of ridership: “Given current ridership levels, Metro can right-size its rail service and still remain within [Metro] Board-approved standards for crowding as measured by average passengers per car during the peak hour.”
Does this look like the right size for your trips?