People are seen on a train at Metro Center. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Metro trains are becoming less crowded, but not for the right reasons.

In its latest Vital Signs report, which covers August through October 2016, Metro reports only half as many instances of rush-hour overcrowding compared to the same period in 2015. The Blue Line, notoriously packed with its 12-minute rush-hour waits, never exceeded “optimal” crowding levels during the morning rush hour — according to performance metrics — and even the largest crowds, during the afternoon rush, were comparably smaller than a year before.

To be sure, the Blue Line was still a tight squeeze, carrying the largest rush-hour loads of any line in the system — and exceeding Metro’s targets nearly half the time during the evening rush.

But systemwide, the situation is improving, figures show — not because of any magical solution, but rather due to the precipitous drop in Metro ridership. (Metro dispatches monitors to high-ridership stations up to twice a month, so the counts represent a sampling of Metro crowds, rather than a comprehensive overview.)

Here’s a glimpse at the data in the Vital Signs report:


Compared to last year, Metro saw fewer instances of overcrowding during morning and afternoon peaks. (Screenshot: WMATA)

The most dramatic change occurred during morning rushes. While AM crowding exceeded targets in six instances in fall 2015, it only did so once last fall. In all, Metro recorded eight fewer instances of overcrowding compared to the same period of time a year earlier.

So what changed? Rush-hour ridership fell six percent over that time, Metro said, “leading to less-crowded railcars.” Falling ridership has contributed to a $290 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year, and Metro is planning to hike fares and reduce rail and bus service to make up for the gap.

SafeTrack, the agency’s yearlong repair program, was responsible for some of the losses. For the period in the latest report, SafeTrack surges hit the Red, Blue and Orange Lines. Surges 6 and 7 hit opposing ends of the Red Line, surge 8 snarled the Blue and Yellow lines near their southern terminus and surge 9 concentrated on the western segment of the Orange Line.

Riders heeded calls to stay away.

“The need for riders to make alternative travel choices was successfully communicated, thus mitigating the risk of overcrowding,” Metro said.

Evening rush hours continued to be a problem. Metro says trains are more crowded in the evening because the rush is concentrated over a shorter period of time — three hours, versus four hours for the morning rush. (Officially, peak fares are in effect from 5 to 9:30 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays.)

Further, more breakdowns and disruptions that occur during the day, leaving fewer railcars available for the evening rush, according to the transit agency.

Riders have called for a higher proportion of eight-car trains, the longest Metro runs, to reduce crowding on the Blue Line. Metro has pledged to run 50 percent of Blue Line trains in eight-car configurations during rush-hour periods, but data showed the transit agency failed to adhere to that promise in the fall.