When Metro executives first floated the idea last year of curtailing service starting this July, they offered a silver lining to the cutbacks: With slightly longer waits between trains, and more time dedicated to maintenance work at night, Metro would become better-functioning and more reliable. Riders would see benefits.
And, according to new statistics released Monday by the transit agency, that prediction may well have been correct.
According to Metro’s latest numbers, 89 percent of rail trips taken in August ended “on-time” — within a few minutes of their scheduled conclusion, according to MyTripTime data that uses SmarTrip card information to compare the estimated and actual length of customers’ trips.
That’s significantly higher than Metro’s stated goal — 75 percent of rail trips on-time — and even higher than the performance reported last May, when 69 percent of rail trips were completed on-time.
Metro is using that number as a cause for celebration, and pairing it with other statistics that offer an optimistic view of the system’s performance. For example, the frequency of passengers being offloaded from trains in the middle of service has decreased by 40 percent — due in large part to the retirement of Metro’s problematic 1000- and 4000-series trains, and the influx of new 7000s.
Fire and smoke incidents are down by 20 percent. And, according to Metro, the number of defective air-conditioning systems on trains in July was 60 percent lower than in July 2016.
In a Monday afternoon interview on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said he was “thrilled” about the developments with the latest on-time performance figures.
“Across the board the numbers are [pointing] the right way,” Wiedefeld said.
Those stats are a coup for Metro and its riders, to be sure.
But they’re also a reflection of the less-laudatory realities of the system as it stands. For the past two months, Metro has been running fewer trains with less frequency, for fewer hours, and with fewer riders than in the recent past. It’s easier to run a smooth, punctual system when trains are spread out, overcrowding is a less pressing concern, and there’s more time during off-peak service to tackle infrastructure issues that crop up throughout the day.
Slimming down service may have led to some short-term wins for the agency, but it’s hardly a long-term solution. Metro continues to worry about the drop-off in ridership, which cuts into revenue and could ultimately lead to a so-called “death spiral” where reduced service and flagging ridership exacerbate one another.
“If you remember we were going the wrong way not too long ago,” Wiedefeld said in his WAMU interview. “So the fact that it’s stabilized I think is a very good sign, and again, I think the proof is in the pudding and the customers … they will tell us when they feel it’s where it needs to be, but we will continue just to focus on getting the system reliable and, obviously, safe all the time.”
Even so, Metro’s litany of performance successes released Monday was not really aimed at riders — but instead at local lawmakers and regional leaders who have Metro’s future in their hands. For the past several months, Wiedefeld has been on a campaign for dedicated funding to pay for maintenance and safety improvements for the system.
And many regional officials have balked at the idea, saying that additional funding — particularly establishing a new tax to fund Metro’s needs — is out of the question without the system showing significant improvement. Just two weeks ago, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declared in a closed-door meeting that he had no intention of pumping extra money into Metro, even floating the idea that Metro privatize a line of the system to help continue the current level of operations.
Then Monday, Hogan did an about-face — offering to give the transit system an extra $500 million over four years if Virginia, the District and the federal government each match it. While Metro supporters lauded the proposal, the plan faces significant hurdles in a Republican Congress and GOP-controlled Virginia legislature.
That’s why Metro is making its most compelling argument that the system is on the come up — and why an 89 percent rail on-time performance rate in August will become such a significant talking point in coming months.
Metro board member Christian Dorsey said Monday that Metro’s latest set of numbers made him optimistic that the system will continue to improve.
“Everyone continues to be on-board with the progress that’s been made,” Dorsey said. “We’re moving in the right directions. But it’s really incumbent on the executives of all three jurisdictions to figure out what they can do.”
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.