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Wiedefeld says Metro Red Line turn-backs could be phased out at the end of the year

Under a new timeline proposed by Metro’s general manager, the Grosvenor-Strathmore turn-backs could get phased out at the end of the year. (Abigail Hauslohner – The Washington Post)

Though Metro’s budget staff had offered a grim outlook on the potential return of full service to Glenmont and Shady Grove stations, a new letter from General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to the Montgomery County Council delivers a more optimistic message.

In a letter delivered to the council Monday, Wiedefeld said he is planning to start a conversation about what it would take to end the practice of reversing some rush-hour trains at Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring stations — a practice that started years ago to deal with a shortage of trains and to preserve frequency of service in the downtown core.

Still, increasing service on the Red Line would entail extra costs for Montgomery County, and Wiedefeld said in his letter that “management is also refining operating expense estimates based on the rail service plans under consideration.” (In a memo to the Metro Board released Monday, Metro’s budget staff said it would require roughly $500,000 annually to run full service to the western end of the Red Line during daily peak periods.)

The soonest the Red Line turn-backs might conclude, Wiedefeld projected: December, which is still six months later than the Montgomery County Council requested in its letter to Wiedefeld last week.

“Staff is working with an external consultant to study what infrastructure and operational improvements are required to operate the enhanced service from Shady Grove to Grosvenor in a reliable manner,” Wiedefeld said.

Wiedefeld’s approach may be heartening to the Montgomery County Council, and to riders who live near the terminus of each end of the Red Line. The council in its letter argued that the   continued turn-backs “severely diminishes service,” and threaten to hurt Metro’s ridership numbers. They want full service to the Shady Grove end of the line restored by July 1.

There wasn’t much good news in a recent memo from Metro budget staff to the Metro board’s finance committee, which pointed that ending the turn-backs would require more money in the budget, and hiring more train operators. The memo also argued that enhanced service “would likely generate only a nominal ridership increase, as increased capacity does not generally result in ridership growth when capacity is already available.”

But Wiedefeld appears to be taking Montgomery’s complaints seriously.

In his letter, he outlined a timeline that could potentially restore service by December. Enacting the scheduled changes by the end of the year would require conducting public hearings and a federally-mandated demographic equity analysis. It would also require Metro to hire and train new operators, Wiedefeld said.

Wiedefeld called that timeline “aggressive but achievable.” He is planning to present potential scenarios to the Metro board in March. In one scenario, there would no more turn-backs at Grosvenor-Strathmore station. In a second scenario, there would be partial elimination of the turn-backs. In the third scenario, there would be no schedule change.

The board would vote on a preferred scenario in July.