Metro officials are considering increasing the frequency of rush-hour service to Shady Grove by January 2019, in response to calls from Montgomery County officials who have urged the transit agency to end the practice known as “Red Line turn-backs.”
“I think most people in Montgomery County government are very frustrated by the process,” said Metro board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland on the panel. “This should have happened six months ago.”
At Thursday’s Metro board meeting, Goldman and board members Keturah Harley and Malcolm Augustine, who also represent Maryland, expressed outrage that the transit agency appeared to be doing a last-minute rethinking on whether it was a good idea to eliminate the turn-backs — especially in light of a 2015 board resolution that directed Metro to restore full rush-hour service to Shady Grove by summer 2018.
“We’re the board. There was a resolution. It’s not your job to interpret the resolution. It’s your job to implement,” said Augustine, who represents Prince George’s County.
“Now, if we need to make a change, and you want to suggest that we make a change, that hasn’t been done,” Augustine continued. The resolution, he said, “was made as a compromise so we could get these power upgrades done.”
In documents released in advance of the board meeting, agency officials said they will seek input from the public on whether to add trains to the system so they can provide more peak-period service from Grosvenor-Strathmore to Shady Grove station.
As it stands now, Metro employs a practice on the Red Line known as “turn-backs”: During peak periods, every other outbound train on the line reverses direction at Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring stations, part of an effort to increase the frequency of service in the downtown core, at the cost of increased wait times for people boarding or alighting at the furthest-out stations.
Currently, the two ends of the Red Line — from Grosvenor-Strathmore to Shady Grove, and from Silver Spring to Glenmont stations — are serviced by one train every eight minutes during weekday peak periods, which extend from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. and from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Toward the center of the Red Line, trains in either direction arrive very 4 minutes.
Now, Metro says it’s seriously considering what it would cost the state of Maryland to restore service to the westernmost stations — White Flint, Twinbrook, Rockville, and Shady Grove stations. They’re also considering other less-costly options, which would maintain a few of the turn-backs in every hour of peak-period service, but would decrease the average wait time for people who live or work at the western end of the Red Line.
“Staff will conduct a public outreach process to solicit customer and local comments on the proposed alternatives for increased Red Line Service,” Metro’s report says.
In one option presented by Metro, full service could be restored to the western end of the Red Line, with 15 trains per hour running to Shady Grove. Under this schedule, Shady Grove, Rockville, Twinbrook, and White Flint stations would experience 4-minute rush hour headways between trains.
In an alternate scenario, Metro could partially increase the number of trains that travel to Shady Grove station during peak periods — about 12 trains per hour — so that the wait time between trains would be reduced to an average of 5 minutes, though individual headways would vary. The documents also offer a third scenario, which would keep the Red Line train scheduled unchanged.
But Goldman said he and other Montgomery County officials wonder why these alternate scenarios are even on the table. He cited a resolution passed by the Metro board in 2015, which declared the transit agency’s intention to end the turn-backs on the Grosvenor side of the Red Line in summer 2018, once Metro’s new fleet of 7000-series railcars had arrived and been added to the system.
“It’s clearly stated that the Grosvenor turn-backs were supposed to end in the beginning of the 2019 fiscal year” that starts in July, Goldman said. “And frankly, the so-called alternatives presented by the staff are frustrating. The board resolution very clearly states that all peak-period rush hours trains are supposed to travel to Shady Grove.”
“There should be no option to maintain the status quo, and no option to permanently go to just 11 or 12 trains per hour in peak periods,” Goldman added.
At Thursday’s meeting, Harley noted that the 2015 board resolution was agreed upon, in part, as a bargaining tool, to persuade Maryland to invest in power upgrades for the system. She demanded that Metro staff live up to the commitment.
“This is not a ‘gotcha’ moment. This is something that Metro staff should have been preparing for,” she said.
Metro Chief Operations Officer Joseph Leader said the rationale behind presenting the three different options — full, partial, and no elimination of the turnbacks — was part of an effort to assess whether the schedule changes are still the best option for the system.
“In 2015, service was different. Ridership was different. Ridership has definitely changed now,” Leader said.
Leader argued that automatically implementing the three-year-old plan without a new round of discussions would be irresponsible, especially in light of the dramatic schedule changes and service cutbacks implemented recently.
“We’d be going against everything that we just did” to reevaluate the needs of the system, Leader said.
“I think it would be delinquent on our parts if we didn’t provide all these options to the board,” added Chief Safety Officer Patrick Lavin.
If the Metro board ultimately votes over the summer to reduce or eliminate the Grosevnor-Strathmore turn-backs, the new schedule is expected to start in late December.
Before the meeting, Montgomery County Council member Sidney Katz, who represents Gaithersburg and Rockville, agreed that Metro should have addressed the issue sooner.
“I would have liked to have had this fixed a couple years ago,” Katz said. “It’s inefficient and not helpful to turn the trains around at Grosvenor. So at least now there is a positive sign from Metro.”
Katz said eliminating the turn-backs are necessary to handle the rapid development on the western end of the Red Line, and the increasing numbers of people in the Maryland suburbs who have the option of parking at Shady Grove to take Metro downtown.
“Regardless of what the cost is to restore service to Shady Grove, there’s a cost for not doing it as well,” Katz said. “There’s all this extra time people have to wait for another train. That was never efficient.”
Metro officials said they are still working to determine a cost estimate for increasing the frequency of service to Shady Grove, but Goldman said he has seen estimates putting the price at around $2.5 million annually. If Metro decided to partially eliminate the turn-backs, providing 12 trains per hour between Grosvenor-Strathmore and Shady Grove, that would cost $1.75 million, he said.
“In a $1.8 billion budget, this is very small change. Less than pocket change,” Goldman said.
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Metro is not considering ending the turn-backs at Silver Spring station, on the northeast end of the Red Line.
There are other steps that Metro must take before there can be any decision on the frequency of Red Line service. They must conduct a demographic equity analysis, to ensure that the schedule changes wouldn’t have a disparately negative effect on any particular group of people. And Metro plans to hire a consulting firm to assess whether there should be any operational changes or infrastructure improvements that would help the transit agency increase the frequency and reliability of service to Shady Grove station.
Specifically, Metro may need to build another train crossover at Shady Grove to accommodate the extra rush-hour traffic of reversing trains.
This story has been updated.