The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Metro riders are unhappy — and they have every right to be

A red line train pulls up to the Rhode Island avenue station. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Washington, D.C.’s transit system published a performance report last week covering the first three quarters of its current fiscal year. The report features a tsunami of metrics, data and factoids, but here’s the bottom line: Bus and rail customers are unhappy, and they have every right to be.

The time passengers in this region spend waiting for transit rather than riding on it, which was already worse than in most other major U.S. and Western cities, spiked last year. That amounts to a frustration index for customers who rely on Metro to get to work, home, errands and recreation. Little wonder that passenger satisfaction on Metrorail, whose good health is a precondition for the region’s economic recovery from the pandemic, plummeted in recent months. It now stands at 68 percent, a dismal figure. Bus passenger satisfaction is even worse: 64 percent.

The causes for the subway’s recent troubles are well known. They stem mainly from a long-standing problem with the wheels on its newest rail cars, which account for 60 percent of Metro’s fleet. When those cars were pulled from service last fall, wait times jumped. So did riders’ exasperation.

In recent months, subway riders have been waiting for 20 minutes between trains on every Metro route except the Red Line, where the wait has been half that, according to the agency. According to data compiled by Moovit, a popular urban mobility app, subway and bus riders in the Washington and Baltimore area report they wait an average of 17 minutes for their ride to arrive. Compare that to wait times elsewhere in the United States (Boston, 11 minutes; New York, 13; Chicago and Philadelphia, both 15) and in other major Western cities (London, Berlin and Sydney, all 10 minutes; Paris and Mexico City, 11).

Metro’s report notes that subway wait times will be halved under the budget approved for the fiscal year starting this summer. It’s probably wise to read that forecast with two asterisks. First, it presupposes that the 7000-series rail cars — the ones removed from service because of wheel problems — will be back and running soon, as was predicted a few months ago. Second, the budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus dollars approved by Congress, which will be depleted by next summer. So even if the 7000-series trains return, Metro is likely to have troubles maintaining lower wait times.

What’s more, Metro recently realized that nearly half its 500 train drivers have fallen behind on their mandatory retraining, an inexcusable management failure. Pulling them off trains to get them recertified will add to delays for months. That news prompted the premature departure of the system’s general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, one month before he was set to retire.

His replacement, Randy Clarke, who currently heads the transit system in Austin, takes the reins this summer. He appears to know what he is up against but told The Post subway ridership will rebound once the 7000-series trains return.

Maybe, but that won’t keep Metro from running off a budget cliff next year, when federal pandemic relief funds run dry. For Mr. Clarke, Job No. 1 should be beefing up funding from Metro’s stakeholders in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. Failing that, the system’s outlook will remain dim.