Progress is modest and probably fragile, and the network’s challenges haven’t disappeared. It faces stiff competition from ride-, bike- and scooter-sharing — Metro has probably lost many millennials for good — not to mention headwinds in the form of teleworking and a constant battle against aging infrastructure. Still, after years of thinning subway crowds — average weekday passenger counts have fallen every year since 2012, including vertiginous drops in 2015-2016 — ridership has ticked up this year in concert with significant, measurable gains in reliability, physical upgrades and overall service.
Maintaining that progress is essential for regional vitality, as well as the sanity of regular Metro users. Metrorail is the common thread of the Washington area’s most dramatic pockets of recent economic success — downtown Bethesda; the District’s 14th Street corridor; the Rosslyn-Clarendon-Ballston daisy chain of urban renewal in Arlington. An underfunded, underperforming and underused subway system would be a recipe for regional stagnation.
It might be premature to speak of a turnaround, but the elements of one are in place. They start with sound management under the leadership of Paul J. Wiedefeld, Metro’s general manager since 2015, who had the guts to impose a draconian track- and maintenance-improvement plan that traded a full year of pain (service cuts and inconvenience) in the hope of long-term gains (fewer delays and accidents). That has paid off in terms of on-time performance, which is now roughly 90 percent, a seven-year high, and sharply higher ratings from passengers. Moreover, the prospect of future improvements has brightened since the District, Maryland and Virginia agreed last year to increase their ongoing annual capital subsidy to Metro by $500 million.
It has also helped that Metro has replaced hundreds of grubby older railcars with the spiffy new 7000-series cars, at a cost of some $1.5 billion; they’ll soon account for about two-thirds of the cars in use during daily peak travel periods. Then there’s clever marketing: The system has courted commuters by offering automatic money-back credit for future travel when any rush-hour trip is delayed by 10 minutes or more.
Although there have been no lethal subway incidents since the smoke episode at L’Enfant Plaza that killed one passenger and sickened dozens in January 2015, Metro remains prone to meltdowns such as the one Monday morning, following a pre-dawn collision involving two trains running without passengers, which incapacitated the Blue, Orange and Silver lines for much of the day. It is handicapped by having just one subway tunnel connecting Virginia and the District under the Potomac
Commuting patterns, like other habits, are hard to change. Having lost nearly 20 percent of its average daily ridership over the past decade, even as the region added hundreds of thousands of new residents, Metro has plenty more work to do to regain passengers’ trust. The current trajectory, at least, is promising.