The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Keeping the Metro open later could also mean keeping it less safe

People wait for Metro trains along the Red Line at the Cleveland Park station in Washington in November.
People wait for Metro trains along the Red Line at the Cleveland Park station in Washington in November. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

THE DISTRICT has threatened to wield its rarely used jurisdictional veto on the Metro board to force the rail agency to restore late-night service. Let’s hope the hard-line stance is merely a bargaining tool in the ongoing discussion about service hours. If the District follows through on its threat, it may harm Metro’s ability to perform the preventive maintenance that is critical to the safety of the system.

Metro’s safety committee is set to vote Thursday on a resolution that would continue, until at least June 2020, the system’s current hours of operation, in which service ends at 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 11 p.m. on Sunday. The hours were put in place 18 months ago to give more time to crews on the SafeTrack maintenance program launched after a series of safety lapses, including the deadly 2015 smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza. D.C. representatives on the board insisted on a sunset provision, and board approval is needed if the hours are to continue after June.

Metro officials make a convincing case for the current hours. Detecting, not simply reacting, to problems has paid off with the best on-time performance in seven years and fewer track and safety incidents. But there is still work to be done, and narrowing the overnight window for crews to inspect and repair would cause problems. Metro officials said they would have to resume single-tracking trains midday to do maintenance. The Federal Transit Administration has warned that a change in hours could put grant funding at risk and impact its certification of the Metrorail Safety Commission.

D.C. officials insist that the former late-night hours — service until midnight Sunday through Thursday, 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday — are vital to the city’s nightlife. We question how much the city’s lively restaurant and club scene (about which city officials regularly boast) has been impeded. Metro surveyed cities known for their nightlife and found the last trains in Hong Kong and Tokyo are at 1 a.m., in Paris at 1:40 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and in San Francisco at midnight. We are sympathetic to the burden placed on late-night workers, but is it in the interest of Metro customers and taxpayers to keep a 234-track-mile system with 91 stations and six lines completely powered up for what Metro estimates is a very small number of people? Metro officials have a plan in the works to provide subsidies for late-night workers who use on-demand transport services.

Metro has offered several alternatives to the city, including one that would extend Friday and Saturday service to 2 a.m., but, so far, the city has rejected any compromise. “We’re kind of the Lone Ranger on this,” said Metro Board Chairman and D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), acknowledging that Metro’s Maryland, Virginia and federal representatives favor continuation of the current hours. D.C. officials need to be reminded of the scolding Metro got from a federal safety official about not being “willing to learn from prior events” after a woman died in the L’Enfant incident, and ask themselves whether this is an issue they want to be an outlier on.

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