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Metrobus riders will be required to board from rear doors, making rides essentially free

The agency is looking to stabilize service schedules after a week of sudden changes.

Few riders wait on the Silver Spring platform March 18 even as Metro has reduced service multiple times in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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To help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, Metrobus riders will be required to board using the rear doors and will not have to tap their fare cards, according to a letter sent to employees Sunday.

The change, which begins Tuesday, means rides essentially are free.

“As an additional step to protect the Metro family and the communities we serve, effective Tuesday morning, we will move to rear-door-only boarding on Metrobus,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in the letter.

“At that time, passengers will no longer be required to tap their fare cards, and no cash will be accepted on board. Essentially, bus travel will be free during this time,” Wiedefeld said.

Wiedefeld also said a third Metro employee has tested positive for the coronavirus — a worker in one of the transit authority’s storerooms.

Starting Monday, waits between trains on Metrorail will be 20 minutes — a 10-minute improvement, with stations that serve multiple lines seeing waits as short as seven minutes, the agency said.

Red Line trains are scheduled to run every 15 minutes.

Metrobus will run on a reduced schedule similar to its normal Sunday schedule but with a few additional routes serving federal work centers for the Coast Guard and other agencies.

Service was limited to 20 routes for part of Saturday and all of Sunday.

The agency is hoping to provide riders with reduced but steady service after a week of drastic cutbacks and sudden shifts that left some riders stranded but were made in the name of public health to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, the agency said.

“Further service changes and contingencies are under review considering the guidance from public health experts, declining ridership, and workforce availability,” Wiedefeld said. “This includes further reduction to bus and train frequency, as well as the closure of some stations. As we develop further plans and determine details, information will be shared immediately.

Metro officials said Sunday they’re doing the best they can, recognizing the needs of people without any other means for travel than public transportation, while also juggling the need to protect passengers and transit employees.

From the outset, Metro has said its service reductions have been made to limit the amount of shifts operators needed to work while trying to persuade enough riders to forego public transportation so vehicles would not fill up and aid the transmission of the virus, which has infected more than 500 people in the District, Virginia and Maryland.

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The most recent Metro employee diagnosed with the coronavirus worked in a storeroom at the transit agency’s Carmen Turner center. Wiedefeld said anyone who has been in contact with the worker has been notified to monitor themselves and the area in which the employee worked has been cleaned and sanitized.

On Saturday, a Metrobus operator who works out of the Bladensburg division tested positive for the coronavirus. The operator was the second publicly known Metro employee who had been diagnosed. Last week, a Metro Transit police officer tested positive, prompting the brief evacuation of the District 2 police station in Fairfax County for sanitizing.

Fear of the virus has led to absences among Metro’s workforce, the agency has acknowledged, but it said operators are largely showing up for shifts and doing heroic work at stressful times.

Requiring passengers to board buses from the rear door protects drivers by limiting their exposure to riders, and it was a condition the union had asked for. Riders in wheelchairs that require lifts to board can still enter through the front door, Metro said.

Metrobus driver tests positive for the coronavirus as agency reduces service to just 20 routes on Sunday

Although the frequency of service is being increased slightly, officials are still discouraging people from using Metro and Metrobus unless absolutely necessary. The agency plans on closing some Metro stations and entrances in the coming days to save sanitizing supplies used on escalators, turnstiles and other areas of public contact. They warn they could shut down bus service altogether if conditions warrant it.

Rail ridership was down 86 percent Friday, while Metrobus passenger trips had declined by 65 percent compared with the same dates last year, Metro said.

“Unfortunately, too many people continue to use Metrobus, where capacity is extremely limited and additional service reductions are expected,” Metro said in a statement. “Metro wants to provide bus service for essential trips in the region, but if continued usage for nonessential trips becomes a public health concern, Metro may consider discontinuing all bus service.

“Simply put: public health concerns take priority over individual transportation needs.”

Metro shifted and downgraded transit schedules multiple times last week, canceling peak-hour frequency on all rail lines and moving from schedules Metrobus typically runs on weekends. The transit authority also closed the Arlington Cemetery and Smithsonian Metro stations indefinitely midweek to dissuade tourists and others from flocking to the Tidal Basin to view the annual blooming of the famous cherry blossoms.

The day-by-day changes left some riders waiting at bus stops not knowing their route had been canceled. Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council, a committee that advises the transit agency’s board members, said the agency’s tweets and statements advising people not to use Metro except for essential trips were less important than making sure riders know what routes were open.

“Please [Metro], begging you here,” the council tweeted. “LESS SHAMING BUS RIDERS, MORE COMMUNICATING SERVICE LEVELS.”

As part of its preventive measures to try to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, Metro has told bus operators not to pick up passengers if they believe adding more riders would put passengers too close to each other.

Andrew Kierig, vice chair of the Riders’ Advisory Council, said Metrobus operators, station managers and train operators “are heroes in this crisis,” and he said he was grateful for their work. But he said route and service reductions have led to crowded conditions for people who have no other means to get to work or buy groceries.

“Instead of shaming those still riding buses, Metro must do everything in its power to run the service necessary to ensure adequate social distancing and protect its employees,” Kierig said. “Metro’s communication has been severely inconsistent: the announcement Saturday of further bus service reductions left riders scrambling and was not easily accessible on [Metro’s] website. Riders who are making genuinely essential trips have been left with little to no information about actual service levels.”

In Wiedefeld’s letter, he told Metro employees that if elected officials in any part of the region issue curfews or “shelter-in-place” orders, essential employees will still be needed to respond to work. He defined those as “employees who operate lifeline services, protect employees and assets, and maintain equipment and infrastructure."

“I want to thank all of you who worked over the weekend, continuing to provide service to our customers for essential travel — from cleaning and disinfecting rolling stock and facilities to responding to concerns and questions from our workforce and customers,” he told employees. “I appreciate the sacrifices you are making to fulfill our public duty.”