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Tensions simmer as Metro ridership grows during train shortage

The strain between the agency and its regulator spills into the open during a Metro board meeting

Metro commuters use the Silver Spring Metro station. Metro board members expressed frustration on Thursday over a lengthy shortage of rail cars in the system. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Metro board members Thursday questioned their regulatory agency’s commitment to returning more trains to the system and its awareness of overcrowding problems, expressing frustration over a year-long rail car shortage that has dented ridership and exacerbated budget shortfalls.

The growing tension came one day after Metrorail marked a pandemic-era ridership high, a milestone that was celebrated, but also marred by crowded trains. More than half of Metro’s cars were suspended by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission because of a wheel defect, ushering in lengthy waits for riders as more commuters return to offices.

The simmering strain between Metro and the safety commission amid the pressure of growing passenger demand spilled into the open during a regular meeting of Metro’s board. It’s the latest challenge to grow from a federal derailment investigation that has limited Metro’s ability to rebound from the pandemic as it suffers steep fare revenue losses to telework.

Fallout grows from Metro’s train shortage amid safety probe

“I am concerned about the lack of focus from the safety commission on crowding as a safety issue,” said Metro board member and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew Letourneau. “This is not the first time that this has come out, but it has not been, I don’t think, taken seriously.”

In response, safety commission officials said after the meeting that Metro hasn’t used the daily allotment of 7000-series rail cars the transit agency has been allowed to use. The commission also said Metro hasn’t turned in a plan for the use of more cars that would resolve the panel’s safety concerns.

Metro averages about 260,000 daily weekday trips on Metrorail and 300,000 trips on Metrobus, officials said Thursday. Aided by tourists attending a D.C. convention and fans traveling to the Washington Capitals’ first home game of the season, rail ridership climbed above 300,000 on Wednesday for the first time since the pandemic began.

While that number is about 45 percent of Metro’s average weekday ridership in October 2019, the increasing number of riders and lack of train capacity appeared to push Metro to its limits. Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said weekday ridership at 8 a.m. is up 35 percent since Labor Day, and the amount of time in which passengers are experiencing crowded conditions has increased 167 percent.

Clarke indicated last month that without more trains, Metro might not be able to open the long-delayed, 11.4-mile Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport, which is tentatively scheduled for later this year. He said Thursday he’s seen nothing to alleviate those fears.

“Ridership is only going to continue to grow, and the math will not add up. We have no more trains,” he said. “I know the community is frustrated. I know our passengers are frustrated. We share their frustration. We are doing everything we can.”

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said he is worried by Metro’s use of older trains — some dating to 1982 — to replace the suspended 7000-series cars.

“I’m really concerned about the continued reliance on these older legacy vehicles and the safety issues that may come,” Smedberg said. “We’re just continually running these cars.”

While Clarke said Metro is “running every available, approved train that we have,” Metro is not using all 20 of the 7000-series trains the safety commission has allowed it to run each day. Clarke said the agency can only run 16 trains because of the complexity and conditions required to prepare the cars for service under its agreement with the safety commission.

Safety commission spokesman Max Smith said his agency has outlined a path for Metro to “significantly increase the number of trains in passenger service,” but it has not heard back from transit officials.

“We appreciate [Metro’s] acknowledgment that its plan must be based on data to ensure that Metrorail has processes in place to provide for the necessary level of safety for riders and workers,” Smith said in a statement. “Metrorail has not submitted a plan revision that meets this requirement.”

Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said late Thursday his agency “has supplied all requested data” to the commission.

Metro gets OK to add more suspended trains with less frequent inspections

Transit leaders said Thursday they are continuing to take steps to lure back riders, moving forward with a plan shaped by customer requests, complaints and surveys.

The strategy includes hiring up to 20 workers who will roam across stations to assist passengers. Among other measures, stations and major bus transfer points will undergo detailed cleaning, officials said, and transit police will increasingly enforce fare evasion after lax enforcement in recent years.

Clarke and Metro staff on Thursday released more details about the enforcement plan. Police, who will start writing citations in the District in November and increasing enforcement in Maryland and Virginia, initially plan to deploy officers to stations where the highest number of fares have been skipped. Metro did not say how many officers would have fare-enforcement duties.

Restarting enforcement has troubled some Black riders and civil rights groups, who recall what they said was disproportionate enforcement at stations used most heavily by African American riders. Frequent stops and arrests, as well as reports of excessive force, led the D.C. Council to decriminalize the offense in 2018, making it punishable only by civil citations, although transit police have not written citations in the District in at least two years.

Activists have urged Metro to more strictly oversee fare evasion enforcement to avoid problems of the past. Nassim Moshiree, policy director for the ACLU of D.C., urged Metro to create an independent panel for complaints that could hold transit police accountable.

“We are concerned that Metro’s new enforcement initiative for fare evasion will put riders in danger,” Slosarski said in a statement. “Metro Transit Police have targeted Black riders for these dangerous and counterproductive enforcement stops.”

Clarke tried to address those concerns on Thursday, saying police will “lean” heavily on warnings.

“We’re trying to reduce tension,” Clarke said. “We don’t want to create a lot of confrontation, but at the same time, we need people to follow all the rules.”

He said police plan to inform and remind youths in the District to use SmarTrip cards, which are free for unlimited use through the Kids Ride Free program that includes District students.

“We want to help educate and get those students to using their cards,” Clarke said. “We’re not going to be having our transit police officers trying to arrest a 12-year-old. The 12-year-old should be, quite frankly, riding free already.”

Fare evasion, as well as Metro’s train shortage, have had a significant effect on customer satisfaction, according to a performance report presented Thursday.

Customer satisfaction dropped steadily in the fiscal year that ended in June, but inched up toward the end of that period. Last summer, 91 percent of rail and 87 percent of bus customers indicated they were satisfied with the system. That dipped to 68 percent and 64 percent, respectively, in the winter before both categories inched up to nearly 70 percent by the end of June.

Average rail wait times since the train shortage began have dropped to between eight and 15 minutes across the six rail lines, reflecting the gradual return of a small number of 7000-series trains since the summer.

Before their suspension, Metro trains were on time 91 percent of the time, on average, the report showed. That number has since fallen to 79 percent.

Board members also heard a report about crime within the system, which has fallen this year compared with last year. Officials said one area of concern was an increase in employee injuries on Metrobus, which has doubled year-over-year amid a rise in assaults and other conflicts with passengers.

Metro board member Tracy Hadden Loh called the trend “horrible” and asked for a detailed breakout of incidents to help officials find ways to reduce assaults, threats and harassment of bus operators.

correction

A quote from the ACLU of D.C. should have been attributed to Nassim Moshiree, the organization's policy director. This story has been updated.

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