Metro on Thursday said it will significantly boost train frequencies next month during peak hours as it recovers from low ridership during the pandemic and a rail car shortage that began in fall 2021.
The announcement is the latest sign that Metro is hoping to leave three years of crises behind it while concentrating on rebuilding its customer base, finding money to replace fares lost to telework and creating service plans to meet new pandemic-era demands.
Metro’s decision to increase service during the middle part of the workweek came after transit officials saw the greatest ridership demand on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Those days have become the most popular for workers headed to offices under flexible work arrangements that many companies and agencies have adopted as employees split time between workplaces and home. It also mirrors the busiest commuting days for drivers headed downtown.
“I hope that customers will see that these are tangible and real increases that will make their lives better,” Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said. “But I want to also really commit: The job is not done. We are 100 percent committed to get back to full budgeted service and run this network the way it was designed.”
The change also marks the latest evolution in Metro’s service plans after the safety commission suspended the agency’s 7000-series fleet in October 2021. A federal investigation into a derailment found a defect in several of the model’s cars that causes wheels to widen apart, creating instability.
The series, Metro’s most advanced cars, makes up about 60 percent of the transit agency’s fleet. Their absence created a train shortage that pushed average wait times on some lines to 20 minutes, though delays have shortened as Metro pulled older cars from storage.
Metro officials said Thursday that shorter waits will begin Feb. 7 on the Blue and Orange lines, with average wait times falling from 15 minutes to 12 minutes during the hours of 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday. On Feb. 21, average waits on the Red Line will drop from 10 minutes to eight minutes all day until 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday. The Green Line’s eight-minute average and the Silver Line’s 15-minute average will not change.
Stations served by multiple lines will see more frequent trains. Metro did not announce service levels for the Yellow Line, which remains shut down until May during a bridge and tunnel reconstruction project.
Clarke said future wait time decreases will be announced as more trains are returned to service.
“We look forward to coming back to the board and communicating additional frequency changes as well,” he said. “We said from the start: Crawl, walk, run.”
Clarke said the changes also will include servicing the Orange Line solely with eight-car trains, rather than a mix of those with six and eight cars. The number of eight-car trains will increase systemwide, he said, which is expected to reduce crowding during afternoon peak hours.
The service changes came after a dispute in recent days between Metro and the safety commission over the interval of wheel inspections for 7000-series trains being restored to service. The commission said Friday it would allow Metro to reduce the time-consuming inspections from every four days to seven days, which paved the way for Metro to ramp up service.
As service increases, friction between Metro and its regulator is not ebbing. Two days after safety commissioners called into question Metro’s commitment to building a “safety culture,” Clarke — a former chief safety officer for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority — struck back during a Thursday meeting of Metro’s board to defend his employees. He said the term “safety culture” is “used a lot by some people that don’t have a lot of expertise on safety.”
“We have, and I would argue, a really strong commitment to safety,” he said. “This is a safe organization. So when someone says we don’t have a safety culture, we need to be really honest and say that is not accurate.”
In providing an update on another recent safety-related concern, transit leaders noted progress on training and certification programs, which have been cited in recent months for multiple problems by the safety commission and Metro’s own safety department.
In May, a training lapse prompted Metro to pull nearly half of its train operators from service for recertification training and testing, causing longer train waits.
Then earlier this month, the safety commission found Metro was training track workers using outdated safety standards the transit agency had updated in November. Investigators also cited Metro for reducing the number of hours some trainees spent operating with an instructor. Metro has disputed that trainees are any less prepared, saying such workers spend the same number of hours training under supervision.
The transit agency has told safety commission investigators that Metro simply overlooked recording the training change in its written policies. But Thursday, Clarke said Metro would scrap the change because the safety commission’s assertion raised an unfair public perception that it had cut corners.
Metro leaders told board members that 510 out of 514 train operators were up to date on training and accreditations, while the remaining four wouldn’t operate trains until they were certified. On the Metrobus system, 29 of the agency’s 2,507 drivers lacked updated certifications and also are not allowed to drive buses. All rail supervisors and other workers who require certifications were up to date.
Board members also voted unanimously to move a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in July to public hearings during the second week of March. The board will vote to finalize a budget in April.
More than half of the proposed $2.3 billion budget is funded by subsidies from the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia jurisdictions. The transit agency is also being aided by its remaining $561 million in federal coronavirus relief, which has kept the agency afloat during the pandemic.
The budget also includes federal infrastructure money that Metro plans to shift for one year from its capital budget to its operating budget to help fill a roughly $180 million gap, rather than reduce service.
The pressure to make up for lost fares will increase in subsequent years. Metro’s budget gap is expected to surpass $500 million in the 2025 fiscal year and increase in subsequent years. Board members have called on elected leaders to help the agency come up with another permanent source of funding.
The proposed budget includes a complex Metrorail fare increase that primarily targets suburban commuters and others who ride long distances.
Transit officials have said fares, on average, would rise by a modest 5 percent. But for those who travel the farthest, the increase could add more than $2.50 to a ride, depending on the time of day. Part of the proposal includes half-price fares for low-income riders.
Metro board member Michael Goldman called the increase on long-distance riders “pernicious” and said he hoped the public would weigh in at hearings.
“Let’s hear from the public and then go get the board to fix these inequities and excessive fare increases in the [general manager’s] proposed budget before we finalize the budget,” Goldman said.
Rides during weeknights after 9:30 p.m. and on weekends would remain a flat $2 under the proposal, while Metrobus fares wouldn’t change.
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