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At 'Low Point,' Metro Leadership Acknowledges Self-Inflicted Wounds

Falling ridership creates pressure for fare increase

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Requa, right, talks to reporters Thursday.
WAMU/Martin Di Caro
Requa, right, talks to reporters Thursday.

The interim general manager of the second-busiest commuter rail system in America officially conceded what many riders and outside observers have been saying: Consistently poor service is pushing customers away.

“We are at a low point,” said Jack Requa, who replaced Richard Sarles at the head of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in January, in remarks to reporters following a grim ridership report presented to Metro’s board of directors in public session on Thursday.

In a rare admission that the transit agency's problems are self-inflicted, Metro staff cited “preliminary evidence” that “safety-related incidents” are hurting ridership, “though additional analysis of the trends is required before any definitive conclusions are drawn,” according to the report prepared for the board’s finance committee.

It’s been a dark year for Metrorail: Carol Glover of Alexandria died and more than 80 passengers were sickened when smoke filled their Yellow Line train near L’Enfant Plaza station on Jan. 12, spurring two federal safety investigations. Since that incident, Metro has stumbled from one mishap to the next, including the Aug. 6 derailment of an empty train near Smithsonian station. It was caused by a track problem that was detected 28 days earlier but left unaddressed.

“Metrorail is also struggling to provide reliable service to customers,” the report stated, among a list of factors including the local economy, the reduction in the federal transit subsidy, and alternatives to rail commuting that include telework, on-demand personal transport apps, and D.C.’s bikeshare program.

“Riders are experiencing more unpredictable travel times, and must budget more time to reach their destination,” the report said.

When he offered familiar assurances that the transit authority is working to improve reliability and system safety, Requa was pressed by reporters to explain that the long process is still years away from being fully realized.

The entire complement of 528 new railcars that are supposed to replace to oldest and most unreliable stock in the fleet will take two to three years to arrive. The first delivery of 64 railcars from the 7000 series is already months behind schedule.

“Yes, that is a long period of time, but the cars are coming and they are going to provide a much better service and we will hopefully attract customers back,” Requa said.

Trending down

Although Metro moves a million people a day on its bus and rail lines, weekday rail ridership is down about 6 percent since its pre-recession peak. Total rail trips did increase slightly during the fiscal year that ended in June, but recent figures indicate the trend is moving down again.

Weekday trips fell 7 percent in August compared to the same month in 2014, and the drop was nearly as steep in September, according to preliminary figures obtained by WAMU 88.5. The September figures may be slightly skewed because ridership was off about 20 percent during each of the two days Pope Francis visited Washington.

And now for the first time in memory Metro’s leadership is acknowledging that unreliable service is a factor, despite the lack of precise data on commuters’ decisions.

“We’ve obviously had our troubles in providing reliable service. And I think people think about that when they know they’ve got to go from Point A to Point B ... so they probably, in their thought process, decide whether they can gamble as to whether the service will be reliable,” Requa said.

Perception vs. reality on the rails

Metro analyzed SmarTrip data from about a dozen “typical rail commutes” in August, comparing them to the same trips last year, said Mark Schofield, Metro’s director of financial planning and analysis, during the ridership presentation on Thursday.

“It is definitely not the case that all trips or even most trips got noticeably worse,” he said.

“The median travel time for that sample of trips increased by about one minute. But the key issue for riders is what’s the variability in that travel time? How much of a cushion do they need to add in order to make sure they reach their definition on time?”

In other words, the system is performing better than some may perceive, but the expectation of delays is eroding confidence in Metrorail.

“We saw increases of three minutes, six minutes, and in two instances — from New Carrollton to Farragut West and from Largo to L’Enfant — the increases were more than 10 minutes,” said Schofield, referring to the trip sample.

The data provoked a discussion among the board members about developing a more nimble, responsive fare structure to not only charge riders lower amounts when service becomes snarled during rush hour, but to better compete with other modes like Uber and Capital Bikeshare.

But any such change would not come quickly, and in the meantime falling ridership is creating revenue headaches, increasing pressure to raise fares next year, a move that promises to be widely unpopular given poor service ruins commutes daily. However, D.C.’s representatives on Metro’s board said the District would not support any hike.

“The budget has to come out of the finance committee, so before it gets out of the finance committee it will be balanced without a fare increase or service cuts,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who chairs the Metro board’s budget-making panel.

Rail fares increased about three percent in the budget year that ended in June. Over the past decade (2004-14), the base rail fare increased 59 percent, from $1.35 to $2.15.

The maximum fare — charged for the longest trips during rush hour — has jumped 51 percent, from $3.90 to $5.90. Metro charges among the highest base fares of any public transit system in the country.

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