Last month, a fire wrecked a power substation outside the Stadium-Armory Metro station, forcing the transit agency to cut service on three lines in order to make repairs.
Nearly four weeks after a transformer fire wrecked a power substation near the Stadium-Armory stop, Metro appears to have averted a massive loss of ridership despite ongoing disruptions to service on the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines that share the tracks from Virginia through downtown D.C. into Maryland.
When the fire sapped the electrical capacity of the track infrastructure in and around the Stadium-Armory station, it was feared riders would flee en masse to avoid long delays caused by stop-and-go trips of bunching trains. But trip data show the steps Metro took to smooth out rail operations — stretching headways to eight minutes on the Orange and Silver Lines and having those lines skip the Stadium-Armory stop — may be minimizing the delays that at first seemed intolerable to frustrated riders in the days immediately after the fire.
Still, even minimal losses in ridership are poorly timed.
Metro is suffering from sinking revenues that are largely the result of disappearing trips over the past six years. Metro for the first time publicly is conceding that unreliable rail service is driving customers away, among several reasons. The transit authority hopes it can resume normal operations on the three lines at the end of the year, but the problems could extend well into next spring.
The fire laid waste to the power substation near RFK Stadium on Monday, Sept. 21, two days before Pope Francis arrived in Washington. On the previous Thursday, Sept. 17, entries and exits at Stadium-Armory station totaled 4,943.
Last Thursday, 13 weekdays after the incident, total entries and exits were 4,037, a decrease of more than 900 people, according to Metro figures.
The dip is no surprise considering only Blue Line trains running at 12-minute headways are servicing Stadium-Armory during morning and afternoon rush hour. Also, about 100 trips per day have shifted to the shuttle bus option and about another 100 riders are using nearby Potomac Avenue station.
On Sept. 17, entries and exits at Potomac Avenue totaled 6,993. Last Thursday the total increased to 7,237, representing about 120 additional round trips.
The ongoing inconvenience is down to tolerable levels, some riders said.
“It hasn't been quite that bad. Probably about a ten to fifteen minute delay,” said Joanna Mantello as she waited for her Blue Line train at Stadium-Armory to take her to her job in downtown D.C. “I’m getting up a little earlier, trying to get here a little earlier to catch the Blue Line whenever it comes through.”
“It’s tough,” she added. “You start to rely on a system and then it becomes unreliable. You have to adjust around it. I don’t have another option right now, so I think Metro is it for now.”
Adrian Lancaster, an IT professional who commutes to Largo Town Center after transferring to either the Silver or Blue Line at L’Enfant Plaza, said trains seem to be running smoother lately.
“Back when it first happen, I was late to work by almost an hour when they were first working everything out,” he said. “It threw everything off and I had to adjust my whole morning schedule just to get to work.”
“It’s been better, now that I know what the schedule is,” he said, referring to Metro’s interim plan of having Orange and Silver Lines skip Stadium-Armory during peak travel periods.
Under perfect operating conditions 26 trains per hour can squeeze through the Blue, Silver and Orange Line tunnel during rush hour. After the fire, with headways stretched from 6 to 8 minutes on the Orange and Silver Lines, the maximum fell to 20 trains per hour. Metro rarely reaches the maximum.
From 6 to 9 a.m. during the week of Oct. 5-9 (Monday through Friday), Metro averaged 15.6 trains per hour (in each direction) on the shared tracks. The eastbound direction saw 17.2 trains per hour; the westbound direction 14.0, according to figures compiled by the MetroMinder app, which uses the transit authority’s open data flow.
“We are seeing a substantial reduction in the number of trains servicing those Silver, Orange, Blue stations,” said Scott Norcross, MetroMinder’s creator.
During the week before the transformer fire, 21.6 trains per hour serviced the three lines during the same time period, 6 to 9 a.m. When totaling the losses over the three-hour period, commuters are seeing 15 fewer trains every morning.
The Silver Line is losing the most trains, falling from an average 9.3 trains per hour to 5.5 after the loss of the power substation.
“We are paying for rush hour [service] and then when we go through the turnstile we have to get charged for the rush hour price, even though we are definitely not getting the same service by any means,” said an annoyed Andrew Iraola as he rode the Blue Line into Stadium-Armory Wednesday morning.
Fewer trains in service lead to platform and railcar crowding, but the inconveniences commuters are facing do not appear to be significantly eroding ridership figures.
According to Metro trip data, total entries are down one percent at key stations on the Orange and Silver Lines west of downtown Washington, the origin points of so many commuters making the daily trek into D.C.
During Sept. 14-17 (the week before the fire), total entries at East Falls Church, West Falls Church, Dunn Loring, Vienna, McLean, Tysons Corner, Greensboro, Spring Hill, and Wiehle-Reston East stations were 37,820.
Last week, Oct. 5-8, the figure fell to 37,277, a one percent drop. Spring Hill station on the Silver Line saw the largest slip of seven percent. East Falls Church saw no change.
Total exits at the aforementioned stations dropped two percent comparing the same time periods. Exits actually increased at East Falls Church by one percent.
Although the total decreases at the nine aforementioned stations appear minimal, when stretched over several months they could significantly eat away Metro’s bottom line, assuming they are the result of service disruptions caused by the transformer fire.
Several hundred fewer trips per day over 100 to 200 days (depending how long it takes to replace the transformers at RFK Stadium) will cost Metro millions in fare revenue.