Broken train doors, jammed brakes, cracked rails and malfunctioning signals — so far 2016 has been a repeat of the dismal 2015 for Metrorail commuters.
Through the first week and a half of the new year, chronic delays are snarling commutes. It is not uncommon for all six rail lines to experience delays during a single rush hour period. A review of Metro’s daily service reports shows rail operations plagued by numerous problems — and those reports list only delays of at least four minutes.
The data square with anecdotal evidence; riders have taken to Twitter to vent about broken down trains, packed platforms and shoddy communication from Metro.
And new General Manager Paul Wiedefeld agrees: service has been poor.
“It’s been rough,” said Wiedefeld, who said he was stuck in a Red Line delay this week.
“I was extremely frustrated and there are a number of things we are going to be doing as a result of that,” he said in remarks to reporters. “My concern is the response we are doing for our customers. I think we can do a better job getting out the information. I want to see people down on the platform providing reassurance.”
Relief coming, slowly
Some problems may be unavoidable. When very cold weather follows mild, rails are prone to crack. But in the areas Metro can control, some relief is coming. Whether it leads to marked improvement of rail performance remains to be seen.
The 70 railcars sitting idle for lack of spare parts will return to service this spring, said Wiedefeld.
“With some of these parts, there is lead time to get them. But we weren’t even getting them,” he said, referring to the excessively strict procurement rules that led to the parts shortage. Metro’s board of directors has since revised the rules.
Also, the transit authority is close to resolving design problems with the manufacturer of its new trains, Kawasaki Rail Car Inc., in Lincoln, Nebraska. The assembly line has been shut down, but Wiedefeld expects Metro will soon start accepting a dozen 7000-series railcars monthly. As of now, 84 new railcars are on Metro property and 64 are in revenue service, enough for eight full-length trains.
Where are the eight-car trains?
It is not clear how the return of repaired railcars and the delivery of new ones will affect Metro’s eight-car train ratios. Commuters have complained for months that the lopsided use of six-car trains leaves platforms packed and railcars uncomfortably crowded.
During rush hour, 33 percent of trains system-wide are supposed to have eight cars, with higher ratios on the busiest lines. But data show Metro continues to miss the targets.
“Given current car constraints, it is no surprise that we are unable to meet these targets,” said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.
“In addition, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has ordered a review of railcar utilization so that he can be sure that cars are being put to the best possible use. That could result in a change to any ‘plan.’ It is more important to ensure that scheduled departure "slots" are filled (with 6-car trains) than to achieve an 8-car goal.”
Looking at the data
During the first week of the year, right after commuters returned from their holiday breaks, Metro consistently failed to meet its target of running 50 percent eight-car trains on the Red and Blue Lines during morning rush hour, according to data compiled by MetroMinder, an app that tracks every train.
The Blue Line ranged from 31 percent to 44 percent eight-car trains from Jan. 4-8. During the same week last year, the percentages were significantly higher – 41 percent to 51 percent, reflecting the loss of operable railcars since then.
The Red Line ranged from 24 percent to 34 percent eight-car trains during morning rush hour last week (Jan. 4-8). The figures represent a big drop from the same period in 2015 when 47 percent to 67 percent of trains consisted of eight cars on the Red Line during the busiest hours of the morning.
The Orange Line was even worse. On Jan. 4 only 18 percent of morning rush hour trains had eight cars, according to MetroMinder, which taps into the transit authority’s open data source.
“Red and Blue are way below where we would expect them to be,” said Scott Norcross, MetroMinder’s creator.
“You can see the frustration on Twitter, and also I note the surprise when riders see eight-car trains,” said Norcross, whose app also tracks the time trains take to travel from station to station. Trains often are taking longer than they should, he said, partly because crowding is causing trains to spend more time unloading and loading passengers at each stop.