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Broken Trains, Failing Finances: Report Exposes Deep Problems At Metro

Expansion of system was misguided priority, consultants say

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“This report gives us the independent review needed to improve safety, service reliability and get Metro’s financial house in order,” said Wiedefeld, shown here in November, when he became Metro's general manager.
WAMU/Martin Di Caro
“This report gives us the independent review needed to improve safety, service reliability and get Metro’s financial house in order,” said Wiedefeld, shown here in November, when he became Metro's general manager.

The problems swamping the D.C. region’s transit system are deeper than the public has been led to believe but not insurmountable, according to a report prepared for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) by the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

The 65-page report, not yet released to the public but obtained by WAMU 88.5, provides an authoritative overview of Metro’s financial and operational struggles over the past half-decade. While some issues — such as declining ridership and chronic delays — already have been well documented, the McKinsey review provides a comprehensive analysis of negative trends that point to a bleak outlook, although it is not all bad news.

The findings undermine some claims made by Metro officials concerning the causes of day-to-day problems. They also show that core issues, such as maintenance and reliability, were left unaddressed as transit authority leaders focused on system expansion, including the opening of the Silver Line and the purchase of new railcars toward the goal of running all 8-car trains.

Rail reliability requires operational fixes, but there is no silver bullet because falling reliability has multiple causes, including delayed parts, fleet age, and track conditions. — McKinsey & Company report

But when measuring safety, the area where Metro’s reputation has taken the biggest blows, the report found WMATA compares somewhat favorably to similar transit systems. Also, bus service has seen gains in investment and performance.

Some positive trends notwithstanding, the overall picture is one of plummeting ridership, unreliable rail service, railcar maintenance delays, and unsustainable finances — expenses from a growing workforce are forecast to outpace revenues for years to come.

McKinsey, which recently helped resurrect the troubled Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in the Boston region, was retained by Metro last year to conduct a top-to-bottom review and produce recommendations for new general manager Paul Wiedefeld, who took over the agency in November, to implement. The recommendations are expected in the coming weeks.

“This report gives us the independent review needed to improve safety, service reliability and get Metro’s financial house in order,” said Wiedefeld in a written statement to WAMU 88.5.

“At its core, this report focuses on several critical areas where we need to improve service delivery. As our customers know all too well, mechanical problems with trains result in delays and offloads and we must get the parts and maintenance practices right so the trains operate dependably over the entire service day,” the statement said.

Wiedefeld is promising to unveil plans in “the next couple of weeks” on how the transit authority intends to address service improvements.

The stark findings underscore the importance of a Metro turnaround. With more than 100 million square feet of development planned within a half-mile of Metro stations over the next decade, the region’s economy — its very future — will depend on reliable rail and bus service.

The report should prompt Metro to reconsider its priorities, said Emil Frankel, an expert at the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, a research and policy group.

“The priorities of WMATA have not always been appropriate. There was an emphasis on expansion when operations have not been satisfactory, [and] safety issues haven’t been elevated to the extent that they should,” he said.

Frankel, who was an assistant secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush, cites the Silver Line as a prime example.

“I’ve been a bit of a skeptic from the beginning about the Silver Line," she said. "I’m a skeptic about expanding at a time when the operations of the entity itself, the maintenance and state of good repair, is not adequate.”

More than just new cars needed

The belated arrival of Metro’s new railcars, the 7000-series, has provided a bit of optimism for weary commuters, but the report shoots down the notion that the gleaming, stainless steel trains are the key to solving reliability.

“If all 1000-series cars were replaced with cars that performed at the rate of today’s best performing cars, delays would have still been 10 percent higher than 2014 levels,” the report said.

The reason is two-fold: “the least reliable railcars per mile – the 4000- and 5000-series – will still be in the fleet into 2020 at least,” the report said. Also, old railcars are only part of the problem; Metro’s maintenance practices are wanting.

“Rail reliability requires operational fixes, but there is no silver bullet because falling reliability has multiple causes, including delayed parts, fleet age, and track conditions,” the report said.

Rush hour delays have been driven by a shortage of working railcars since April, according to the McKinsey consulting team. A parts shortage is only one cause; door and brake issues “cause half of in-service railcar malfunction delays.”

The parts shortage has been overstated by Metro officials as a cause of falling railcar availability. Late last year at public board meetings, officials admitted about 80 railcars are idle because of the lack of parts, and that the shortage was caused by overly strict procurement rules.

But “only 36% of the cars out of service are awaiting parts,” the report said. “Car availability problems began before the parts shortage. Almost as many delays are caused by in-service failures as parts unavailability.”

A big problem: maintenance

Contrary to the notion that the eventual arrival of the full complement of 748 railcars from the 7000-series will wipe away Metro’s operational problems, the report determined “railcar maintenance is the single most important determinant of service reliability. Sixty-three percent of rail line delays are caused by railcar failures.”

Although the parts shortage is a major factor (since April 2015, the number of cars out of service due to unavailable parts has tripled), inefficient repairs loom just as large. Metro’s “estimated technician wrench time ranges between 25-40 percent, below a best-in-class standard of 60 percent,” the report said.

Repairs are backlogged because of a number of inefficiencies, including delays in getting broken down cars to the shop, vacant shop lifts, and “technicians starting work orders without all necessary tools and parts.”

The average Metro shop fixes only six to eight railcars per shift, according to the McKinsey findings.

Train breakdowns and maintenance delays combined have “doubled the number of late trains” despite Metro spending more on maintenance per mile since 2013 than similar transit systems, including BART in San Francisco, MTA in New York, SEPTA in Philadelphia, MARTA in Atlanta, MBTA in Boston, and MARC and VRE in the Washington suburbs.

“Parts delays and fleet age explain part of the problem, but improved maintenance practices, tools, and techniques will help ensure sustained performance,” the consultants said.

Among the factors that contribute to railcar failures, the report cited a long-term decline in average experience of mechanic staff.

“High turnover rates and decreasing average tenure, matched with a training program that has not kept pace with an increased number of less experienced new hires, leaves a technical staff more prone to mistakes, and slower repairs.”

Railcar woes = commuter blues

One does not need to be an engineer or transit expert to understand that such problems will snarl commutes, and for the first time last year Metro leaders admitted poor service was alienating customers, contributing to a long-term ridership decline.

“Ridership has dropped 11 percent since a 2009 peak and is now at 2005 levels despite a concurrent increase in the population of the Washington, D.C. [area] by over 800,000 residents,” the report said. “Moreover, the core D.C. area has experienced an increase in jobs.”

“Although several causes are suggested, declining satisfaction, the reduction in SmartBenefits, and falling reliability are likely relevant drivers," the consultants wrote. "Notably, ridership at peer rail systems has grown substantially in the last decade with some hitting historic highs.”

Unsurprisingly, customer satisfaction is tanking. “Seventy-one percent of customers today are likely to recommend Metrorail versus 83 percent in 2015.”

Revenue woes

Falling ridership has gouged a hole in Metro’s revenues, creating an unsustainable financial forecast, although fare increases have somewhat made up for revenue lost to fleeing riders. However, both Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld and WMATA board Chairman Jack Evans have pledged not to raise fares come July 1.

From fiscal years 2011-15 revenue growth slowed to 2.8 percent annually while operating expenses grew at the faster rate of four percent.

Personnel costs, which make up 74 percent of Metro’s $1.8 billion operating budget, are growing at a 5 percent annual rate, the report said. That is no surprise, considering Metro hired 363 new employees to staff and police the 11-mile Silver Line expansion through Tysons Corner to Reston, Va. The Silver Line opened in July, 2014.

And partly because of lower-than-expected ridership at the five Silver Line stations, “headcount growth has outpaced the utilization of the system (passenger trips per employee have decreased). Fewer passenger trips are supplied by each employee,” said the consultants, who strongly recommended Metro “alter is fiscal trajectory and win back jurisdiction (D.C., Va., and Md.) trust.”

Metro’s operating deficit is so steep that rail system revenues “would need to grow at 7 percent every year into 2020 to maintain current operating deficit.”

Gabe Klein, a former director of the District Department of Transportation who now works as a consultant in the urban mobility field, said, “Metro needs a significant overhaul.”

Klein recommends that Metro follow the example of transit systems in Europe and hire private sector firms to run and repair its trains and buses. “It’s what they do in London, Italy, and the Netherlands.”

Klein also pointed to D.C.’s Circulator bus line, which is city-owned but operated by a private company. Circulator operating costs per mile are significantly lower than Metrobus, he said.

Safety compares favorably to similar systems

The McKinsey report takes on several negative perceptions about Metro, including the contention “there are pervasive and ongoing safety issues.”

“Metrorail’s safety performance has exceeded peers for the last three years overall, with fewer major safety and security incidents and injuries per trip since January 2013, but the number of safety incidents and injuries worsened significantly since 2015,” the report said.

The incident responsible for those figures took place on Jan. 12, 2015 at L’Enfant Plaza station. An electrical malfunction caused smoke to fill the Yellow Line tunnel, claiming the life of Carol Glover of Alexandria and sickening more than 80 other passengers.

In other areas, Metro is performing better than the public may believe, the report said.

The transit authority continues to heavily invest in bus service, bus ridership has grown, and on-time performance has risen slightly since 2012. Bus fares are in line with similar systems ($1.10 per trip compared to $1.13 for the MTA in New York). Overtime expenses are declining (but still too high relative to peers).

And Metro has executed several aspects of its six-year, $5 billion rebuilding program. Escalators and elevators are working, and track problems now account for only eight percent of rail delays.

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