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Among Metro's 'Hard Truths' Are Silver Line Problems With No Easy Fix

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The Silver Line extended Metro access deep into suburban Virginia, but it has not come without costs.
The Silver Line extended Metro access deep into suburban Virginia, but it has not come without costs.

Metro must face “hard truths” about its safety and management failures, says WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld in an open letter to riders posted to the transit authority’s website.

Wiedefeld on Monday will publicly discuss his vision to fix Metro at the National Press Club, one day after outlining his 28-point plan to tackle an array of safety, mechanical, and money troubles that have frittered away public confidence in the region’s all-important transit system.

But Metro’s internal analysts and outside observers agree some problems may be intractable in the short-term. The opening of the Silver Line 20 months ago caused a ripple effect across the entire rail system, creating new problems while compounding old ones for which there is no easy solution.

From its impact on the Blue Line to the bottleneck at Rosslyn, from the lack of working railcars to low ridership, the Silver Line expansion through Tysons Corner has thus far proved a Pyrrhic victory.

Silver throttles Blue

The Silver Line’s expected impact on other lines was detailed in documents more than a decade ago during planning for the 11-mile extension through Tysons Corner to Reston. Metro’s plans to realign Blue and Yellow Line service, now known as Rush+, date to 2008. 

Blue Line headways — the interval between trains — would double from six to 12 minutes to accommodate the Silver Line; Metro encouraged Blue Line riders to switch to Yellow for D.C.-bound commutes to the eastern side of downtown.

It has not worked out.

“The Blue Line is now 20 percent more crowded than it was before the Silver Line,” said Jeff Larrimore of the group Save the Blue Line. “Every month since the Silver Line opened, the Blue Line has exceeded Metro’s targets for maximum crowding per car.”

In the first 12 months after the Silver Line opened in July 2014, Blue Line crowding exceeded monthly averages of 100 riders per railcar (rpr) three times during morning rush hour and 11 times in afternoon rush hour. Crowding exceeded 120 rpr (crush load) during three months, with a high of 130 rpr in July 2015.

The combination of longer headways and the reluctance of riders to switch to Yellow has turned Blue Line trains into sardine cans.

“Metro expected people to change their ridership habits in ways it should have anticipated they weren’t going to,” Larrimore said. “The literature on peoples’ willingness to transfer shows that people have an aversion of transferring from one line to another. Metro should have realized it wasn’t going to happen.”

In June 2015 Metro floated a proposal to even out service on all lines (except Red) to 8-minute headways, but it was met with little enthusiasm. A new rail optimization plan is not in the offing. Blue Line riders will be stuck with 12-minute headways for the foreseeable future.

Metro’s Riders Advisory Council is asking transit authority staff to formulate a new plan.

“We presented some options for consideration, including more 8-car trains on the Blue Line,” said council chair Barbara Hermanson. 

Rosslyn bottleneck

The task of synchronizing three lines (Silver, Blue, and Orange) through the one tunnel at Rosslyn has proven difficult, even more so when chronic mechanical failures add delays to the operational mix. Metro often fails to exploit the tunnel’s maximum capacity of 26 trains per hour.

Morning rush hour last week provided a snapshot of the problem.

According to data compiled by MetroMinder, an app that tracks train frequency, only 21 to 25 trains per hour made it through the Rosslyn bottleneck in each direction between 7 and 9 a.m. from Tuesday through Thursday, the busiest days of the week on Metrorail.

“We didn’t see Metro reach the target of 26 trains per hour in any of the periods we checked,” said MetroMinder’s creator Scott Norcross.

If Metro can tackle its mechanical failures that not only cause delays but deprive commuters of 8-car trains, the throughput issue at Rosslyn can be minimized, but the long-term answer lies many years and many billions of dollars in the future. 

Metro’s long-range plan calls for the construction of a second tunnel under the Potomac to relieve congestion at the Rosslyn bottleneck, but the project currently is unfunded by Metro’s jurisdictions and Congress. 

Railcar problems

Metro declined WAMU’s interview requests, but the transit authority did provide a statement about the Silver Line’s impact on the greater rail system. 

“The fact is, the Silver Line did not create Metro's railcar reliability issues, nor was it responsible for the earthquake and tsunami that caused the first 7000-series rail cars to arrive later than expected,” the statement said. (See full WMATA statement below)

As Metro’s statement indicates, the first 64 7000-series railcars were supposed to arrive before the Silver Line opened to take pressure off the aging fleet. However, only recently did the new railcars, enough for eight 8-car trains, enter revenue service. And while the number of new trains continues to grow — helping Metro accommodate the Silver Line’s additional 22 miles of track — an equal number of idle railcars awaiting spare parts is neutralizing the benefit.

Moreover, a dismal maintenance regime — detailed by management consultants and reported exclusively by WAMU 88.5 — has left Metro consistently short of working railcars to run six lines effectively. 

“Railcar maintenance is the single most important determinant of service reliability. Sixty-three percent of rail line delays are caused by railcar failures,” according to a report prepared by McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm.

Low ridership at high cost

The five Silver Line stations in Tysons Corner and Reston had a total of 15,875 boardings on the average weekday in 2015, about 60 percent of the projected first-year ridership. About half the trips were taken from the Reston station, which has a large parking garage and kiss-n-ride facility. 

In Tysons Corner, ridership is significantly lower. At the Greensboro station, there were just over 1,000 boardings on the average weekday. But Metro cannot be blamed for the low ridership, although it must deal with its consequences.

The popping of the real estate bubble a decade ago slowed office, retail, and residential development around the four planned stations in Tysons Corner, but it has rapidly recovered. Fairfax County also has been slow to improve pedestrian access to the stations. 

Metro hired 363 new employees to staff and police the 11-mile Silver Line expansion. Partly due to the lower-than-expected ridership, “headcount growth has outpaced the utilization of the system (passenger trips per employee have decreased). Fewer passenger trips are supplied by each employee,” according to the McKinsey report.

The following is Metro’s entire statement in response to WAMU questions about the negative impact of the Silver Line on system-wide rail operations:

“The success of the Silver Line can be measured today by the more than 7.5 million square feet of development either delivered, under construction or starting construction this year. That level of development can only be described as a building boom and, as these projects come online, transit ridership will grow.”

“The region collectively decided to add the Silver Line to the transit system more than a decade ago, and Metro's role is to operate the service, not relitigate past regional decisions. The fact is, the Silver Line did not create Metro's railcar reliability issues, nor was it responsible for the earthquake and tsunami that caused the first 7000-series rail cars to arrive later than expected. The number of trains running through the Rosslyn tunnel has not increased compared to pre-Silver Line levels.”

“Metro GM/CEO Paul Wiedefeld is committed to improving service reliability, as well as safety and financial health. The GM/CEO will discuss details of his plans to improve service reliability on Monday.”

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