A lot of Washington Post reporters must ride the Metro Rail system, as the paper has published several articles about the system’s decline in the last few days. First was the February 10 report that ridership had fallen to its lowest level since 2004. On February 12, the Post published a lengthy list of ideas for improving ridership solicited from ten experts.
Then came a February 19 report of “candid talk” by Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, and board chair Jack Evans about the system’s deterioration. “Somehow our reliability has fallen apart,” said Evans. By “somehow,” he means, “no one was willing to spend the money required to maintain the system.”
“The longer-term solution to that is obviously the 7000-cars,” said Wiedefeld, referring to Metro’s latest order of railcars (the original cars were the 1000-series, second were 2000s, etc.). Of course, new rail cars won’t fix the signals, the broken rails, the computer guidance system, or the smoke in the tunnels.
A February 20 article noted that the decline in rail ridership had a “ripple effect” on the bus system, which the Antiplanner noted on February 12. Since some rail riders take a bus for part of their trip, if they switch to driving, both the rail system and the bus system lose patrons.
Another February 20 article asks why train operators are running red lights, a problem the Antiplanner also noted on February 12. The article said that a draft report to Metro found that operators simply aren’t paying attention to what they are doing. Of course, that wasn’t a problem when the trains were operated by computer, but Metro hasn’t trusted its computers to operate the trains since the 2009 crash that killed nine people.
Update: Today’s Post reports that someone actually rated Metro the number one transit system in America. In another city, this would lead to all kinds of plaudits from the major media. In DC, it leads to scoffing by the Post. New York City transit, which really is the nation’s number one transit system, was ranked only number five. (End update.)
Getting back to the February 12 article on what Metro should do, many of the suggestions seem to me to be non-starters, as they call for either cutting fares (accidents are up, people are getting killed, so let’s cut fares?) or increasing costs. But the problem is that Metro doesn’t have enough money to do what it is supposed to so, so reducing revenues or increasing costs won’t help.
The main exceptions were ideas from some guy who doesn’t even live in the DC area. Replace worn-out rail lines with buses, he said, and get corporate sponsors to help maintain stations that are still operating. Save money by contracting out both the rail and bus lines to private operators and use the savings to restore the computer and signaling systems that ran the trains before 2009, thus solving many of the safety and comfort problems that riders face today. Of course, Metro is so focused on the 7000 cars that it will probably ignore these and other cost-cutting measures.