WASHINGTON, D.C. — The board operating the Washington, D.C. area’s commuter rail system has agreed to defer a decision on late-night subway service during a Dec. 13 board meeting after receiving an urgent request from more than 60 public officials from Montgomery and Prince George’s County.
Clarence C. Crawford, chairman of the panel’s operations committee, said he was scrapping the vote so Metro officials could return to the panel early next year with proposals that may give the agency maintenance time it needs while addressing concerns regarding late-night service, as noted in a recent Washington Post report.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board had been expected to vote Dec. 13 on a proposal to keep the current hours in place.
Currently, Metrorail runs from 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday; 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.
Before late-night hours were eliminated in May 2016, the metrorail service in Washington, suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia ran from 5 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday and 5 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Fridays; 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturdays, and 7 a.m. to midnight on Sundays.
The cutback was originally adopted at the recommendation of WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who said earlier closings would allow work crews more time for maintenance and repairs as part of SafeTrack, WMATA’s implemented preventive maintenance program focusing on rehabilitation work to Metrorail’s track beds and other structural and electrical defects.
As part of an uncompromising push to restore late-night hours, adherents cited concerns of hardship for service workers, increased drunk driving, a notable decline in ridership and negative impacts on local businesses as a result of reduced Metro service.
On Dec. 12, the eve of the WMATA board’s expected vote, the panel received a letter from Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and 64 other “undersigned officials” – consisting of several municipal mayors, members from Montgomery and Prince George’s County Councils and state legislators from the two counties, vehemently advocating a return to a more robust late-night service.
“Our residents and businesses have now made sacrifices for two years, to provide ample time for track maintenance,” the letter stated.
“It is now time to try and win back riders with restoration of service hours, and hopefully a reduction of headways. We want Metro to be both safe and convenient, and we believe the suspension of late night service should end on schedule in July 2019.”
Wiedefeld, in response, said the reduced hours are crucial to the aging system’s continued maintenance.
“I definitely understand the importance of getting hours back, and we want to do that, but we can’t do that at the expense of losing reliability for, in effect, the main portion of the system,” Wiedefeld said. “Right now I just cannot recommend that we go that way yet, but clearly I want to get back to improving service and providing more service,” he said.
Similarly, Sherri Ly, media relations manager at Metro, said amplified track work over the last 18 months had been nothing short of advantageous for Metrorail’s customers.
“This preventive maintenance, combined with capital improvements, have reduced track incidents and emergency work while improving on-time performance in September to the highest level in seven years, with 90 percent of all passenger trips arriving within the expected travel time,” she said in a statement.
The transit system’s declining ridership has been a glaring issue in recent years. Yet, Metro said a reported 79 percent of the remaining subway riders are now more satisfied with the service.
Laura Mason, the acting assistant general manager for WMATA rail services, said the train system “had a period of expanding service and reducing maintenance time” before the implementation of SafeTrack.
“This combination led to deteriorating rail service, including a record-low customer on-time performance of just 68.9 percent in May 2016,” Mason said.
A restoration of the old hours would reverse trends such as improved on-time performance and a reduction in track incidents, she continued.
The agency, which originally asked for a two-year moratorium on late-night service back in 2016, has reportedly declined to say whether this year’s request would be the last. However, Wiedefeld made an effort to reassure riders wondering when the undesirable service disruptions will end.
“I think there’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel,” Wiedefeld said. “But we do also feel that we’re not there yet. And that’s why we had to propose more time to get this under control.”
The WMATA board is expected to revisit the late-night service issue again in January.
Without the vote, Metrorail could return in July 2019 to its old hours: 3 a.m. closings Friday and Saturday, midnight closings from Sunday to Thursday. But with the vote, the current hours will remain in place until at least June 2020.
Metro has agreed to study ways to balance the maintenance and safety of the rail system while bringing back longer hours, which is expected to be an arduous task assuming it comes to fruition.