Developing Metrorail Service Standards

September 5th, 2012

Just as Metro has standards guiding major policy decisions for its bus services, we are now taking the first steps in establishing a similar framework for its rail service. Service standards are important to define service quality and quantity as well as future capital investment needs, such as increasing core capacity and adding more service. As with any standard, there are constraints. Physical constraints include equipment, system capacity and tunnel throughput. In addition to physical limitations, there are budget constraints for staff, to make system investments or to purchase more rail cars. To begin the formalization of service standards, Metro is starting with three, simple key standards:hours of service, rush hour headway and rush hour capacity. Establishing the foundation for rail service standards now will allow us to add more quality standards in the future. Additionally, these service standards will provide a base for further discussions to come in Board’s strategic planning effort. To ensure we’re heading in the right direction, we’d like your input. Watch this video and then please provide your comments.

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  1. jnb
    September 5th, 2012 at 18:24 | #1

    Nice job, folks. Well laid out presentation. This is a strong first step to get policies in place formally, and to have the Board be the adopter of these policies so that it’s clear who is responsible for setting service standards — funders/Board — and it’s clear who’s responsible for operating service to MEET service standards — GM and staff.

    It may be hard for you guys to say these things out loud, but IMO it would help the region better understand the substance if you could more clearly articulate some specifics about how these standards relate to the areas around stations and to specific geographies. Right now, the presentation comes off as a bit removed and abstract, and it doesn’t feel as if the customer experience is in mind. Specific examples might help illustrate the debate and the CHOICES TO BE MADE, and would have the double effect of making customers understand the different choices available to Metro’s Board, and also of making customers feel as if their experience is understood by staff.

    For example, the ballpark district is a rapidly growing area, but has woefully poor service compared to other areas of the system with much less transit demand or even transit need. Is it possible to improve service in this location? If so, how? What are the opportunities and choices?

    A few years ago, the Columbia Heights neighborhood was in a similar situation to the Ballpark District. There was a strong push to find a way to increase off-peak service to that area, and a technical solution was found even though there isn’t a pocket track at Fort Totten to turn back yellow line trains. But an operating solution was found. What are the possible opportunities to improve service standards for some parts of the region like the ballpark district? By the same token, is it possible to reduce service standards for parts of the system that are costly to serve? i.e, is it necessary to constrain the late-night service provided to transit-oriented, central parts of the system because of the cost of serving suburban destinations? It’s quite possible that late night service could be provided in the center system while shutting down service to the suburban fringes, and it might even be cheaper for the District to pay the whole cost of more limited, DC-oriented service than its proportional share of service provided to the whole system. It’s also possible that much higher-quality late night service could then be provided, with local jurisdictions picking up the slack in terms of getting people to rail service by suburban transit systems.

    It would also be helpful to understand how these standards would be applied IN TIME. The standards can be applied in the resource- and physically-constrained present, but they can also be applied to near-term and longer-term futures. WMATA might adopt one set of standards for a short term, but be clear that those standards were to apply for only a specific time period. Maybe the Board could adopt more aggressively improved service standards for 5 years out, 10 years out, etc. But the key point is, can the standards vary over time, and again, what are the choices that the region, and the Board on behalf of the region, face?

    As far as AVERAGE passenger loads go, again, there’s the numerical average and the customer experience. Two trains go by, one with 50 passengers per car and one with 150 passengers per car. 100% of the passengers experience satisfactory AVERAGE levels of crowding, but 75% of passengers will experience SERIOUSLY TERRIBLE overcrowding. If trains bunch during the rush period, or if there are missing trains, this can easily be the case. A rosy averages-based finding from Metro will not match actual passenger experience, which will result in a mismatch in conclusions between WMATA managers and customers.

  2. alex
    September 5th, 2012 at 23:48 | #2

    Thank you for the presentation – I’m curious, given that these standards appear to have been adopted using existing system performance as the baseline, how will these standards improve? There doesn’t appear to be a mechanism in place to reassess the standards as customer needs change?

  3. September 6th, 2012 at 08:48 | #3

    These standards are a good start, but they are missing some key details.

    When do the “rush hour” headways apply?

    What are the required headways at other times of the day?

  4. Thomas
    September 6th, 2012 at 09:01 | #4

    People want better service, for cheap. Will people pay more for better service? What is considered better service? No matter how much people pay or the jurisdictions and the Feds put into the ‘Tro’, people will not be satisfied. And I’m just speaking of the regular commuters, not the tourists. How will this all be solved? By doing surveys? By having town hall meetings? By doing studies? By looking at other systems? By having a consulting firm come in? No. This system is plagued by poor, narrow-minded, short-term vision leadership and planning. Trying to fix a 30-plus odd system, with today’s standards and demands is an uphill battle to say the least and an impossible task to accomplish. No matter how much the ‘Tro’ spends (which is a ridiculous amount of money) to have people say one thing or the other, the system will be overwhelmed. A two track system is a horrible design. A jumper or track work brings the system to a screeching halt. A one tunnel design with the amount of train traffic is horrendous. And yet, the leadership continues to make the poor decisions by adding the Silver Line with the same defective mindset. 50-plus minute train ride from IAD to Metro Center. Come on. Seriously? This region will conitnue to see growth and yet the system will not be able to handle the growth. The whole area is plagued by poor planning and leadership. Look at 66 or 495. One bridge. Narrow roadways. The ‘Tro’ will look like that and has looked like that mess for some time now. How do you fix it? Or should I say how do we deal with it? Well, spend a lot of money, which we don’t have to give a report like this and to put a band-aid over the mortal wound. We continue to white-wash a rotted system. The only way to fix it, in my opinion, is to overhaul it all. Yes, but where will the funds come from? Well, we either get taxed like the way the Feds want to fix everything or we…. (this is much higher than my pay grade, so I’ll leave it at that).

  5. MJ
    September 6th, 2012 at 09:13 | #5

    I think people would be more interested in off-peak headways. Metro is essentially rendered useless by lengthy headways and track work on the weekends. I avoid the metro as much as possible because of this inefficiency.

    Also, train bunching is another major issue that metro has every power to fix immediately. However, given the ineptitude of most station managers, I’d say this won’t be happening any time soon.

  6. Transport.
    September 6th, 2012 at 10:16 | #6

    Nothing really new to add here. This presentation is a great start and I echo @jnb’s comments on who sets the standards (the WMATA Board) and who meets the standards (WMATA mgmt and staff). If staff can’t meet the Board-set standard with resources provided, staff should, in a public meeting, indicate so to the WMATA Board. This way everyone knows what is needed and what will be done with resources provided.

    If WMATA was more open with their process, they may, gasp, actually get a public understanding of why headways are so long off-peak, for example, and get people to back, through their elected officials, improvements.

  7. Steve Strauss
    September 6th, 2012 at 11:08 | #7

    The presentation is a great improvement on the information that was provided to the Customer Service Committee in the summer. It is still very incomplete when compared to the Service Guidelines used in Chicago, New York City and Atlanta, among other systems, for determining the Board-approved level of service and loading on those rail systems.

    What’s missing is a discussion of the relationship between loading levels and service frequency. Both must be part of the discussion, particularly when discussing frequency and loading Guidelines outside of the rush hour period. Even in the proposed WMATA Guidelines more information is needed about loading levels by line segment. For example, the presentation notes that the service frequency at Arlington Cemetery is 14 minutes during rush hour. Does that service frequency result in loading levels above or below 100 passengers per car, on average, during the rush hour period? If the service frequency guideline is being violated then the Board should at least know whether that frequency conforms to the loading guideline. Staff should also identify the peak period peak load points and provide a discussion of whether the loading guidelines shoud apply between Gallery Place and MetroCenter on the Red line and between Gallery Place and L’Enfant on the Yellow and Green lines. Using a 100 person per car loading guideline between these major transfer points could result in underutilized capacity further out on these lines.

  8. Shark
    September 6th, 2012 at 11:43 | #8

    Wow, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic…as the band plays on…
    The passengers per car ratio is irrelevant when the cars’ a/c doesn’t function in the summer, so the working cars are jammed full, or when the frequent problems result in platforms that are dangerously overcrowded and the onboard passengers can’t even get off the train car. Not to mention the problem of half the onboard PA systems being unintelligible, so the stop isn’t known to the onboard passengers. need I mention the absurdity of the public Information Displays cyclying through screeen after screeen of useless information on what stops have elevators out of service and that shuttle buses will be available, rather than telling us that the next train departs WITHIN A COUPLE MINUTES? Not to mention the sleeping-on-duty nitwits in the aquariums that are supposed to be helping people??? Get real, WMATA. You used to control a commuter system that was the pride of our nation, but now you’re a joke.

  9. Allison
    September 6th, 2012 at 12:58 | #9

    As a fundamental measure, headways should be a maximum of 6 minutes on ALL lines at ALL times, with a standard of not more than 2 minutes between the hours of 7 am and 9 pm, 7 days a week. In emergencies, the 6 minute standard should still be the maximum. To arrive at the Farragut North station at 8 pm on a weeknight and find a wait of more than 12 minutes, as often happens, is unacceptable – that’s the kind of performance one expects from small or new systems that are still learning how to operate.

  10. Jason
    September 6th, 2012 at 21:56 | #10

    While headways are a valuable metric, they don’t measure the delays that are incurred once you’re on the train. On the Orange Line coming in from Virginia in the morning, the headways are fairly consistent and probably within the proposed standards. But then the train gets past Court House and waits and waits and waits to get into Rosslyn. Whether it’s a delay waiting 5 extra minutes for a train or waiting for 5 minutes in a train backup, it’s still a delay. How will this be measured?

    In terms of passengers per car, I hope you’re not proposing to measure an average. On average, the inbound Orange Line probably isn’t terribly crowded in the morning. But that average would be made up of a lot of nearly-empty trains mixed with a lot of jammed-full trains. The jammed-full trains are still a problem.

    Finally I would be more interested in off-peak headways than in peak headways. The biggest delays are evenings and weekends, when you end up waiting 20+ minutes for a train.

  11. September 7th, 2012 at 14:29 | #11

    Two points:

    1. Frequency standards are more important for off-peak than for peak. In practice, during peak, WMATA is going to run as many trains as the choke points will permit. Off-peak, though, there’s a great deal of financial pressure to slip: 12 minute headways become 15 become 18 …. The board should really draw a line in the sand here.

    2. Operating hours needn’t be monolithic. Currently only Arlington Cemetery closes early. But, say, Judiciary Square, Federal Center and Federal Triangle see little traffic after office hours and could be closed earlier than the rest of the stations. Perhaps later night service could be provided to the “urban core”: DC, Arlington and Alexandria. Which would also help cure the oddity that the last train leaves outlying stations half an hour prior to the official closing time, but the last train doesn’t arrive at them until half an hour later than the official closing time.

  12. LateDave
    September 7th, 2012 at 16:55 | #12

    This is all very top level. One statement is basically pulling-out-of-empty-pockets to announce that all there is is what we see, except Silver line is evidently on the plan, and we have heard about Purple line being somewhere between a maybe and a possibly.

    Has anybody ever discussed a people mover – a horizontal escalator – between Metro Center and Gallery Place? The rush hour jam in the Red line cars is severe and consistent, and is caused by people moving between Orange and Blue on one side and Green and Yellow on the other. A tube paralleling the train tracks would clearly (to my eyes) extend the life of the system and the cars, and make customers happy. The alternative is to convince customers to ride down to L’Enfant Plaza, which they evidently do not wish to do.

    You have already offered a free reentrance for people switching between Red and Orange/Blue at Farragut, but that is footwork (ADA-challenged), weather-dependent, etc. Is it well received? The people mover I suggest needs to extend over about three times the distance as the Farragut separation, so it may be unattractive for free reentrance–the walk would be more time consuming than the trip down to L’Enfant that people seem already to reject.

    Drilling a new hole may be a show-stopper. How about an elevated glideway along G St.?

  13. Derek
    September 8th, 2012 at 08:31 | #13

    I have two issues:

    1. I live and work in the suburbs. I generally have to be at work before the “true” rush-hour and end up taking the train most days. However, Metro says the system opens at 5am, but in reality it is almost 6am before the system is fully open, due to the first trains needing to run their entire line. Is it possible to have short-runs during that start from mid-points at 5am in order to cut down on the amount of time it actually takes to open the system? On a side note, I know this a couple of years away, but how is Metro going to handle getting customers out to Dulles Airport for 6am flights? Unless there is a night bus to fill in the gap when the system is closed, it will be almost 6am by the time the first train does the entire line.

    2. When ever there is track work on the weekends, usually the announcement on the website will say something like, as a result trains will operate every x minutes. I have seen it say odd minutes such as 26 minutes. Well, there has to be a schedule that Metro uses in order to determine if a train is on-time? How come a public schedule can’t be produce for those weekends when the trains are going to be operating with greater distance between trains? Sometimes it is not feasible to check online the next train, since some people don’t have access to it on the way to the station, and when there is track work those numbers are subject to change. Plus if you are telling me that trains are running every 26 minutes, then unless I knew when the prior train went through, I don’t know when to expect the next one.

  14. Laura
    September 10th, 2012 at 17:12 | #14

    This is a very good start to setting policies, and I am very happy that you are giving us the chance to provide feedback in a way that accomodates the very busy lives of everyone who takes metro.

    First – I would agree that two of the important items that are not addressed above (as stated by many already) are the following: (1) The off-peak frequency – this is what is most important to people – we already know trains will come frequently, or more frequently during rush hour. (2) Rush-hour windows need to be articulated and discussed. I realize that the regular hours need to be established first, but this and off-peak frequency and very important elements to address at the beginning of this process.(3) Bunching – see above – this impacts on-time levels and overcrowding. (4) On-time levels need to be articulated to the public, as a frequency of 2.5-6 minutes doesn’t fully convey the situation if the on-time window is anywhere from 1-2 minutes early to 3-4 minutes late. (this may be in correct – but it was not stated above)

    In response to the items for discussion, please do not raise upper boundary of frequency to 7 minutes from 6 minutes. Based on what I have heard is Metro’s “on-time” window – this frequency can mean even longer waits than this window of time for frequency. Furthermore – increasing the frequency time period will not make transit competitive with other modes of transportation, and it needs to be to remain viable and enticing for people to use. If this upper boundary is JUST for lines that do not generate the demand for 6 minute service – I think it would be ok to entertain this option – but that would need to be CLEARLY identified.

    Also – please consider revising the “rush-hour” time frame. I understand that a lot of government workers take metro, but so do a lot of private sector folks (actually – probably more of them than government). Getting out before 5pm for private sector is typically not possible, so rush hour for them can easily extend to 7pm, if not later. I was astonished to see the waits on the red-line at 6:30 pm be up to 12 minutes at Farragut North. 6:30pm is still rush hour to many, many people.

    Thank you!

  15. Steve Strauss
    September 19th, 2012 at 18:08 | #15

    Most of the comments ignore the question of loading levels and focus solely on frequency. Fine. Everyone wants more frequent service and shorter waiting times. The problem is how much service does the region want to buy/provide. How crowded for example are Red line trains at Farragut North at 7 p.m. when Laura questions a 12 minute headway. Without loading guidelines we don’t have a good ability to adopt an appropriate frequency for the service. Where is the peak load point on the Red line at 7 p.m.? It would be good to know that, too.

  16. jnb
    September 20th, 2012 at 10:31 | #16

    Steve Strauss is right. The problem, though, is that Metro doesn’t have lots of immediately available options for how to increase train frequency, meet acceptable passenger load levels, and keep costs down. The solution for after hours service improvements would be more frequent, shorter trains. But as long as Metro has human employees in the cabs, and as long as trains go all the way out to the ends of the line in the evening, and as long as it takes labor to break down trains from 8s and 6s to 4s, that’s an expensive solution that local governments might not support.

    But just because some of those things I just mentioned are not doable right now, that doesn’t mean those options shouldn’t be evaluated. Metro should state a service goal that it wants to achieve, and then show the options for achieving it and the pros and cons of each choice. Also, the options SHOULD NOT be limited to only things that are technically feasible now. This exercise can be a useful planning exercise if it actually helps the agency make choices about what technologies (for example, driverless trains) and infrastructure (pocket tracks for turnbacks) to invest in in the future.

    Since it’s residents of the District and the inner suburbs like Arlington who have the most at stake in terms of getting transit service levels in sync with the needs of a growing transit-oriented population, IMO DC and Arlington should work together to analyze the options available to meet service standards that they would like for their residents. They should use the project development program to do this (inside baseball reference for Metro and jurisdictional staff – for others, it’s a transit planning fund paid for by local governments).

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