Planning Tool Update Sheds Light on Rail Car Crowding Distribution

May 18th, 2015

Latest version of Line Load tool will feature modeled car-crowding numbers.

Many factors influence which car number of a Metrorail train a customer rides.  Infrequent riders may wait for the train near the escalator and board the nearest rail car. Savvier customers may prefer to ensure they are the first to exit at their destination station or have an shorter walk at a transfer station.  Others may board cars based on understanding where seats are more likely to be available.  All of this activity can result in uneven loading of Metrorail cars across a given train, with some rail cars crowded and others near empty.

As we mentioned in 2013, the Office of Planning has an in-house tool that allows planners to estimate how crowded trains are based on origin-destination ridership data. Currently we are in the midst of a few updates, which will include the Silver Line that opened last year.  Another of the new features that we are excited about is a rail car crowding analysis for the system’s most critical segments.  Based on over six months of rail car-crowding data that was collected at selected stations by rail passenger “checkers,” the train-based ridership data will be distributed across the cars so we can estimate what kind of crowding we have by car number, at the peak load points. The following graph illustrates the observed car crowding variations at Gallery Place.


Customers may experience crowded conditions even when the average rail passenger per car (PPC) numbers (PDF) would indicate otherwise. This new feature is an important addition that will help Metro planners better understand the customer experience.  The car crowding analysis will begin to identify which cars of a train tend to be crowded in the peak hours, and which are less crowded.  This information will the be used as a starting point for devising strategies for better spreading customers across all cars of a train.

How do you choose which rail car you ride in?  Other than berthing trains at the center of the platform (see this informative article over at Greater Greater Washington on that topic), what strategies might Metro consider to better balance customers across rail cars?



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  1. slg
    May 18th, 2015 at 09:25 | #1

    When I lived in Vienna and had to transfer to the Blue at Rosslyn, I picked the car that would deposit me right above the down escalators (so third or fourth car along; can’t remember exactly which one now). Easy enough to get a seat in that car when it’s the first stop on the line. Now that I’ve moved closer in (i.e., am not at the end of the line) and can choose to either transfer or leave the station and walk, I usually go for the front end of the car where there are fewer people. In the first example, getting a seat in the right spot was most important, because the commute was longer. In the second example, not being crowded is most important, because the commute is shorter.

    I do wish that Metro would mark off the door opening spots on the platform, which might help alleviate the bunching around doors. Though I suspect that no amount of signage or strategies will stop tour groups from bunching up at the bottom of the escalators.

  2. JS
    May 18th, 2015 at 23:01 | #2

    Ever since the Ft. Totten accident in 2009, I have refused to ride in either the first or last car.

  3. Low Headways
    May 19th, 2015 at 09:09 | #3

    The problem isn’t cars, it’s station layouts. People tend to choose the doors closest to the platform exit at their destination, because the platforms have so few exits. If you can solve that, so there isn’t automatically a “best” door for each station, it will help.

    Of course, so will running 8-car trains at all times, but…

  4. Tom Veil
    May 19th, 2015 at 09:24 | #4

    Low Headways is right. Every station has a few select points that match up with the escalators. With a few exceptions (Farragut North, Union Station), those points line up with cars 3 & 5. Since we can’t walk between trains, and since each train only has 3 doors, that means chokepoints will form.

  5. Scott Anderson
    May 19th, 2015 at 09:30 | #5

    One of the reasons for cramming the cars near the escalators is the infrequency of bus service. If I’m taking Orange/Silver to Ballston then I need the 23T, if I miss one it’s a half-hour to the next one. I don’t mind the extra minute or two walking from the end cars, except if it means I miss my connection, then I mind it a great deal. If the buses came with reasonable frequency, which the vast majority do not, this would be less of an issue for me and likely many others.

  6. Pete C.
    May 19th, 2015 at 09:36 | #6

    Agree with Low Headways and Tom – people generally chose boarding location based on escalator location so those specific cars tend to get really crowded. Structurally, I don’t see how WMATA can fix that issue without construction of multiple escalators and entrance/exit points, which doesn’t seem realistic. Even then, psychologically, I think people would still sit near the exit point, even if was only a savings of a few hundred steps.

  7. ER
    May 19th, 2015 at 09:39 | #7

    I use car 1 or 8 (if by some miracle I come across an 8 car train..) because I prefer an uncrowded car over anything else and don’t mind walking to the stairs when I make my switch at Metro Center.

  8. Zack Rules
    May 19th, 2015 at 09:39 | #8

    I wish Metro would consider ordering articulated cars ala Toronto Rocket. That way, people could move about the train freely and with an 8 car articulated would have more capacity than an 8 car train

  9. Ross
    May 19th, 2015 at 10:01 | #9

    If I’m only going to be on Metro for a short ride, I pick the car nearest my transfer point or intended exit. If it will be a longer journey I usually try to get in the 1st or 8th car, as I assume they will be less crowded.

  10. Lester
    May 19th, 2015 at 12:08 | #10

    The problem in terms of deaths in 09 wasn’t so much the crash itself, but the telescoping and loss of livable space in the 1000 series cars that the NTSB has been clear they want off the tracks for over a decade. Since the 09 crash, I have not used a 1000 series car, which Metro moved to the only the center potions after the crash.

  11. PK
    May 19th, 2015 at 12:57 | #11

    Why doesn’t Metro try and use articulated cars? Allowing passengers to move freely between cars would increase capacity and would naturally allow people to distribute themselves along the entire train. It’s a common sense solution that works well in Toronto, Seoul, Paris, and many other systems around the world.

  12. Peter
    May 19th, 2015 at 15:39 | #12

    What hasn’t been mentioned so far is that savvier riders might also pick their car based on type. Depending on where I am and where I’m headed, I often stand right about at the 2/3 car coupling or the 4/5 coupling so I can choose based on what types of cars roll up. In the dead of summer, I try to avoid 1000 and 4000 series because they seem to be much more likely to be hot cars. Or if a nice 6000 with the flooring and lighting upgrades rolls up in front or behind a bellied, threadbare 1000 series, the choice is usually easy. On the other hand, during peak of the peak crowded periods (and will all respect to those with disabilities who they were designed for), I really try to avoid the 6000 cars because the spacing of the vertical handholds are awful for those trying to stand.

  13. AB
    May 19th, 2015 at 15:50 | #13

    Too many stations have exits at only one extreme end. No one in their right mind is going to ride on the cars all the way down the other way for their regular commute.

  14. egk
    May 19th, 2015 at 17:19 | #14

    clearly (as mentioned in this article)
    METRO should have purchased open gangway trains in the newest acquisition. Then passengers could distribute themselves in the trains irrespective of where they board.

  15. Mount Pleasant
    May 19th, 2015 at 22:27 | #15

    My recommendation would be to target occasional riders and tourists. As many others have noted, daily commuters have certain preferences (e.g., boarding the car which will get them closest to the stairs/escalator at their destination station; boarding at the first or seventh/eighth car to ensure obtaining a seat) that enhance the quality of their Metro experience. Tourists and infrequent riders, however, seem much more likely to bunch around the cars most closely located near where they enter the station. So, to mitigate this bunching (since moving entrances is not an option), positioning better signage or engaging in campaigns that actively provide this information to infrequent users (NOT through an overhead announcement) may decrease the overcrowding in the center cars.

    Personally: My trip is from Columbia Heights to Dunn Loring; because my commute is precisely timed to minimize my transfer wait time, I’m going to board the cars that make movement from the upper to the lower platform (and back again) at l’Enfant as quick as humanly and safely possible.

  16. semi-frequent rider
    May 21st, 2015 at 12:48 | #16

    It takes a couple days to figure it out, but generally I have to connect to a different train, I generally try to figure out which train car I need to switch to minimize my walk time between changing trains.

  17. Cyth
    May 25th, 2015 at 09:00 | #17

    Generally I will move to the first or last car if I do not need to transfer as they are always the least crowded. If I have to transfer, I will pick the car that allows me the quickest way to get to the other platform, since I tend to ride off peak, when there are fewer trains and missing a transfer train is much more frustrating (especially if it is evening service!).

    Ideally, I wish Metro would transition to articulated cars to allow the free movement throughout the train. These not only increase capacity, but allow for customers to naturally spread out during peak hours, leading to better distribution between cars. However, based on where metro currently stands, I don’t see this being a likely option.

    In line with current Metro capabilities and options, Metro really needs to push to getting to running all 8 car trains as well as increasing rolling stock to a point of running all lines at the maximum number of trains they are capable of. If I know another train is only a few minutes longer wait, I and many others, would be more than willing to wait for that train if the current one is overcrowded. Also, if we do not risk having to wait and extra 15-20 minutes for a train because we missed out transfer by a few seconds, waiting for the next train also isn’t a big deal when, nor is needing to be in the car closest to the transfer point. Decreased headway times and increase train length seem to already be in the long term goals for Metro, so they really need to push to get this in place sooner rather than later.

  18. Anthony
    May 27th, 2015 at 15:30 | #18

    The problem is that Metro is too provincial and short-sighted to purchase “articulated” or “open gangway” cars. These would not only create additional capacity — essentially turning a 6-car train into an 8-car train — but facilitate less chaos at stations as folks could enter the first car at Gallery Place, walk towards the center of the train from the inside, and avoid having to run down the platform and worry that the train will depart before space can be found to board.

    If every other country on Earth is switching to “open gangway” cars, why was Metro so short-sighted with the recent order? Are we too exceptional to do the smart thing in the capital of the USA? I don’t get it!

  19. MLD
    June 2nd, 2015 at 09:07 | #19

    Downtown stations need to be upgraded so that there are more exits. People don’t want to walk all the way to car #1 just to have to walk all the way back to the center of the platform at their destination.

    Take Farragut North, for example. The South end of the platform is completely out of the way, even though it could have a stairway up to the mezzanine.

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