Did Metro fail Saturday?
Yes. But that was the easy question. The more difficult questions are whether different planning could have produced a different outcome and whether some of the most frequently recommended solutions would be worth the investment.
Why is it so easy to say Metro failed? Because something clearly happened on Saturday that neither the riders nor transit officials wanted: Metro could not get people where they were going in a timely and efficient manner. It isn't even a close call.
Riders everywhere reported packed platforms, long lines at fare vending machines and trains so full that no one at inner stations could board. A common solution -- ride a few stations up the line and board where trains are less crowded -- didn't work at all. The trains were packed at their departure points.
I always recommend Metro as a best bet for getting to a big event. Many people who experienced the Saturday service on their way to the Stewart-Colbert rally on the National Mall won't take that advice again.
Here's a comment submitted for my online chat today that captures many of the themes -- and a lot of the anger -- that riders expressed:
"Metro really rose to the occasion this weekend ... of proving it is the most ridiculous transportation system in the country. Fine, you know a huge number of people are descending onto the city and you don't want to add service because, apparently, you weren't asked.
"But, come on. The Red Line was essentially inoperable ... fine, the track work was scheduled in advance, but what is so darned frustrating is that there was no information regarding when the next train was coming. Not that you could get on them because they were running (at least) 20 minutes apart on the western leg.
"But, give it to Metro, where every single station I went to on Saturday had their escalators out. Rhode Island, Judiciary Square, Navy Memorial, Gallery Place, Dupont, Court House (with the added awesomeness of having the working escalator going down against traffic flow).
"A friend from Portland, OR, asked "why do you guys put up with this" and I looked at her and said, "there's nothing you can do and they don't care."
Well, they do care. Metro's leaders take pride in the transit system's ability to move hundreds of thousands of people -- to be the backbone of the transportation system in the U.S. capital. They'll tell you that Metro's best days include Sept. 11, 2001, when the transit system stayed open and got everybody home, and Jan. 19, 2009, Inauguration Day, when the trains took people on 1.1 million trips.
This was nothing like that. I got more complaints about Saturday's service than about Inauguration Day service, when the system was stressed to the max.
What should have been done differently before Saturday happened? Now things are not so clear cut.
Reader comment: "Saturday's Comedy Central event would have challenged any public transportation system, no question. But why couldn't Metro have adjusted the frequency of its trains and buses in order to compensate somewhat for the crowds?"
Metro has plenty of experience planning for big events, and transit officials did what they've often done quite successfully. They routinely survey the D.C. scene to figure out what's coming up that could create extra demands on transit service. They talked to the Stewart-Colbert rally planners. They were figuring on a crowd about the size of the one for the Glenn Beck rally on Aug. 28. That day, about 200,000 more trips were taken on Metrorail than on a typical summer Saturday.
There were many crowded stations and trains that day, but the system handled it. And that was on the west side of the Mall, near the Lincoln Memorial. There are just a few Metrorail stations within range. Basically, the options were Smithsonian, Foggy Bottom and Arlington Cemetery, all on the Orange and Blue lines.
The Stewart-Colbert rally was on the east side, near many more stations on all the lines. That should have eased the stress on the train system.
Metro did as it usually does and asked the sponsors if they would like to pay for an early opening or extra train service. The rally sponsors didn't do that. That's not at all unusual. The sponsors didn't know what size crowd would show up. People didn't have to register to attend, and they didn't have to pay a fee that could have gone toward paying the extra transportation costs.
To say Metro didn't prepare isn't right. Based on its anticipation of a Beck-sized rally, the transit authority had 20 additional trains ready and eventually placed them in service throughout the system. Also, it had 31 administrative employees spread throughout the system to help first-time riders buy their fares and navigate the system.
To say Metro was overwhelmed, that would be more like it. That was no where near enough equipment or personnel to help the people who showed up. Metrorail wound up providing about 475,000 more trips than on a typical Saturday.
Once the additional trains were thrown into service, there wasn't much more Metro could do in time to meet the demand.
What about next time?
The most difficult question is how to make sure this doesn't happen again.
Reader comment: "in light of its financial troubles, I think Metro should charge more for big events."
If Metro charged more on days when big events were scheduled, it would help defray the cost of extra service. Then Metro wouldn't have to ask event sponsors whether they wanted to pay.
But how big would an event have to be to kick in the higher fares? An inauguration? A Mall festival or rally? A Nats game? How would you alert riders in advance that they'll be paying the higher fare?
Would it be fair to have all weekend riders pay the higher fare when they're not all going to the special event?
Should Metro just eliminate the current three-tier fare system by discarding the "discount" fare (the off-peak fare) and go only with what we now call the peak fare and the peak of the peak fare?
This Saturday was really bad, but I doubt we should make long-term changes based on such an unusual day.
[Note: This posting was quite lengthy, so I've avoided getting into the worst transit event of Saturday, the collapse of the escalator at L'Enfant Plaza. Metro continues to investigate that incident.]
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