Two weeks ago, Metro’s board heard, again, about the possibility of eliminating late night service on the weekends. This has reopened the debate about what direction Metro should be going, and whom it should be serving.
Two of the most vociferous opponents of such a change on the WMATA board have recently left, and the new board seemed more amenable to the idea.
There are those who believe that late night service is a big boon to Metro’s bottom line and that it should be continued. Others, especially within Metro, argue that closing the system earlier would give them the equivalent of 45 days more maintenance time per year, and lower costs for overtime.
As always with Metro, it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, the system is overloaded during the rush hours, has long lead times in the evening, and pretty crappy service on the weekends. It is constantly facing budget shortfalls, and its funding is always under attack. It is aging, and it isn’t in a state of good repair. It wasn’t designed to handle the service we’re asking of it, and we won’t fund it well enough to even make it run “normally”.
On the other hand, we don’t live in the same city for which the Metro was designed. The DC area has grown bigger and faster than just about anyone predicted (see also: housing and roads). We have a population that expects to be able to get home by public transport as it shuns driving. Our younger population needs Metro, because between housing prices, a flat economy, and taxi prices, they can’t afford to go out on a Friday night unless they have a reliable way to get home cheaply. And everyone would love to have a system that can be rightly called “world class.”
So, what are options? What’s realistic? Here’s what we do know: Metro has to do maintenance. It costs them more when they have to work employees over long weekends. Metro has a big budget crunch about to hit it, and it is unlikely they will get additional funding from the regions.
Across the board service cuts (eliminate 8-car trains, increase headways between trains, etc) would lead to a revolt at this point. So would increasing fares. So is it wrong to look at eliminating a service that, while important, isn’t the core of Metro? In a word, yes.
As the nature of the city has changed, so too must the nature of Metro. And that means late night hours should stay, and we should be looking for ways to increase late night service, not reduce it.
Create a maintenance schedule the concentrates resources on one line or station so that you can close that line early for a night. Or two nights. Or however many nights in a row. And I don’t mean just late night service: if the work you need to do requires six hours, but you only have from 12:30a to 5a, then close the station or line earlier, even on a weekday. Communication is key, here, both in station and via blogs and newspapers.
Work on one side of the tracks at a time, and space trains out so that you can easily switch them using the same set of tracks. This is trickier, slightly more risky, but when trains are running every 15-20 minutes anyway, the impact isn’t going to be that great.
Lastly, close down entire stations for a weekend at a time if needed, but plan on providing reasonably normal service to the stations that are open. That hasn’t been the case with holiday weekend closings, but the upcoming work in March on the Orange line needs to be better handled. Busses just don’t take the place of full trains very well.
I’d like to see a future system where not only do we have late night service on Fridays and Saturdays, but twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Yes, I know we’ll need more and better trains, and we’re getting there. We’re also going to need better planning, and limited service in those overnight hours. But why not run, single tracking if need be, a train every 30 or 45 minutes in the overnight hours?
It isn’t just the daily suburban commuters that we need to help out. Everyone, from the tourists that line our pockets to the service workers who can’t work a late shift because they can’t get home to the (gasp!) drunks in Adams Morgan and Dupont, deserves better.