Track work, unreliable service taking toll

Metrorail ridership dropped 4.9 percent below the transit agency's expectations in the first quarter of the fiscal year, as frequent track work and unreliable service appear to take a toll, according to Metro statistics.

The lower levels continued in October, even before Superstorm Sandy closed the system for nearly two days, according to Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Dillon Kissal.

Some Metro riders say they're using other transportation modes because of Metro's problems. See a sampling of their Tweets in the embedded viewer below this story.

Read the complete Metro ridership report embedded below the Tweets at the end of this story (or click this link)

A new report obtained by The Washington Examiner indicates that track work and service changes appear to be prompting riders to abandon the system -- as well as the agency's public explanations of fewer federal transit benefits and rate hikes.

Average weekday ridership dropped 2.5 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, but fell 6.4 percent on Saturdays and 5.7 percent on Sundays, when Metro shuts down sections of the system or forces trains to share a single track, adding more delays to already longer weekend waits for trains. Ridership on weekends from midnight to 3 a.m. dropped by 8.9 percent. The report said weekend closures for track work "can discourage ridership on the affected line(s) by up to 25 percent compared to normal levels."

Riders cited the massive track work and unreliable service for why they are abandoning Metrorail.

"I actively avoid going into the city from Alexandria on the weekends because of how much disruption there is," rider Brian Calvary said under the Twitter handle @roadtohell.

The ridership drops are not occurring equally on all lines. Green Line ridership fell by 0.5 percent, compared with 2.2 percent on the Red and 3.3 percent on the Orange and Yellow lines. The Blue Line had a 4.1 percent drop, mostly felt between the Pentagon and Franconia-Springfield stations, where riders had less frequent service during rush-hour periods starting in June under Rush Plus. The report acknowledged that the Blue Line loss "potentially indicates a small negative impact" because of Rush Plus.

Metro officials told board members that fewer people have been riding the trains because of a reduction in federal transit benefits combined with a July fare hike. Officials said riders have less money to make discretionary trips on the system. Riders get a maximum of $125 per month, not the $230 in transit benefits that they received in 2010 and 2011, so their transit benefits don't go as far under the higher fares. Because rail ridership is down, parking revenues also have dropped by about 4 percent.

But the agency did not acknowledge the additional impact of massive weekend track work and less reliable service. The loss is likely compounded by all the factors, boiling down to riders not wanting to pay more for less reliable service.

Metro budget director Bill Greene told board members last week that ridership had dropped the most during the midday and weekend, but he did not blame track work. However, Kissal said after the meeting that Greene misspoke. She said officials looked for patterns and found none. "It was across the board. We couldn't really pinpoint one versus the other," she said. "Every line and every time of day was the same."

Metro did not answer questions about the discrepancies between the report and Kissal's statements.

Ridership had been starting to level off after faltering in the wake of the June 2009 Fort Totten crash. Rail ridership stayed relatively steady in the last fiscal year, while bus ridership soared nearly 6 percent. But Metro still hasn't returned to levels it had on either its buses or trains before the crash.