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Study: Metro’s Orange Line ridership ‘hit particularly hard’ over last decade

An Orange Line train
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For one of Metro’s six subway lines, the past 10 years have been an especially rough ride.

That’s according to a new analysis of Metro ridership on the Orange Line—which runs from Vienna, Virginia through central D.C. to New Carrollton, Maryland—by the D.C. Policy Center (DCPC), a local think tank.

By looking at public Metro data on “average weekday passenger boardings,” DCPC author Ethan Finlan finds that in the last decade, the Orange Line “has been hit particularly hard” by declining ridership. Six Orange Line stations saw loses of more than 58 percent in that metric, with West Falls Church in Virginia experiencing a 77 percent drop. Finlan explains:

Between 2007 and 2017, every station along the Orange Line sustained a decrease in average weekday passenger boardings. More notably, the six stations that have been hit hardest (proportionally) across the system are all Orange Line stations, as shown in the table below. (Among the 27 stations along the Orange Line, eight are only served by the Orange Line.)

Average weekday passenger boardings on the Orange Line as a whole fell about 24 percent from 2007 (259,088) to 2017 (196,281), reports Finlan. And although Metro has had plenty of problems on other lines, Orange Line stations saw greater relative rider loss.

Finlan says poor performance may explain this difference: The Orange Line had the worst on-time performance in 2016. He also points to the 2014 opening of the Silver Line, which shares tracks with the Orange Line in Virginia and D.C., as a change that siphoned off riders from the Orange Line.

As for the part of the Orange Line that lies east of the Anacostia River, Finlan says stations there “have never had particularly high ridership levels,” and some recorded fewer than 1,000 average weekday passenger boardings in 2017. He also notes that ex-Orange Line riders may have switched to other forms of transportation—such as driving or ride-hailing—in response to “more systemic problems” across Metro.

As seen in other regions’ transit systems, Metro has bled total rail ridership in the last few years. Nonetheless, for Metro, recent losses have not been as steep as when the authority conducted its systemwide SafeTrack repair program in 2016.

Asked to comment on DCPC’s analysis, Metro noted that SafeTrack repairs in May 2017 resulted in the closure of the east end of the Orange Line and thus fewer passenger boardings at those stations.

“This is a huge part of why it ‘appears’ that these stations fell by say, 60 or 70 percent,” Metro’s planning office says in a written reply. “Same for Greenbelt—this station was closed for the first half of May 2017. Some ridership was still occurring here, but it was on the bus bridges and we saw increases at stations where buses terminated.”

Metro’s planning office also says the system “recaptured” many former Orange Line riders at Virginia stations after the Silver Line débuted. “A much clearer picture of true ridership would emerge if the study were to look at May 2018,” the office says.

Finlan, for his part, says in an email to Curbed DC that May 2018 numbers are not publicly available yet. He adds that “while the declines on the eastern leg [of the Orange Line] are less steep, there is a 9-year average decline (amongst the five stations [with the steepest declines]) of 35 to 36 percent, indicating significant ridership loss.”