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Despite Metro’s concerns, D.C. mayor pushes for return to late-night rail service

Metro and federal transportation officials say they are focused on guaranteeing Metrorail is safe first

D.C. Metro
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Since last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has been promoting a petition for Metro to revive late-night rail service, which the transit agency reduced in 2016 so that work crews could access tracks for longer stretches of time and conduct necessary repairs.

But Metro and federal transportation officials are wary of returning to later closures, saying that doing so would impinge on Metro’s ability to ensure safe transit. Maryland and Virginia, which have representation on Metro’s board, just as the District and the federal government do, are siding with the agency, in part because they currently oppose subsidizing Metro more.

“Washington, DC needs a Metro system that meets the needs of our residents, our workers and our businesses,” Bowser’s petition reads. “That means we need a Metro that stays open as late as our region does.” At a meeting attended by District and Metro officials on Jan. 29, the mayor told the transit agency “to go back and do some more work” after it had presented four options for future service. (One of the options was preserving Metrorail’s present hours.)

Since summer 2017, Metrorail has closed at 11:30 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 p.m. on Sundays. For roughly the year prior to that, during the first phase of the SafeTrack repair plan, Metrorail closed at midnight each night. But before SafeTrack, it closed at 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and midnight on Sundays through Thursdays. Bowser and Metro Board Chair Jack Evans, a D.C. councilmember, want the old hours back this summer. A board vote on rail service hours is anticipated next week.

At the Jan. 29 meeting, Bowser said Metro was presenting “the worst possible scenarios” for late-night service, suggesting that it did not want to fully restore it. Three of the options the transit agency shared were to reinstitute 3 a.m. rail closures on Fridays and Saturdays, to do so concurrent with 9 a.m. openings on Saturdays and 10:30 a.m. openings on Sundays, and running service until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 11:30 p.m. on Sundays. Metro says shutting down its trains earlier and starting them later gives its crews more time for repairs.

Metro’s presented alternatives for future service

Because of wind-down and revving-up time, a five-hour window of no rail service allows for only about two hours of productive maintenance work, according to the transit agency. In a statement, Metro says the alternatives it has put on the table “balance” the city’s request for later service with safety and reliability concerns. “While we understand the role Metro plays in supporting our region’s economy and mobility, we are also mindful of the impact if the system is unreliable,” it explains. “That’s why we want to ensure that any change allows time to continue the maintenance strategies that are yielding positive results for our customers.”

Metro officials also say that over the past 18 months, unscheduled track outages went down by more than half and track fires by 20 percent. “It’s almost amazing that for nearly 40 years Metro did not have an institutionalized preventive-maintenance program,” Paul Wiedefeld—the agency’s general manager—told Washingtonian in a recent interview. “I would love to run the rails 24-7, but that’s probably not realistic given the physical nature of the system.”

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has raised red flags about fully restoring late-night service as well. The FTA, which has overseen Metro safety for the past few years, told Metro in a recent letter that it may hold off on approving a new Metrorail safety oversight group if maintenance is compromised, the Washington Post reports. In turn, this would continue to impede federal transit funds to the Metro jurisdictions, worth millions of dollars.

In December, the new oversight group, known as the Metrorail Safety Commission, advised against returning to pre-SafeTrack late-night rail service when D.C.’s Metro board members were weighing action. Evans and Corbett Price, the second D.C. member, threatened a veto.