- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2000

Metro board members were told Thursday that the aging subway system is reaching a critical mass in capacity, and initiatives need to be put in place soon to prevent the kind of gridlock seen on area roads.

Comparing Metro's situation to the Beltway's growing traffic woes, board member and Fairfax County (Va.) Board of Supervisors Chairman Kate K. Hanley said she would like to see the transit agency step up its efforts to make sure the system isn't on continual overload.

"Nobody ever operates all the way up to the top," Mrs. Hanley said. "We are being asked to operate at capacity. We can't keep the level always at full." Like the traffic tie-ups on the Beltway that she encounters on a regular basis, Metro's incidents also can create problems and long delays for passengers.

"It causes repercussions," Mrs. Hanley said. "When one little thing goes wrong, the whole thing goes phooey because you don't have much flexibility."

The fiscal year that ended June 30 saw ridership catapult to 163 million, with an average weekday ridership of 611,000 people last month alone.

James Gallagher, assistant deputy general manager for operations, told the board during an operations committee meeting that a "five-minute delay on Metrorail affects at least four trains," leaving 3,000 or more people waiting on the platform during rush hour.

"The increased ridership demands in our peak periods creates a growing challenge to ensure reliable movement of trains, which is the rush hour equivalent of rush hour conditions," Mr. Gallagher said. "Increases in passenger volumes are challenging system capacities."

General Manager Richard A. White said the system has just about all the riders it can handle without additional train cars and station space. So far, there are an additional 192 cars on order and 100 will be available between May 2001 and 2002. The new stations that are currently being built as well as those in the planning stages, Mr. White said, may also help solve the delays.

Yet, the numbers of people who are going to ride the trains aren't going down anytime soon. And that means the system will have to create solutions to make the system safe while expanding its service, said Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann.

"I don't think we can stop the flow," said Mr. Feldmann. "We need to recognize that ridership is only going to go up. We're going to keep piling more people onto the system, but what we need to do is better manage it."

Board member Cleatus E. Barnett said for the time being, he wants to see Metro communicate better with passengers, especially when there are delays.

Other board members also said they would like to see Metro do a better job of telling people when equipment is out. Along that same line, board members expressed frustration with Metro's less-than-speedy performance in making repairs to faulty elevators and escalators.

"We need to think about this a little more from the view of the rider," said Mrs. Hanley.

Currently, Metro is working on 70 or so elevators a day that are out of service, which is 20 more than normal. The agency's $120 million escalator-repair program is slated to continue through 2006. Board members want to see those repairs made more quickly.

"What I am looking for here is a timetable," said Metro board Chairman Gladys W. Mack.

One of the options the board asked Metro to consider: 24-hour, seven-days-a-week work schedules for repair crews.

Dave Couch, director of Metro's capital-improvement program, said he understands the aggravation people have with having to walk up broken escalators. Metro just happens to be a victim of a robust economy, he said.

"The problem with this is the elevator and escalator industry is in full employment right now," Mr. Couch said.

This year alone, Metro is spending $27 million on the repair program.

"We're more dependent upon escalators than any other system in the world and we have an aging system," said Mr. Couch.

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