- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

An international review panel yesterday called Metro the best rail system in the country, but said the agency could ease overcrowding and improve service by running longer trains.

The panel also said aging equipment and a rapidly increasing ridership are pushing the agency to its limits.

“The system is under tremendous stress,” said Michael Mulhern, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Mr. Mulhern headed the American Public Transportation Association’s panel, which comprised six top officers from transit systems in London, Toronto, New York, Boston, Atlanta and Philadelphia.

The panel reviewed Metro’s rail operations and briefed board members yesterday with its results.

“It’s dealing with normal life-cycle issues. The problem is, [Metro] is dealing with these issues at a time of intense demand.”

To combat crowding in train tunnels — which Mr. Mulhern said slows the system because a train brakes when it nears another ahead of it — he recommended trying eight-car trains with longer intervals between them.

“The system is so saturated that trains are running slower,” Mr. Mulhern said. “We’ve done the same in Boston, and performance increased without impacting capacity.”

The report also said Metro needs more track inspectors.

Metro General Manager Richard A. White said the budget has kept the agency from adding the inspectors.

“We’re in the mind-set of cutting the budget,” Mr. White said. “We cut $80 million in the last four years. I can’t add resources.”

The panel also said Metro could improve accountability by giving line managers more responsibility and moving around staff less frequently.

Nevertheless, Mr. Mulhern called Metrorail “the best running [rail] system in the United States, flaws, warts and all.”

Mr. White, who requested the review, said the panel’s findings “exceeded my expectation. Not only did it validate a number of steps and operations, it gives input at the right time.”

Metro board members also were pleased with the report.

“There’s various things that happened last year,” said board member and D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, alluding to Metro’s problem-plagued 2004. “Hearing from the outside that we are doing our job well is an important message.”

The Metro board yesterday also discussed adding more cameras to buses to discourage attacks on drivers.

Crimes such as simple assault and throwing objects at buses increased 52 percent from 2003 to 2004.

“Our bus drivers have a tough job,” said Gladys W. Mack, who represents the District on the board. “They have to interact with the customers as well as deal with traffic — things our train operators don’t have to do.”

Mr. Graham said he is co-sponsoring a D.C. Council measure to increase penalties for assaults on drivers. “[Violators] have to know that this is serious, and they’ll receive more than a slap on the wrist.”

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