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For the thousands of riders who depend on D.C.’s subway to get from point A to point B during the wee hours of the weekend, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld‘s announcement on Tuesday that he would propose ending late-night Metrorail service caused consternation across the region.
Restaurants and urbanist groups have pilloried the proposal as bad for business and detrimental to the District’s reputation as a cosmopolitan city where nightlife opportunities abound. Patrons and staffers, they say, are already hard-pressed to arrange alternative transportation options during the ongoing SafeTrack maintenance plan, which launched in June and is expected to last into March. Under SafeTrack, the rail system closes at midnight every day.
But at the transit agency’s board meeting on Thursday, Wiedefeld said there would be “ample time” for residents to weigh in on the potential reduction in service, with public hearings later on. The proposal would shut down the rails at 10 p.m. on Sundays and at midnight on all other days to allow for maintenance. Metro says the change would mean trains would run 127 out of 168 hours a week, adding eight extra hours to the time workers would have to repair cables, tracks, and other infrastructure each week. Wiedefeld contends that the shift would boost productivity and keep Metrorail shipshape.
“We have to look at what we have been doing: How we got to where we got to,” Wiedefeld told reporters following the board session. “Part of that has been clearly not enough access to the tracks [to do maintenance]. So what is the balance there? We cannot go back to where we’ve been.”
In 1999, Metro extended the rail system’s hours of operation until 3 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Wiedefeld told board members that leading up to SafeTrack, a few thousand trips were taken every late-night hour Friday through early Sunday morning. On Sundays from 10 p.m. to midnight—the service-period the proposal would eliminate—ridership has dropped 43 percent since 2011, hovering around 3,000 trips per hour now.
Notably, Jack Evans—Metro board’s chairman and Ward 2’s councilmember—was absent at Thursday’s session, because he is attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. He told the Post earlier this week that no late-night service during SafeTrack “makes sense today,” but that he didn’t “know if that makes sense a year from now, and forever.” Leif Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation, called the idea “premature.” In a statement made Thursday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth said it is “deeply concerned about the potential negative impacts.”
“Regional leaders must evaluate alternative approaches, including whether this can be achieved through targeted closings on a rolling basis, as track work is often handled today,” CSG Executive Director Stewart Schwartz said in a statement. “[Metro] and local jurisdictions should also evaluate the potential for effective after-hours ‘Night-Owl’ service with buses running on routes parallel to the Metro lines. With this information in hand, the [Metro] board, regional elected officials, and the public will be better able to evaluate the proposal.”
Asked about possible mitigation strategies, Wiedefeld said Metro is looking at supplementary buses, limited rail service for special events like sports games, and delayed openings on Saturdays and Sundays (so the system could stay open later, with maintenance done earlier), but hasn’t committed to anything yet. Metro’s board must approve a schedule for public hearings and other formal methods of input on the proposal, which likely won’t happen until the end of the summer.
“We’ve done single-tracking late at night in certain parts of the system and it just isn’t providing the clear access that you need out there, and [being able] to hit the system in different places [with] different [kinds of repairs],” he explained of why a systemwide closure is necessary. “You limit yourself and, in effect, you limit the time you’re out there. We all know where that leads.”
As for accommodating late-night workers who feel they don’t have viable alternatives to Metrorail, he said: “That’s why we’ve got to figure out what else we can do.”