Train ticketing revenue remains low, but Silver Line gives Metro optimism

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New Silver Line ridership, an increase in train availability, shorter wait times and an apparent drop in fare evasion gave Metro executives tempered optimism amid a fresh financial snapshot Thursday that showed the train’s ridership continued to struggle.

An internal report on ridership and revenue from July through September showed more ridership returning to transit, but not enough to meet the agency’s conservative targets for the rail system, Metro board members were told during a regular meeting.

The report showed a 36 percent increase in ridership on the rail and bus system compared to the same time last year, but that growth was primarily due to Metrobus ridership, which has almost recovered to pre-pandemic levels. In comparison, Metrorail is down 6 percent compared to forecasts made more than a year ago.

As Metro executives continue to bask in the opening of the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport, Thursday they faced the reality that the transit company is bracing for an operating budget shortfall of nearly $150 million next summer got to. The Metro’s top official noted that ridership did not reflect significant developments over the past month. He said they would change the fate of the rail system, which generates most of the transit agency’s revenue.

“I think it’s clear once you’re in the system that ridership is definitely coming back,” said Randy Clarke, Metro’s general manager. “And I will say, I think a lot has to do with our frequency as well. We offer much more frequent services.”

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During the three-month span from July 1st Ridership for Metrorail, Metrobus and the paratransit service MetroAccess totaled 45.6 million trips. Rail ridership rose 43 percent to 20.1 million trips while falling short of forecasts, but Metrobus ridership outperformed the rail system with 25.1 million trips — 29 percent above Metro’s forecasts, Metro officials said.

Transportation officials blamed the rise in telecommuting for the sluggish growth in rail passenger numbers. The trains are carrying about half the passengers they were pre-pandemic as workers have either given up their offices or reduced the days they have to commute.

The result was disastrous for Metro’s finances. Nearly $2.4 billion in government coronavirus relief aid has cushioned fare losses since 2020, but that money will run out next year, leaving a gap of nearly $150 million that is expected to exceed $500 million in 2024 unless ridership improves dramatically or the agency shuts down service.

The same trends are affecting transit services nationwide, but the metro is also being hampered by a train shortage that began in October 2021. A state derailment investigation last fall uncovered a defect in the wheels of several 7000-series cars, resulting in the suspension of a model that makes up 60 percent of Metro’s fleet.

Metrorail’s regulator has allowed the transit agency to reintroduce them frequent checks.

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The surge in reinstated carriages has allowed Metro to restart up to 29 of its eight-car 7000 Series trains each day, up from 12 to 16 last month.

Metro Board Member Tracy Hadden Loh said the increase in available trains is already being felt. Metro customer surveys have repeatedly shown that frequency and reliability are the two most important factors when residents decide whether to ride the Metro.

“Every day the service gets a little better and you can feel that in real time,” said Loh. “I’ve had my fastest trip since joining the [Metro] Board from my house to headquarters this morning. It was fantastic.”

The extra cars too will help Metro reduce Red Line congestion.

“We’re definitely shooting on the rail side,” Clarke said. “Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are clearly the higher days. We see that nationwide too. But I’m telling you, we hit just over 305,000 [daily trips] yesterday. We have thus exceeded the 300,000 mark on the rails four Wednesdays in a row.”

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Metro this week celebrates the grand opening of the Silver Line Extension, an eight-year, $3 billion rail expansion into Northern Virginia. Commencement of service on the 11.5-mile Wiehle-Reston East to Loudoun County route includes a long-awaited stop at Dulles International Airport. The opening of the expansion included several ribbon cuttings and opening ceremonies to mark the largest expansion of the transit system in eight years.

Metro said it recorded about 7,000 trips as of Tuesday at the new Silver Line stations.

Officials believe many of these passengers are new drivers who would otherwise have gone to Dulles for their flight. New apartments and condos have also sprung up along the Silver Line, leading to optimism that they will soon accommodate frequent Metro users.

After lax enforcement, Metro will issue fare evasion next month

Also on Thursday, Metro officials said they are seeing a noticeable drop in the number of people who dodge fares on the rail and bus system since the Metro Transit Police stepped up enforcement of fare evasion. Officers patrol stations in groups to prevent dodgers. Clarke said her presence repelled many who had approached the station gates to jump over.

Clarke said Metro’s goal is to deter fare dodgers, rather than ticketing or arresting them. So far, he said, police have issued 35 tickets in the first two weeks of enforcement.

“Every time the police are out there, we’ve had tens to hundreds of people turn around or have their behavior re-corrected or adjusted during an operation,” Clarke said. “People who clearly wanted to breach the goal either went to pay or they were asked to pay and then they added value [to cards].”

Fare fraud has been cited by customers and elected officials as a factor discouraging fare-paying customers from using the Metro. The transit company has also begun testing prototypes of new ticket booths at the Fort Totten station to curb fare evasion.

One of the prototypes prevents people from planting their hands on the sides of the gates to swing their legs over barriers, while the other uses plastic shields that separate when a SmarTrip card is used.

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