Home U.S. Transit SystemsWMATA In D.C., a debate over closing times

In D.C., a debate over closing times

by Benjamin Kabak

A glimpse at when U.S. heavy rail systems operate. (Courtesy of Matt Johnson/Track Twenty-Nine)

As New York’s MTA struggles to make sure it has enough money to avoid future service cuts and fare hikes, the WMATA is considering changes to America’s Subway in Washington, D.C. As Greater Greater Washington reported earlier on Thursday, to save money and add, in essence, 45 days to its maintenance schedule, the authority may end weekend service at midnight instead of 3 a.m. As the vast majority of District residents and some WMATA Board members are incensed by the idea, it is one to which the WMATA Board often turns in times of fiscal crisis.

The hours of the D.C. Metro and the way the system is run has always been a bit perplexing to me. It’s full of contradictions and highlights a tension between those who live in the District and those who live in the suburbs. Anyone from New York would probably find it infuriating as I often did when I lived in D.C. a few years ago.

Generally, the Metro’s peak-hour trains arrive very frequently as workers — many of them federal employees — shuttle back to Virginia or Maryland. Much like with New York, D.C.’s roads aren’t extensive enough to — and should not — support the auto traffic the thousands of people who work in the District would generate, and so the Metro is a prime necessity during peak hours.

During off-peak hours, though, the service becomes this hybrid mix of a subway and a commuter rale. During rush hour, the red line trains would roll in quite frequently, but as soon as 7 p.m. hit, the headways slowed to 10 minutes. By 9:30, the wait grew to 15 minutes, and the last red line trains passed through Dupont Circle and Metro Center at midnight or shortly thereafter. On other routes, headways can reach 20 minutes as early as 9:30 p.m., and people coming back from Kennedy Center shows, late nights at work or after-dinner movies often grumble about the poor service.

In July of 2008, Matt Johnson at Track Twenty-Nine tackled the issue of the Metro’s hours. The DC subway system, he noted, is one of the first in the nation to close entirely and the first to begin the closing process during the week. It creates, Johnson says, some tension in the area. He wrote:

It would seem on the surface to be essential for the subway to stay open late in Our Nation’s Captial. While it is true that Washington has long held the distinction of being known as an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of town, they don’t exactly roll up the sidewalks at 11:30. They do start rolling up the Metro, though. They start shutting it down at 11:24 every evening Sunday through Thursday.

And while the party-goers and clubbers have the benefit of an extra 3 hours of service on Fridays and Saturdays, this strategy leaves out the idea of equity. After all, it’s not just clubbers who are out after midnight. All of those service workers have to get home somehow, and many of them don’t get off until late. Besides, do we really want to be known as the city that has the first subway to retire each night? Even Baltimore’s Metro starts to close later than WMATA.

In its coverage of yesterday’s WMATA Board Meeting, Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert pondered the same conflict. The debate over closing times, he says, “risks pitting rush-hour only riders, more often those who drive to stations and don’t live in walkable areas with ready transit access, against people for whom transit is a 24-7 mobility tool.”

As this debate unfolds in D.C., it certainly allows me to appreciate New York’s system, warts and all. Ours might not look as nice as the Metro’s vaults. It certainly isn’t as clean as D.C.’s system with its draconian enforcement of food and beverage limits. But it keeps running late. Most routes are covered by more than one train so even as, say, B train headways reach 10 or 12 minutes after the evening rush, that a D will show up makes the wait shorter. Even the R train with limited off-peak headways is still supposed to arrive every 12 minutes.

In New York — as in D.C. — too many people work off hours for the subway to shut down. The City that Never Sleeps can’t afford to see its transportation lifeline cut off. That does mean more inconvenient changes for necessary maintenance and a less clean system, but ultimately, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.

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BBnet3000 February 11, 2011 - 2:45 am

BARTs hours are the same on Friday and Saturday as they are during the week.

This is utter insanity. The quote you had that said “its not just clubbers that are out after midnight” is true, but regardless of what people are doing, theres a lot more of them doing it after midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. The last train out of the city on Friday nights (12:30 at the Embarcadero) is always pretty packed.

Michael February 11, 2011 - 1:22 pm

It’s true, and as a New Yorker living in SF, that’s my biggest problem with BART. There have been some recent rumblings to change this though: http://bart.gov/news/articles/.....01216.aspx

I think it’s going to be hard until they start adding more tracks/lines. The real problem with BART is the entire system is basically one line with a few spurs! (and no express tracks, anywhere) Talk about lack of redundancy…

pea-jay February 11, 2011 - 7:14 am

And I still remember the time only a few decade ago when Metro didn’t OPEN until 10a on Sunday’s…

Btw, 2 of Chicagos lines the Red and Blue run 24/7/365 and the brown shuttle ran from 4 a to 2a. So not too bad.

pete February 11, 2011 - 8:06 am

Better question, how is the bus system at night in DC and other cities that shut down their metros? I suppose its acceptable to bustitute metros at night. Surface traffic is much lower so the buses should be much faster at night.

Ron February 11, 2011 - 9:57 am

Simply put – awful. Especially in the suburbs.

Bolwerk February 11, 2011 - 11:36 am

I don’t know about DC, but common practice is to bustitute while track maintenance is done at night. Probably wouldn’t work in New York though.

Joe Steindam February 11, 2011 - 11:59 am

It’s common on sections of lines (like the Astoria line or the West End Line or the long suffering Canarsie line), but it’s uncommon for the whole subway service to be replaced by buses. Except for maybe the G, so many buses would be needed to match the capacity of the subways, even at low peak points.

Bolwerk February 12, 2011 - 11:44 am

Oh, I didn’t mean it was common in New York. But it’s not unusual outside of New York.

You’re absolutely right about capacity. I suspect another problem is New York has so much equipment that runs so late and would need to start again so early that little benefit is conferred by closure.

tacony palmyra February 15, 2011 - 1:00 am

SEPTA used to run the Broad Street subway and Market Frankford El 24 hours, using on-board fare collection. They ended it after a crash in 1990 and they now bustitute “night owl” buses with 20 minute headways all night. It’s relatively well used on Friday and Saturday nights. SEPTA also recently added some extra late service on its commuter rail for the most popular lines, but only until 1ish.

DC’s overnight bus service is really bad. I don’t have a problem with late night bustitution if the frequency is alright. I’m not waiting around in the cold dark on a streetcorner for 40 minutes.

Nathan February 11, 2011 - 8:35 am

Maybe DC and some other of the commuter rail hybrid metros could keep the urban stations open 24/7, but close down the outer 6 or so on each line that don’t go anywhere except parking lots.

WMATA Rage October 16, 2012 - 2:15 pm

I’ve always wished they could do this. Short-turn at East Falls Church, Grosvenor, King Street, Congress Heights, Addison Road, Cheverly, Fort Totten, and Silver Spring. Improve headways in the core. If you’re pissed you can’t take a train in from Vienna…well, suck it up and move closer.

John-2 February 11, 2011 - 9:10 am

WMATA never going to Georgetown back when the original lines were built in the 1970s created the system’s mindset that it was only meant to be a business hours subway, since at the time Georgetown was the only area within the district that attracted a large number of people for dining, movies and other after-hours activity. The location of the King Street station in Alexandria also didn’t help — cheaper to build where it is, close to the existing rail line, but quite a slog if you’re headed down towards the Potomac and the main entertainment district.

Combine that with the horrific layout of the National Capital’s highway system which also assumes that the only place anyone wants to go is to/from work in the downtown area, and you have a transportation network extremely unsuited for anything but getting people into and out of city’s main government business zone (they are trying to increase the frequency of trains for known events, such as on the Green Line the nights when the Nationals are playing, but unless you’re also getting off at a Green Line station, you run into the same service shortage problem if you’re transferring to another line at L’enfant Plaza or Gallery Place). Hopefully they’ll make some adjustments when the Purple Line opens in the Falls Church area, since that is one of the major mixed use business/commercial/retail in the area.

Alex B. February 11, 2011 - 9:55 am

I would like to see WMATA try to implement a plan that shuts down some stations for late night but leaves others open. There are plenty of stations with very low ridership that could be shuttered at midnight to save on costs while the more active late night stations stay open.

BBnet3000 February 11, 2011 - 12:40 pm

This is what people say they should do with BART, and what BART did when the Bay Bridge was closed for a few days. They kept key stations open, and closed smaller ones (im curious what the schedule was for that then…).

Like JP says, the problem is maintenance. In many cases, the NYC subway has multiple tracks, so they can divert trains past maintenance. Im not sure what they do on lines with just 2 tracks. I honestly think its possible. BART has had to single track certain stretches during Rush Hour before, to do it overnight with trains coming every half hour or 45 minutes should hardly be impossible.

JP February 11, 2011 - 11:11 am

There’s no tradeoff here, Ben. The necessary maintenance and cleaning aren’t done- and we’re all reminded of this on every transit blog there is. Shuttering our system for a few hours a day is impossible because of its size and expense. It would be cheaper to properly clean and maintain it and MTA can’t even do that.

But we’re talking about maintenance that goes from cleaning tile, replacing benches, emptying trash- to quasi-critical things like ceilings and walls buckling- right? The DC metro doesn’t fix broken signals overnight- that’s done like in any system: as soon as possible.

So here’s an idea- in addition to the trash collectors and station workers, a dedicated crew cleans one station at a time, closing that station for three hours. They work all night, every night. They get the walls, the ceilings. They tackle graffiti and that particular station gets a thorough cleaning and fixing. If they do one station a night on averageit takes just over 15 months to clean them all. Even with delays, reschedules and holidays and it got pushed to 18 months I could deal with that and I’m sure the rest of us would be overjoyed to have their station closed, cleaned, and fixed one night out of every 468.

Bruce M February 12, 2011 - 3:12 pm

Great idea! It seems to have never occurred to anyone in MTA managament that the walls of subway stations need an occasional good scrubbing.

Andrew February 13, 2011 - 9:07 pm

Broken signals obviously have to be done ASAP, but hopefully most signal maintenance is preventative, and it can be done during system or track shutdowns.

As for station cleaning, any work near the platform edge – and certainly any work above the tracks – can’t be done while trains are running. Shutting the station isn’t enough as long as trains are still passing through.

Hank February 11, 2011 - 12:32 pm

As a former DC resident, this is EXACTLY what is wrong with the WMATA. It’s dominated by suburban commuter interests who give little to no thought about the people who actually use Metro as their primary transit method.

I wonder how many more drunk driving deaths this foolishness will lead to?

BBnet3000 February 11, 2011 - 12:51 pm

Indeed. BART is extending lines further out at the fringe for some idea of equality (they are expanding into the other half of a county that pays the tax for BART, but doesnt have BART. The thing is, they mostly have cars and already drive to the existing end stations), instead of expanding in the core. In this sense, BART is often compared with DC metro, which serves the core much more.

Naturally, with each round of fringe expansion instead of core expansion, BART becomes less and less cost effective instead of more cost effective. Their ridership is more and more massive as you get towards the core. They could have vastly more riders in San Francisco than in Livermore.

Lest we forget, with something like 50% farefox recovery, and 40% of their riders in SF… do SFs fares and ridership count for nothing, vs the sales tax paid by the (much lower population) fringe?

Ted K. February 11, 2011 - 5:18 pm

Some links :
SFBay area “All Nighter” service (Transit.511.org)

“Owl” connections (SFMuni aka Metro. Transit Auth.)


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