Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"- - -" Trains and Fail Tools

It sucks to get to a Metro station only to realize you just missed a train and are going to be waiting there for 15 minutes or more. It sucks even more when that station is outside, and it's a cold night. It takes suck to a whole new level when you took all the measures you could so this scenario would not happen.

Metro's budget woes have been sliced and diced, analyzed and pored over, and there's a lot of talk about service cuts, including fewer trains at night (PDF). But we see something missing from all the discussion, particularly from Metro's side:

Are there any plans to make the subway run on a reliable schedule?

Imagine the delight in arriving at a station at the same time as the train you want! Imagine! It's not rocket science--other countries have done this for decades.

Sadly, the fundamental task of running trains on time and according to a published schedule seems like pie in the sky here in DC. If Metro could accomplish this seemingly simple, cheap objective, the bitter pill of longer times between trains would go down a lot more easily.

Now to be fair, Metro recently began utilizing NextBus, which helps riders know when to head out to the bus stop, and although we still hear a lot about unreliability, it's a big step in the right direction, and a lot of people seem very happy with the service.

However, on the train side, we have been giving WMATA's schedules and riders' tools a test.

Over the past few months, we've taken Metro at night (between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.) 21 times. For 10 of those times we used Metro's published schedules (yes, they really do have these!) and eleven times we used the online next train tool. The accuracy rate of both tools to within 5 minutes? Four out of 21 times!

That's not even 25 percent, and usually, the train was early, which is even more of a nuisance because it often leads to more wait time at the station. More than a few times, the next train tool showed "-- -" trains as the next train, which hardly inspired confidence.

The other night is a perfect example. We were heading into Rosslyn. It was very cold, and we didn't particularly want to wait outside at East Falls Church for a long time, so we logged onto WMATA.com and saw that a train was arriving in three minutes. That wasn't enough time, so when the next train appeared to be 10 minutes away, we headed out.

Now, we've timed the walk. It takes no longer than 6 minutes at a moderate pace, but we were moving pretty fast, and got to the perimeter of the station in under 5 minutes.

As we got near the entrance, we realized a train was on the platform, we bolted as fast as we could but didn't quite make it. Sixteen minutes until the next one.

Thanks WMATA. You're going to engender a lot of goodwill and even fewer riders when those seemingly random headways are 30 minutes or more.

After basic safety, running trains according to a schedule should be task #1. It's sad that even has to be pointed out.

Other items:
Bathroom "galore" on Silver Line (WaPo)
Metro learned from 2003 storm (Examiner)
Catoe's year in review (Examiner)
How to get out of the transit death spiral (Examiner)
Look! A WMATA cookie. (GGW)


Kara said...

I have yet to divine the arrival time for my morning train now that they are running on manual. For the longest time it was arriving at a certain time (give or take 30 seconds) so was somewhat reliable. For the past few months it has got worse and worse though and I could see the schedule creep each day. Now I do not know if my 7:41 train will arrive at 7:39 or 7:45. Given that those two times are the supposed times between trains at rush hour, I do not even know why I bother getting there at a set time anymore.

I have a feed from the passenger info signs on my phone to see train times (handy when it is not rush hour). Usually the train arrives a few minutes before when the feed says it will ... so not much help there. It is not just my phone, I have seen up top 3 minutes on signs in metro stations as a train is leaving. So I guess those are on their feed and any resemblance to the signs at the train level is accidental.

BTW, on a somewhat related note: anyone else annoyed that the passenger info signs at the mezzanine level do not include trains that are approaching the station? Approaching trains are usually in plenty of time for me to catch if I do not dawdle).

Anonymous said...

I don't think it needs to be pointed out that Metro needs to run trains on a schedule. That is rule #1 for any rail operation, timetables are at the heart of rail. I do think it's kind of odd that you think you discovered an issue here. Why?: The Metro next train tool is an admission that they can't maintain schedule. Why else would they have developed it (and the next bus tool) with timetables readily available to the public?

The condescending tone of "yes they really do have schedules lol" is really unnecessary.

I've never had much trouble using either train or bus arrival tool. It sure is better than when we had nothing.

Anonymous said...

@anon 9:36. it's not better than nothing. it's the same as nothing. might as well just walk to the station and hope!

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:36

If you don't like the "condescending tone" what do you think of Metro workers tones?

Bhrdsn said...

The printed schedules are no more than an estimate. As for the online tool, forget it. Useless.

Anonymous said...

Where is Mussolini when you need him?

Unsuck DC Metro said...


Anonymous said...

Hey, I can forgive them getting off of the printed schedule. Things happen. But it was absolutely inexcusable when, a few weeks ago, I was forced to stand on a freezing outdoor platform for 20 minutes because the train they SAID was coming on the "next train" WMATA gadget apparently didn't exist. Are you telling me that they don't even know where the trains that are currently moving about the system are anymore??!!??

Anonymous said...

I've found that for the most part the Next Train Arrival page works pretty darn well. I use it at the end of the day to try and catch the second of two straight Orange Line trains or to catch an 8-car train (which barely ever happens, because apparently they only have one of them running every two hours).

However, I have noticed the Next Train Arrivals tends to screw up later in the evening, when it is needed most. As much as I hate seeing 23 year-old princeses gulp Starbucks on a crowded train jerking to a halt, or jerks taking up multiple seats, or people blocking the doors when others are trying to exit.... getting to a platform three minutes early and seeing the train pull away and "Vienna - 17" on the board pisses me off like nothing else.

Anonymous said...

@Kara - I imagine they don't put approaching trains on the mezzanine signs to avoid people seeing it and racing to catch the train. There's enough idiots running through the stations already.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anon 9:36 - Condescending tone is the people on the phone when you call Metro. The workers use condemnation tones. ;D

The Ballston line often has the info on the mezz signs and yes, people start bolting. What they don't realize is that mezz sign is not always matching up to the sign on the platform. Rush, rush.. oh.. a 5 minute wait, not 2...

Heaven help us all when they extend the times between trains AND shorten the trains. They think they got door problems now? Every train will break when they fire up that idiotic budget-idea. From New Carrollton it is alway standing room only by the time they hit the 3rd station as it is.

Kara said...

@anon@1:48 True, but even at my normal walking speed I can usually catch a train that will not get to the platform for another 60 seconds. What use is telling me what trains will be there in 10 minutes? When I look at the sign I want to know what trains are there now/in the next few minutes.

Look at it this way too. If a train is listed as boarding and you are nowhere near there then telling you that your best bet is the next train would make you less apt to run to it. If I see a train on the platform but it is not on the board I may as well run since I do not know if it will be there long enough for me to catch it if I go a little faster or not.

Anonymous said...

When there are multiple lines going through a station, do I really need to know that "-- TRAIN" is approaching in 9 minutes?? I think someone reading their cell phone is not remotely interested in that, especially when they limit the screen to 3 oncoming trains per platform for no reason (it's a cell phone, not the dated platform screens with only 3 spaces available). Sometimes I have to go back a few stops on the "next train" page to check if there is even a yellow line train on the tracks or not.

I am getting ahead of myself though, I'd just be satisfied with a somewhat accurate time estimate that is based in reality.

Anonymous said...

Metro's failure to adhere to any kind of schedule makes the "schedule adjustment" stops so maddening. There's either a schedule or there isn't. Although the printed schedule is useless, I've found next train to be reasonably reliable for stations in the middle of of lines.

Hugh said...

I had absolutely no idea that Metro even published train schedules. Hilarious. Why even bother?

Anonymous said...

The next train mobile site works pretty good. I can check it from my phone and almost always time my walk to show up right before the train pulls up.
That being said when it doesn't work very well is the times (late night, Snowstorm, etc) when it need to work. I don't mind during rush hr or midday waiting 8/10 minutes when i walk too slow and miss the train but waiting 18 minutes is unacceptable. Sometimes it has weird outages and I have to refresh it again..

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