Updated – 9:15 a.m., Feb. 6 – Montgomery County leaders are not pleased that Metro is reneging on a plan to end train turnbacks at the Strathmore-Grosvenor station later this year.
County Executive Ike Leggett, members of the County Council and some members of the county’s state legislative delegation all sent letters in the past week to Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld or Metro’s Board of Directors asking the officials to restore the plan to end the turnbacks.
About 50 percent of Metro’s trains turn around at the North Bethesda station and head south into D.C. during morning and evening rush hours, instead of continuing the trip north to the end of the Red Line at Shady Grove. County officials wrote the turnbacks extend the amount of time between the arrival of trains at the stations north of Grosvenor and result in fewer riders at those stations.
“The turnback severely diminishes service to the White Flint, Twinbrook, Rockville and Shady Grove stations, hurting ridership in a time when we are working hard to provide people reliable transit options,” the council wrote in its Feb. 1 memo.
Metro’s board voted in 2015 to end the turnbacks by July 1. At the time, Metro said the turnbacks were required because the trains were needed elsewhere because of a lack of railcars in the system.
However, Metro has since replaced its railcars with new 7000 series cars, which Metro officials previously said would address the issue.
Despite this, Metro did not eliminate the turnbacks in its latest version of the transit system’s 2019 fiscal operating budget, which generated concern from local officials.
Metro spokesman Richard Jordan wrote in an email Monday that the transit operator received the county’s request to eliminate the turnbacks and increase service at the four stations north of Grosvenor.
“Metro is working to determine the additional operating expense associated with this request, as well as the number of additional train operators and railcars that would be needed,” Jordan wrote.
In a Metro board memo, the transit operator indicated it would need two additional 8-car trains to end the turnbacks, which haven’t been budget in the upcoming fiscal year budget. It also noted that trains north of Grosvenor during rush hour typically see average peak hour boardings of 60 to 70 passengers per car–below the standard service level of 100 to 120 persons per car, meaning most railcars don’t fill up around that time. Metro staff members estimated increasing the level of service would cost about $1.25 million to $1.75 million more per year.
County Council President Hans Riemer said Monday morning Metro plans to continue the turnbacks, although public pressure could cause the board to change the policy.
“We need to get [Metro’s] attention for the strong demand for this service,” Riemer said. “It’s a crucial capacity improvement for people that live in Montgomery County.”
Leggett suggested in his memo that Metro conduct a test by sending the approximately 15 trains per hour that stop at Strathmore-Grosvenor during peak periods all the way to Shady Grove.
“If challenges arise, service can be tested at 12 trains per hour to Shady Grove with the remaining 3 trains turned back at Grosvenor,” Leggett wrote. He added that if the track infrastructure north of Grosvenor can’t accommodate the additional trains, then Metro should consider making a capital investment to upgrade the track system.
In their memo to Metro’s board, several state legislators wrote the turnbacks may negatively impact economic development around the White Flint Metro station, which the county has planned to become a future urban center.
Metro aims for four-minute headways on the Red Line during peak periods, but the headways are longer at the stations north of Grosvenor because of the turnbacks.
“Longer headways make using Metro less reliable and less appealing to the residents of these growing communities,” the lawmakers’ letter says.
The legislators also noted they were concerned Metro is seeking more capital funding from the state—as well as the other jurisdictions where it operates, Virginia and Washington, D.C.—while not honoring an existing agreement.
Metro is seeking about $500 million in additional annual dedicated funding to pay for what it says are needed capital improvements to improve reliability and safety on the transit system.
Currently, legislators in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. are debating the best way to provide that funding. Metro is asking that it be provided in an ongoing, guaranteed manner so that the transit operator can bond the funds in order to get a large lump sum immediately to undertake significant capital improvements.
Del. Marc Korman (D-Bethesda) sponsored a bill in the Maryland legislature this year that would grant Metro at least $125 million per year in additional funding, but only if D.C. and Virginia agreed to do the same.