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Yes, the new rail lines are off to a slower-than-hoped start

Let’s not panic. Our own history shows that early rail ridership numbers are often highly variable.

HoustonMetro

Slightly more than a month after the Metropolitan Transit Authority christened two new rail lines – built at a cost of $1.4 billion and seen by critics as little more than an unnecessary and expensive replacement for buses – ridership on both is less than expected.

The problem is most acute on the Green Line, which remains a work in progress because of an overpass still to be constructed over some freight lines to connect it to two more stations. The project is prompting fresh concerns from business owners about access and losses during another year of work.

The Green Line, which runs from downtown through the heart of the East End to the Magnolia Transit Center near the Gus Wortham Golf Course, has seen a 13.5 percent decrease in daily boardings in June compared to the few days it was open in late May.

[…]

The Purple Line runs from downtown to the Third Ward.

In June, their first full month of operation, the two lines combined averaged 4,719 boardings per day, including at downtown stations where they share stops. This is well below the 5,927 average officials predicted for the first year, though they cautioned that early estimates will be skewed.

The Purple Line splits from the Green Line near BBVA Compass Stadium on the east side of U.S. 59 near the central business district. From there, it snakes down Scott, Wheeler and Martin Luther King.

Because it serves the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said, officials do not expect its true ridership to become clear until most students return in late August, which could add hundreds of new daily riders.

Downtown stations and those along the Purple Line already are attracting more riders. Compared to the daily average for a few days in May, shortly after the lines opened, June’s average daily ridership was up about 6.3 percent at downtown and Purple Line stops.

Transit officials urged patience: “It is still premature to derive any conclusions,” Gray said.

In Houston generally, rail use has consistently increased, with few exceptions. A 5.3-mile northern extension of the Red Line opened in December 2013 and averaged about 4,500 boardings per day in April 2014. By April of this year, stations north of downtown were hosting about 6,000 riders per day, with half the stations posting growth above 30 percent.

Metro also is adjusting bus routes as part of a complete overhaul of the system, scheduled for Aug. 16. Until then, some buses are operating similar routes to the new bus lines, and eventually some of those riders can be expected to switch to the train.

I had previously complained about looking at the ridership numbers after the first few days of operation, which included a period of bibical rainstorms. I asked that we wait till after we had some normal weather, so I’m glad we’ve at least done that. But it’s still way too early to say how this will go. How do I know? We went though the same sort of thing after the Main Street Line opened in 2004. i went trawling through the Chron’s archives looking for stories about its ridership numbers in the first few months of its existence. Here’s what I found.

MetroRail passengers decrease in April, May 18, 2004:

Daily ridership on MetroRail continues to build, but when weekend trips are included, overall passengers declined in April, according to monthly statistics released Monday.

Metro reported there were 14,043 average weekday boardings in April, an 8 percent increase from March. Rainy days and the lack of a major event, such as March’s RodeoHouston, left plenty of open seats on April’s weekend trains, leading to a 37 percent decline in total ridership. It was the first month where weekday ridership exceeded weekend.

“The April drop-off in weekend ridership is due to some pretty awful weather Easter weekend and the last weekend of the month, ” Metro spokesman Ken Connaughton said. “We anticipate that better weather will bring back riders.”

The data are a mixed result for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is nearing the end of a five-month phase of limited service on its $324 million Main Street light rail line. Full service starts May 30, when bus routes are adjusted.

The 379,465 boardings recorded in April is the lowest overall monthly total thus far. The number, however, is higher than non-special-event boardings recorded in January and February, months when ridership figures were boosted by several days of Super Bowl events.

Last fall, Metro had projected more than 790,000 train boardings in April. It achieved less than half that number, blaming the delay in modifying bus routes to tie into rail stations.

MetroRail ridership rises in June, July 1, 2004:

MetroRail’s average daily ridership grew to an estimated 26,000 in June as Houston’s first light rail line completed six months of passenger service.

The preliminary June count, released Wednesday evening, represents almost twice as many riders as carried during an average weekday in May and the fifth straight monthly increase. Most of June’s projected increase can be attributed to service changes effective May 30 that tied almost half of Metro bus routes into the rail line and curtailed certain routes to force bus riders onto the train.

Rail critics have characterized these riders as “bus refugees,” claiming that Metro uses them to pump up its train ridership count even though they don’t represent a net increase in transit use and thus don’t reduce traffic congestion.

We’ll come back to this in a minute. In the meantime, Houston rail ridership breezes past other cities, January 17, 2005:

One year into passenger operation, ridership on the Main Street light rail is the highest in the United States per route mile.

[…]

The most common way to measure the success of a mass-transit line is by how many people use it. The Main Street line saw its average daily ridership skyrocket 172 percent in its inaugural 10 months, from 12,102 in January 2004 to 32,941 in October.

“We’ve been told by people around the country that this is one of the most successful light rail lines ever,” said David Wolff, Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman.

The passenger count dropped off in November and December — Metro attributes that to the holidays — and fell short of the 35,000 goal transit officials had set last spring.

After its initial three quarters, Metro’s 7 1/2 -mile light rail line outpaced ridership in seven other U.S. cities. Of the 16 light rail networks that reported their third quarter 2004 ridership data to the American Public Transportation Association, Houston ranked ninth.

The length of these rail systems varies greatly — from six route miles in Buffalo, N.Y., to 60 miles in Philadelphia — so Houston’s ridership is considerably high given the short length of the Main Street line.

In fact, Houston’s ridership is No. 1 in the country when measured by route mile, according to the APTA survey and calculations by the Houston Chronicle.

MetroRail’s 4,053 average daily boardings per route mile rank way ahead of cities such as Baltimore (670), Philadelphia (930), Pittsburgh (980), Denver (1,200) and Dallas (1,290).

Rail ridership bounces back after a dip during holidays, February 17, 2005:

Ridership on the Main Street light rail line rebounded in January after a holiday slump in November and December, according to Metro figures.

January’s ridership report shows 32,384 average daily boardings on MetroRail. That is the second highest monthly average reported since passenger service began in January 2004. The record high average was 32,941 in October.

Boardings had fallen to 29,782 and 29,175 in November and December, respectively.

So there you have it. The Red line now has over 47,000 daily boardings, including better-than-projected-and-growing ridership on the North line extension. Having take that a few times myself, I can vouch for that. I do expect the Purple line to improve as UH and TSU classes begin next month, though the Green line may languish until the overpass is built and it can reach its ultimate destination. The big bus system redesign, which includes integrating the new rail lines more tightly into the bus network, should help as well, as it did with the Main Street line. But if ridership numbers fluctuate for the next ten or twelve months or so, we shouldn’t be too surprised. It happened before and will likely happen again.

Speaking of the bus system redesign, which some of the usual squadron of Metro critics are wringing their hands over – “concern is growing among Metro critics that the whole thing is going to be whopping, epic disaster” is the key quote in there – I would note that Metro did a pretty big change to its bus routes back in 2004, to reflect the existence of the new rail line. How did that go?

Only a few bumps as Metro makes bus, rail changes, June 2, 2004:

Metro reported mostly smooth going on its buses and trains Tuesday as thousands of commuters adjusted to route and schedule changes prompted by an upgrade in rail service.

One train suffered a propulsion problem late in the morning, shutting down service for seven minutes. Some signs were incorrect or missing, and a few signals and announcements malfunctioned. An occasional bus rider mistakenly paid twice, not realizing it’s a free transfer to the train.

Otherwise, “nothing unusual,” said Jeff Arndt, Metro’s chief operating officer, stationed at the newly opened Texas Medical Center Transit Center. “And you know that by the end of the week, it will be pretty much routine.”

Trains began running at six-minute intervals early Tuesday, five months after the Main Street light rail line opened Jan. 1. The increased train frequency — they had been coming every 12 minutes — and modifications to half of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s bus routes completed implementation of the city’s first light rail segment.

Most commuters seemed to be finding their way, but some were confused. They were helped along by dozens of Metro employees stationed at key points — including President and Chief Executive Officer Frank Wilson, who handed out maps and answered questions at the transit center.

So a few problems, but nothing earth-shattering, and within a few days everyone was used to it. This change is twice as big and I am sure there will be some problems, but it’s not unprecedented. We will get through it.

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4 Comments

  1. Mainstream says:

    I have the impression that a high share of the Red line statistics are persons shuttling from a parking lot to work in the Med Center, who drove across town to get to that parking lot.

  2. The large majority of trips I take are north of the med center, and the trains I am on are almost always crowded, often standing room only. Even when I worked by the Astrodome and would board at the Smithlands station, more people would board at the TMC Transit Center station than there. As that Chron story that talked about low numbers on the Green and Purple lines noted, ridership on the North Line extension of the Red Line is higher than projected and growing at a fast pace. Sure, some people do the Med Center shuttle thing, but in my observation (and I’m sure Metro could provide actual numbers), that’s a small percentage of the overall total.

  3. Thomas says:

    METRO produces ridership reports on a monthly basis, which include boarding numbers by station. Looking at April’s numbers, if you assume that everybody getting on at Smithlands is coming from that lot and that all of them are making a round trip, then the Med Center shuttle would make up about 14% of the line’s overall ridership.

    http://www.ridemetro.org/Pages/RidershipReport.aspx

    I’d expect to see significant ridership changes on the Green and Purple Lines after the new bus network is implemented August 16. Right now, for example, the 50 Harrisburg is still running parallel to the Green Line.

  4. […] If it’s been awhile since you’ve looked at the System Reimagining webpage, you really ought to familiarize yourself with this tool, as the initial routes have been tweaked and re-tweaked multiple times. The #40 bus I take now is the same in my neighborhood, but takes a different path downtown, so the stop I’ll be using there will change for me. Forewarned is forearmed and all that. Change is hard and there will be some bumps and bruises, but we will get through this. […]