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Sales of Metro rail passes plunge after price hike

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Photo - Commuters board a train at a Metro station last fall.
Commuters board a train at a Metro station last fall.
Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir,MWAA

Metro is selling about half as many rail passes as it did last year after changing the offerings and prices amid a massive fare hike.

After encouragement from transit advocates, the transit agency added a 28-day unlimited option on SmarTrip cards, raised the price of a one-day pass and changed its weekly fare pass offerings as of July 1.

But the new cards aren't selling. The transit agency sold 353,798 passes in the first four months after the change, compared with 628,648 in same period in 2011, according to Metro figures.

Rail pass sales, July to October
Pass Type Current Cost Old Cost 2012 Total 2011 Total % Change
One-day rail pass Paper, unlimited rail trips $14 $9* 292,741 578,147 -49%
7-day short-trip pass Paper, unlimited peak rail trips costing less than $3.50 each $35 $32.35 43,090 24,603 +75%
7-day fast pass SmarTrip, unlimited rail trips $57.50 $47 17,039 25,898 -44%
28-day rail pass SmarTrip, unlimited rail trips $230 n/a 928 n/a
*Cards could be activated only after the morning rush period ended at 9:30 a.m.

Only the seven-day short-trip passes that let riders take unlimited peak rail trips of $3.50 or less sold more from July through October than in the same period last year.

The one-day unlimited rail passes remain the agency's most popular, selling about 73,000 a month as a card targeted toward tourists. But the number of one-day passes dropped by almost half after Metro raised the price from $9 to $14. The new passes last all day instead of beginning after rush-hour service ends, yet riders seem to be calculating that the $5 extra isn't worth it, even when faced with paying a $1 surcharge per trip on a paper farecard or investing $5 in a plastic SmarTrip card.

"The lower use of one-day passes is likely due to pricing changes and the broader availability of SmarTrip card dispensers at Metrorail stations allowing occasional riders to 'pay as they go' if they so choose," said Metro spokeswoman Caroline Lukas. But not all stations had working SmarTrip vending machines until November -- after the period covered by the data.

The agency has sold fewer than 300 of its new 28-day rail passes each month, though the numbers have inched up since the July launch. At $230 each, the cards are worthwhile only if riders commute every weekday at the highest $5.75 fare rate, plus take one extra trip.

Rail ridership has dropped systemwide since last year, so rail pass users could be cutting back, too. But the ridership drop likely accounts for only a small loss of pass users.

Michael Perkins, a transit advocate who had pushed for better rail passes, said he wasn't surprised to hear Metro's sales had dropped. "That's because they're doing it wrong," he said. "They haven't gotten why passes are great for people."

He said Metro riders have to take their regular peak-hour trips to their jobs but would fill Metro's empty seats during the midday, weekend and night hours, taking cars off the roads, if they had slightly discounted passes. Metro ridership has been suffering during those times in recent months.

But he said the passes also would be good for Metro. Riders would commit to a week or a month of peak trips, even though many may not ride every day due to sick days, appointments or vacation, he said. Also, Metro wouldn't lose as much money during a shutdown for bad weather such as Superstorm Sandy because riders would have already paid for their trips.

Similar passes are popular on other transit systems but are easier to implement when agencies have a single fare for all trips, such as in New York City. Those passes will cost about half of Metro's rates even once New York raises fares in March, at $112 for a 30-day unlimited-ride pass and$30 for a seven-day pass.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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