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100 degrees on a Metrorail car

Previous hot weather travel tips | Cooling centers
Photos: Coping with the heat | Video: Memories of the snow

[This post has been updated.]

"Let's just ride with the doors open," one passenger in a sweat-soaked blue shirt called out as the Orange Line's car 5121 made its tandoori trip toward Vienna on Tuesday evening.

At Metro Center
I stuck my hand up to the vent at the end of the car and felt a pitiful flow of warm air. My fellow riders were looking pretty pitiful, too. As the westbound train came above ground, the car that had been jammed through downtown Washington began to clear out a bit. I was getting the attention of my fellow riders because I was holding a thermometer. Everyone wanted to know the results.

5121.jpg Hot car 5121 at New Carrollton. (Thomson)

I had boarded this eight-car train at Metro Center, where the platform temperature was a balmy 81 degrees. A six-car train was jammed, so I looked at the message board, saw the next one would be an eight and walked to the back end of the platform to wait. When the train arrived, that was the least crowded car.

I had noticed as the train came through the station that one car was closed off, something Metro will do if a problem -- like no air conditioning -- is isolated to one car. That keeps the rest of the train in service.

Temperatures can vary significantly from car to car. I say significantly, because I learned that just a few degrees can make a big difference in comfort. A rider can tell right away if it's a hot car.

Car 6086, the last car on this Orange Line train and one of the newer ones in the Metro fleet, was noticeably warm when I boarded at 5:32 p.m. The thermometer showed 88 degrees by the time we reached Foggy Bottom at 5:39 p.m.

I moved up one car. The temperature in that very crowded car 6087 was 92 degrees when we reached Clarendon at 5:48 p.m. When I had left Silver Spring for this multi-line experiment, the platform temperature was 99 degrees at 4:39 p.m. On the trains and in the stations, most people were dressed for it. There were very few suits. I was wearing a polo shirt and tropical weight trousers.

But I can tell you that 92 inside a Metro car feels worse than 99 on an outdoor platform, especially when the car is packed so tight that some standing passengers can't even find a hand grip.

I changed cars again on the Orange Line train. The woman who was about to board ahead of me stopped in the doorway, turned around and walked away. At first, I thought she didn't want to push her way into the tightly packed crowd. That was wrong. Instead, she must have sensed the extreme heat aboard car 5121 and made a smart decision to try elsewhere.

By the time the thermometer read 99 degrees near West Falls Church, I was starting to draw a small crowd. We were all curious to see if it would hit three digits. We were above ground now and even though the crowd was thinning as we headed toward the end of the line, the strong sunlight could still provide warmth.

There had been times along this ride when very few passengers could have followed my oft-repeated advice about changing cars in search of cooler air. Anyone in the middle of the jammed car would have had difficulty escaping. But it would have been relatively easy to do as we went through the western stations.

Nobody moved, not to escape through the doors to another car and not to use the intercom to report the hot car to the train operator. Why not? My theory: Air that hot is stupefying. Men in the middle of the car didn't move to take off their suit jackets.

Striking 100
And it kept getting hotter. At 6:08 p.m., just outside Vienna, the temperature on car 5121 read 100 degrees. I think to some of my fellow riders it was grimly satisfying, a final confirmation of their weakened senses before they exited at Vienna into a refreshing blast of hot air on the platform.

I went back toward New Carrollton aboard the same train, testing all the cars again, except for the closed off one, 5120. No car had a pleasant temperature. Some were in the 90s. But none was as hot as car 5121. By the time we reached New Carrollton at 7:18 p.m., the temperature on the car was 97 degrees.

1 p.m. Update from Metro
Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel says rail cars 5120 and 5121 are in the New Carrollton rail yard for repairs to the air conditioning units. He noted that the repairs to correct the door problems Metro discovered on the 4000 Series cars, plus the equipment problems related to the heat, have created a difficult challenge for the maintenance workers.

When Metro discovers a hot car during the day, Taubenkibel says, the usual procedure is to shut off that car and keep the train in service. (That's good. We need all the trains we can get, even if an eight-car train becomes a seven and a six-car train becomes a five.) He says several cars a day are being removed from service because of excessive heat.

Taubenkibel says riders can help by reporting the problem car, with its four-digit number, as you'll see in my travel tips below. (There's nothing in the operator's cab up front that's going to tell the operator that the air conditioner in a particular car isn't working.)

Travel tips
Some general observations based on a hot afternoon aboard the Red, Orange and Yellow lines:
-- Your senses won't lie. You'll know as soon as you step through the doorway that there's something wrong with the car temperature.
-- If you're uncomfortable, it's worth changing cars. Even a few degrees difference between cars can make a big difference to your comfort in this heat.
-- Metro cars are assembled in pairs. Temperatures tended to be similar in each of the paired cars. (Seeing that car 5020 was sealed off could have been a tip off to me to look for a problem next door on car 5121.)
-- The age of the rail car did not make a noticeable difference on Tuesday night. In fact, I recorded the coolest temperature on the way back from New Carrollton at 7:40 p.m. It was 75 degrees aboard car 1088, one of the oldest in the fleet. (Notice that's a 25-degree swing from the hottest car.)
-- Even within a car, the temperature and comfort level can vary. And standing up is better than sitting down.
-- Report a hot car to the train operator on the intercom. (I know that eventually happened aboard car 5021.) Or call 202-637-1328. Or fill out Metro's online comment card. Just be sure to get the number of that car. It should be visible on the doors at either end, on the call boxes and on the outsides of the cars at either end.

Been aboard a hot car?
Share your experiences with us in the comments. Or if you'd like to write to me for publication in The Post, send a "Dear Dr. Gridlock" letter to (Our newspaper letters end with the writer's name and home community.)

By Robert Thomson  | July 7, 2010; 8:47 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, metrorail  
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Dr. Gridlock, I saw your tweet last night about the temperature being 100 degrees on the train, and I couldn't believe it. It is disgraceful that MetroFAIL subjects its passengers to this treatment. That kind of heat is dangerous to the elderly and young children. It's getting to the point where the elderly are effectively being prevented from using MetroFAIL, between the lack of air conditioning, the overcrowding, and the broken escalators and elevators. What a complete disgrace the entire system has become. I'm embarrassed that tourists have to take MetroFAIL -- what a lasting impression of Washington, DC they must get.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 7, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

I don't know what they did in the rebuild, but most of the 1000-series Rohr railcars that I have ridden in are nicely overcooled. The local blog, Unsuck Metro, notes that the end cars are pretty good bets since that's where the drivers are.

Posted by: KS100H | July 7, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Employers take note and allow your male workers to ditch the tie and long sleeves.

Posted by: jercha | July 7, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Two weeks ago, in the last 100 degree heat wave, I was boarding a northbound yellow line train at L'Enfant Plaza, and noticed a car with seats on it, and soon discovered why. As a friend (from out of town) and I got on, the doors immediately closed behind us, and it was so hot in the car that I was reminded of the hair dryer in the face effect that you feel in Phoenix on a summer day. For the first time in my 25 years here, the car was so hot that I couldn't touch (much less hold on to) any of the metal poles or seat railings. We switched cars at the next station.

Posted by: vtavgjoe | July 7, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Do they ops check the cars before putting them into service? If the a/c isn't working, pull the car. These things are like greenhouses, and it's wrong to make people travel in them.

Posted by: jckdoors | July 7, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

As an asthmatic, who also has an asthmatic child - that would be a death sentence.There is no excuse for that type of heat on those trains - none. I think the folks on the Metro board need to be required to take the trains. I bet one ride in an oven like that, and it wouldn't be an issue anymore.

Posted by: Libramom | July 7, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Every single day on my afternoon commute last week on the ORANGE LINE from Farragut West to West Falls Church was on a failed, or poorly working AC car. Last Friday my MORNING commute into the city (same route in reverse) was on a non-working, or poorly working, AC car. This is really insulting after another fare hike last week.

Posted by: jonesin1969 | July 7, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

As a rush hour rider, I'd rather have a hot train than less trains in service.

Posted by: ArlingtonHOO | July 7, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

I wish the local news would tone down the dire warnings about not walking or biking in this weather. I have continued biking to work, and while it's unpleasant and uncomfortable, stewing in a Metro crockpot sounds much worse. Many of my bike/walk commute coworkers have bailed onto the trains, just contributing to the crowding and the heat

Posted by: TheBoreaucrat | July 7, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Boreaucrat - The heat itself isn't the deterrent, it's the very poor air quality the region is experiencing. You can't see it or feel it but particles and ozone get into through the lungs reducing breathing capacity, cause asthma and can poison the blood stream, that is the dire warning.

Posted by: Mainah32 | July 7, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

It isn't uncommon for the AC to fail on a given car. I have always simply gotten off at the next stop and gotten on another car, where I have always found more comfort. I have ridden Metro since Day One, and it has worked for me every single time. What surprises me is how few others do the same; I can't imagine why people stay on a stifling car. I always take note of the car number and report it to the Metro staff at my destination stop. Metro doesn't know that AC is broken unless someone tells them.

Posted by: catsndogs | July 7, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

@jercha, Amen! This heat is so bad, I've been wearing shorts and a t-shirt on Metro and then changing at work. I saw some poor guy in a 3 piece suit and tie on the train yesterday. I thought he was going to pass out before we got to his stop.

Posted by: redgrifn | July 7, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Steve Twomey, who used to write a column in the Post Metro section, pointed out to me that Washingtonians will immediately dress for the weather in winter. If we get snow, or bitter cold, commuters dress accordingly, wearing boots, warm trousers, sweaters, and so on.

It's different in the extreme heat DC summer, he noted. Many commuters resist shedding their suits. We're in a weather emergency right now, just as we were during the winter storms. We need to do the right things to protect ourselves. Wearing the proper clothing seems like an easy one.

Posted by: Dr_Gridlock | July 7, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Don't panic and always bring a towel.

Posted by: paddyfunk | July 7, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

I ride the red line to/from Metro Center/Shady Grove. Got on to head to Shady Grove at 3:45 and walked on and immediately off a hot car. The only problem was, i went from the one hot car to its neighbor, also a hot car. I rode to Shady Grove in the middle of rush hour and was the only one on the car! Once I was on, I just couldn't seem to get up to rush off and onto a different car at least two cars away.

Posted by: laurab2 | July 7, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for writing about the lack of AC on the orange line. It's bad enough being packed in like sardines and now we're cooked sardines!

And what's up with the escalator outages at Vienna?

Posted by: Omigosh | July 7, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for reporting on this. The Orange line going West in the afternoon has been one disgustingly stifling ride after another.

Does anyone know what happened to the guy who fell on the down escalator in Rosslyn yesterday around 5pm? I hope he's OK.

Posted by: mvm_ffx | July 7, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Omigosh, please check WMATA's escalator status page. There are no escalator outages at Vienna. You must be hallucinating.

Posted by: jiji1 | July 7, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

Three comments:

1. Metro and Dr. Gridlock recommend switching a car with no a/c to one with working a/c. But what if the other cars are already packed? Doesn't that beg the question however: Why are there any cars in service w/broken a/c?

2. That's incorrect to say that cars in each married pair tend to have the same a/c problems. Each car has a separate unit. Example: Tonight I was attempting to board a 6000 series car at Union Station; however, the car had zero a/c. I boarded the car's "mate" and it had excellent a/c.

3. Maybe people don't call the train operator to report the broken a/c because at best it's probably futile to report the problem and, at worst, the train might go out of service.

Posted by: RockvilleBear | July 7, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

I've done my own informal temperature surveys when I ride, and I've reported car problems to Metro employees in person. I completely forgot about the intercoms -- thanks for that tip! But I've also been surprised at how few people get out to try a different car, even when the way is clear and they've got time to switch.

I'm constantly amazed at the incredible *lack* of information available to Metro employees at every step of transit. Ordinary riders can track where they and each of their friends are at on hundred-dollar GPS-enabled phones, chatting with each other even while in underground stations, yet there seem to be regular breakdowns in communications of the positions of million-dollar trains, and no knowledge of the status and condition of the individual cars even for the drivers, despite physical connections between all the cars.

Perhaps Metro should spend a hundred grand or so jury-rigging 1960s-era telemetry links to avoid million-dollar lawsuits over heat strokes and asphyxiation. Or maybe they should just advertise a text-message address for the Operations Center where riders could text them real-time info about what's going on in their own system.

Posted by: jeffq | July 8, 2010 12:54 AM | Report abuse

Just hopped off a train going to Vienna. It was getting warm. Guess what number?? 5150! And delays at Vienna and oh look--an escalator outage. There I go, halucinating again.

Posted by: Omigosh | July 8, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Here's an idea: Get out of the hot Metro car.

Posted by: sknyluv | July 9, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for pointing out that dressing for hot weather is as important than dressing for cold. I am very grateful that my office provides showers and a changing room for employees. It was seen as a perk for bike commuters but in the extreme heat I have seen several walkers/Metroers using it as well. Hopefully the trend will continue of employers realizing most people don't arrive at work door-to-door in an air conditioned vehicle.

Posted by: wrybread1 | July 9, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I don't know why the standers don't move to cooler cars, but I know why we sitters do: I'd rather swelter while sitting down than be cool standing up and have my back painfully wrenched out of alignment well before the time I get to my station.

Posted by: Witjuti | July 9, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

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