100 degrees on a Metrorail car
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[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.
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.
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.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. (Our newspaper letters end with the writer's name and home community.)
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