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Posted at 1:05 PM ET, 01/26/2011

Bad days for Red Line riders

By Robert Thomson

Metro riders who gave their reports under Mark Berman's posting about this morning's trouble on the Red Line noted all the different forms the service disruptions took for them. They asked the always-relevant question: Why us?

Braticuspunk put it this way in a comment: "Things like this have been happening an awful lot lately. Mismanagement?"

Many of these same riders suffered delays on Monday after a cracked rail was discovered at Rockville.

ermiwe summed up the situation this way: "The red line has been struggling mightily the past several days. Last night's commute in the Glenmont direction was a nightmare with PACKED platforms and train after train filled to capacity, and almost every day this week there have been multiple cases of single tracking, off-boarded cars, long delays, smoke in stations/tunnels. The system seems utterly overwhelmed - don't know how it continue to operate like this. The red line actually seems kind of dangerous to ride..."

Other riders are influenced by the conditions they see in the stations. The regulars at Farragut North know part of the platform has been boxed off for more than a year for ceiling repairs. Earlier this month, they saw a Metro employee stationed in a chair on another blocked off portion of the platform, monitoring the flow of water from the ceiling into a bucket.

It doesn't inspire confidence. That said, I think a lot of our experience over the past few days must be attributed to a Series of Unfortunate Events.

Rails crack, especially under the stress of extreme temperatures. Metro has a good record of discovering cracked rails and fixing them before something worse happens. The standard response is for a crew to go out and make a temporary fix while trains share a single track around the work zone. That minimizes the travel delays. Then a crew comes back at night, when the system is shut, and makes a permanent repair. Sometimes, the permanent fix must be made right away.

It's hard to look at this as a case of "mismanagement." A stronger case could be made that the region's leaders on transportation should have anticipated decades ago that we'd reach a point where the transit system's basic components would get old at about the same time and need to be replaced.

But Monday's cracked rails and today's arcing insulators are chronic problems in the train system. (BrokenClipboard asked: "What is an arcing insulator?" Insulators protect the third rail. Sometimes a problem with an insulator leads to a power discharge that results in sparks, smoke and even fire.)

The Red Line is the most heavily used of all the Metrorail lines, and the core of the line is the oldest in the system. This certainly won't be the last time we'll go through a days when a string of unrelated problems makes commuters late and forces them onto crowded trains and platforms.

Over the past year, the transit authority has taken two steps to improve Red Line service. The major one is the Red Line rehabilitation program. All the lines eventually will undergo similar capital improvements, but the Red Line got to go first. Of course, there's a downside to this in that Metro will become increasingly aggressive this year in scheduling maintenance. But the transit authority also has gotten increasingly sophisticated about packaging its maintenance projects so the most work gets done in the shortest time.

The other step was to reduce the number of Red Line trains at rush hour and use those extra cars to make more eight-car trains. The wider gap between trains means a slightly longer wait is scheduled, but it should be reducing the train bunching that threw off the schedule. Fewer trains, but more regular arrivals -- at least, during a normal rush hour.

By Robert Thomson  | January 26, 2011; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  Metro, Red Line, Transit  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail  
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Next: MARC train canceled


Dr. G - thank you! This post gives much-needed context and puts things into perspective.

Posted by: informedtraveller | January 26, 2011 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Metro can make all the excuses they like. It doesn't change the fact that it is fundamentally the most mismanaged mass transit system in the nation.

Ok, the redline is the oldest line in the system. Its only 34 years old and its been having these problems for the past 5 or 6.

This system is brand new in comparison to NYC, Boston or Chicago systems and having lived in two of those three places, never had to deal with this level of system disfunction. Can someone tell me how NYC's subway system can work reliably 24/7 366 when it handles ~8-10 times the number of people while being 3 times older than the Redline?

Metro is shut down for ~5 hours a day yet they never do maintenance or repair of the system then. It's always done during the day which completely defeats the purpose.

I used to ride Metro every day to commute. I don't do it anymore because it is simply not reliable at all. 10-12 minute headways during rush hour? Single tracking on multiple lines EVERY day of the week. I could go on, but everyone gets the point.

Posted by: Nosh1 | January 26, 2011 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Amen, Nosh1. Amen.

When I was stuck on the red line for 45 minutes today I spoke with a very nice Metro employee who worked for the system for 11 years. He said he was just as frustrated with the way Metro is being run as we are. I really appreciated his candor and am glad there are employees like that, but it really emphasized the point that the problems are mostly at the top and the system needs to be managed better and kept in better shape.

Riding the Metro every day is a trying experience, especially compared to the ease I had commuting from Central NJ to Midtown Manhattan and when I studied in Prague.

Posted by: EmGu | January 26, 2011 2:04 PM | Report abuse

It's hard to look at this as a case of "mismanagement."

You can say that again.

It's hard to look at this as a case of "mismanagement."

Oh look, you did.

Posted by: mathewbrown | January 26, 2011 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Please don't give Metro any more excuses--they still are not handling these delays well. Few (if any) announcements, few (if any) staff on hand at platofrms to help (with the singular exception of the train operator on Monday who yelled "8 car train" as it came in to Shady Grove (no train arrivals on the board, ever, so we never know where to stand!)

Stuff will happen, but if they tell me what is going on, I will be happier. n How hard is it?

Posted by: mmaid | January 26, 2011 2:50 PM | Report abuse

The next time you read about "transit-oriented development," high-rises clustered around Metro stations with limited space for residents' car, based on the theory that the residents will depend on Metro for their transportation needs, keep this column in mind. There's a finite limit to the number of bodies that can be packed into the Metro system before the entire system just completely collapses.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 26, 2011 4:33 PM | Report abuse

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