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Red Line Blues

If there had to be a service disruption anywhere in the Metrorail system, the area near New York Avenue Station would probably be the best place to have it. If you normally traveled the eastern sector of the Red Line, then this morning, you could have used the Green Line between Gallery Place and Fort Totten to get around the stations shutdown by the police investigation of a suspicious package.

Still, it took longer to get around, especially if your destination was the area around Union Station and New York Avenue. Gallery Place and Fort Totten, the transfer points between the Red and Green lines, were very crowded. Some riders remarked that it was like a midday rush hour.

My own experience getting from Silver Spring to Farragut North was pretty good under the circumstances. At Silver Spring Station, there was a sign on each fare gate warning of the delays. (I've heard complaints from riders about sometimes not going key information before entering the system, but that was not true in this case.)

I asked one of three Metro workers for the best way to get to the Farragut North area, and he recommended getting off the Red at Fort Totten, riding the Green to Gallery Place and taking the Red to Farragut North.

That was definitely the best answer. Alternatively, I could have taken the Red down to Rhode Island Avenue, its last stop at the time, and gotten onto one of the special buses to get to a downtown station. Or, I could have taken an S2 or S4 Metrobus down 16th Street NW.

Metro employees were available to answer rider questions on platforms and on trains. The electronic message boards advised of the delays, as did the Red Line train operators. (Green Line operator did not, but if you had gotten that far, you probably had already heard announcements in English and Spanish.)

I started out from Silver Spring at 11:15 a.m. and got to Farragut North at noon. That's usually more like a 25 minute trip from arrival at the station to exit.

My only complaint about the amount of information supplied to riders is that references to "an emergency situation" or "a police situation" can allow the imagination to run wild. I already knew from Debbi Wilgoren's story on our Web site and from radio that the issue was a suspicious package at the Brentwood Yard. Why not share that with rail passengers, the people who most need to know?

I asked that of Candace Smith, who is a public relations officer at Metro, and she explained it this way in an e-mail back to me:

"The announcements are made at times when initial reports are sketchy, so sometimes the announcements are vague. We recognize that they can be more specific as more details are learned. We are in the midst of reevaluating how we can improve the announcements and other forms of communication. On the Web site, we
did notify people that it was a suspicious package and had more details."

By Robert Thomson  |  August 9, 2006; 12:19 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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At the start of this incident, NO station annoucements were made (our train operator kept us up to date inside the train, but we sat at Dupont for a long time, and I heard nothing over the PA system). As passengers boarded our train, they asked what was going on, so they were not getting much either, Hey Metro just poutting announcements on the electric sign boards is not enough,

When we got to Judicary Square, there were several Metro workers right by the booth and the turnstiles; there were NO Metro workers up at street level, and NO shuttle busses. I walked to Union Station.

Metro still needs to work on communications and on making its workers visible and informative. It sounds like they did better later on, but it was a mess.

Posted by: S | August 9, 2006 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I agree they could do a bit better job communicating, but kudos to Metro for working quickly to get the trains back moving - such as turning trains around at Judiciary (for those coming from Shady Grove). Sure, I sat in the tunnel between Woodley and Dupont for about 10 minutes, watching about six outbound trains pass by, but after that they started back up again - and rather quickly, I might say. Good on-the-feet thinking.

Posted by: Ed | August 9, 2006 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I suspect Metro wants everybody to get used to the generic term "police action" so that when there is a situation involving the actual shedding of human blood (a shooting, suicide in front of a train, etc.) it sounds a lot less grisly.

Posted by: Greenbelt Gal | August 9, 2006 4:52 PM | Report abuse

I also don't understand the use of the term "sick customer." It makes me think someone has thrown up on the train, when it applies to any medical situation. Why not call it a "medical emergency"?

Posted by: nashpaul | August 9, 2006 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I'm okay with Metro using the term "police activity." For one thing, it's brief. Fits within the limitations of the text messages sent to cellphones, etc. The spokesperson's explanation that details often are sketchy makes sense; I often switch to the WMATA website or a newsite once I reach my destination to find out what was going on. I'm lucky in that I have a Smartphone so I sometimes look stuff up on the Web while I'm in the Metro system. I know many others can't do that, however.

I was able to walk from Judiciary Square to my destination so I don't know about the availability (or not) of shuttle buses, didn't have to use them. The station announcements and train operator's instructions about this situation were okay, considering I was in the Metro system very early on when it first affected travel shortly after 9 am.

Some other Metro word choices seem a little off to me, however. Why do the operators say, "train will be moving up, stand clear" when they mean "train will be moving up, hold on." I think the intent is to warn us to grab hold of a pole or handrail or something so we won't lose our balance as the train lurches forward a few more feet. There's nothing for us to stand "clear" of, given that the doors still are closed, etc.

And why do train operators say, "we'll be moving shortly, train on the platform ahead" instead of "train at the platform?" The train is on the tracks and adjacent to the rather than on the platform so I'd use "at" instead of "on," but I know I'm just picky. I'm actually grateful that they tell us anything about the delays!

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | August 9, 2006 8:28 PM | Report abuse

I think the "stand clear" message is a warning for people on the station platform not to stand too close to the train.

Posted by: yonge | August 10, 2006 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Longtime Metro Rider:

I agree with you. But also, when the train operator says "we'll be moving shortly, train on the platform ahead", I wish they would tell us WHY the train ahead is at the platform ahead. It's there because of mechanical problems on that train? Or another train further ahead? If so, where? A medical situation? "Police activity"? Again, if so, where?

I travel the Orange and Red lines to Union Station to catch the MARC train home. If I could find out that there are problems on the segment between Rosslyn and Metro Center, I could maybe switch to the Blue line at Rosslyn, catch the Yellow at Pentagon, and the Red line at Gallery Place to get to Union Station. Or catch a bus from Rossyln to a Red line station in the District.

I don't know if those options are feasible from the "train on the platform ahead" announcement without any other information given. Several times in years past, I eventually found out that one or both of those options would have allwed me to get home an hour or more earlier than the time I actually did get home. One of those occasons was one of the smoke in the Potomac tunnel incidents. A bus ride could have saved me at least two hours on my trip.

Posted by: Mike in Baltimore | August 10, 2006 2:43 PM | Report abuse


Do you get the Metro text alerts on your cellphone? Sometimes they're too late to do much good, of course. I actually have switched routes some times on the way home, after riding the Red Line to Metro Center and intending to switch to the Blue or Orange trains there. But you're absolutely right, to bail on Blue and take the Yellow, you need to have some information about the type of "disruption." (Mechanical problem? Doors won't close? Sick passenger?) If I hear the words "support personnel are on the scene and we hope to have trains moving shortly" then I know it will be a long delay.

If the Blue and Orange Lines are messed up outbound, and I see a packed platform at Metro Center, sometimes I go back upstairs, ride the Red Line to Gallery Place, and take the Yellow Line to the Pentagon. And then ride inbound Blue back to Rosslyn. (I've also done that in reverse on some snowy mornings when the Orange Line is packed.) But, it's easiest to do that if the Metro Alert reaches my cellphone and my Smartphone in time for me to make that decision while I'm still on the Red Line. Or, if there's enough info in the announcement on the PA system.

The day of the small fire near Foggy Bottom station in April 2000, I ended up getting off my train at McPherson (at least it discharged passengers there, whew, we weren't stuck in a tunnel) and walking back to Gallery Place to get the Yellow Line outbound to the Pentagon. (They ran shuttle buses from from the Pentagon back towards Rosslyn.) By coincidence, my sister was on a train a couple of trains ahead of mine; her Orange Line train was the last train to roll through Foggy Bottom and quickly and safely make its way on to Rosslyn before Metro shut down movement of trains in the area. She saw the flames and was startled that her train was allowed to proceed past them, BTW. She actually called me on my cellphone, sounded very cool and collected ("we just passed some flames and rolled on to Rosslyn.") I'm glad she wasn't on the Blue Train that was between hers and my Orange one at McPherson, that's the one that got stuck in the smokey tunnel for two hours between Farragut West and Foggy Bottom. Is that April fire the "smoke in the Potomac tunnel" incident you mentioned? You would've been riding inbound, of course.

I feel sorry for people who only can ride one line, such as the Red, and don't have other rail options for getting close enough to home to walk.

Yonge, good point, you may be right. I was assuming the announcements were heard on the interior PA system within the train only; if they are broadcast on inside and outside speakers, they may well be intended for those waiting in the station, as you suggest.

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | August 10, 2006 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Longtime Metro Rider,

Whether I get Metro alerts or not (I don't) is not the point. Metro should be more informative and honest with their announcements so that people know what's going on.

An example: This morning, an Orange line train I was on pulled into Foggy Bottom. Instead of the doors closing as usual, we sat and sat for probably five minutes. Absolutely no announcements were made at all, although I thought I heard the 'click' of the train PA system being turned on and off a couple of times.

Suddenly a Metro employee came into each car and, in very authoritative tones of voice, ordered everyone to get off the train as soon as possible. "Everyone off!" (almost shouted) and "Move it! Move it!"

After everyone was off the train, it sat in the station for about 30 more seconds with the doors open, then the doors were closed and the train exited the station headed for Rosslyn, with "Special" as the destination.

Later, an announcement was made over the station PA (don't know if it was systemwide) telling us the next train was entering Foggy Bottom was a Blue line and the one following was an Orange line. Nothing was said about WHY the Orange line train sat at the platform for five minutes. I'm sure the operators in the backed-up trains were telling their passengers that "We will be moving as soon as the train ahead moves off the platform."

What about tourists who might have been stuck on that train? How about people who don't have Verizon cellphones (the only ones that will work in the tunnels)? Would text messaging have helped any of them? Don't think so.

Metro needs to tell us what's going on so we can adjust our plans if necessary.

Posted by: Mike in Baltimore | August 11, 2006 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who bellyaches at lack of information given by Metro and Metrorail workers should spend a month riding the New York city subway. Then you would know what it is like to get on a train only to have it stop somewhere that is no where near your destination and the conductor say "Everybody out!" without giving any particular reason. This happened to me once at Times Square station, the worst station ever, crowded and infernal. I talked to at least 7 station agents before I found one kind enough to let me in on the day's secret. Everyone else simply threw up their hands and said "not my problem." Try living in Queens where at any given time, every single line going there is stopped. Thank your lucky stars you all live in a place where people are civil, and first job I can get out there, I'm joining you fine folks.

Posted by: Maria | August 11, 2006 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Hold guys get Metro text alerts? What kind of deal did you all make with the devil to have this luxury?

Posted by: Maria (again) | August 11, 2006 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Maria, you can sign up for Metro delay updates (service alerts) by email or text message - details are at They also post the delays on the homepage, scrolling across the top of the screen.

Posted by: PQ | August 11, 2006 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Mike wrote on 8/11 that "What about tourists who might have been stuck on that train? How about people who don't have Verizon cellphones (the only ones that will work in the tunnels)? Would text messaging have helped any of them? Don't think so."

While I agree that Metro needs to give out as much information as possible, I also recognize that we all make choices on how far we go in taking measures to obtain what information there is. Looks like we differ in some of our choices.

You assume text messaging benefits only those who get the messages. I sometimes share with my fellow passengers, tourists and locals alike, the information that I get on a train through text messages from WMATA. I deliberately chose Verizon as my carrier so I can use my phones on the Metro. I've also been known to whip out my Verizon Treo 700W on the train and look up information for tourists who need it, using or Mapquest or Google, depending on the subject at issue. Yes, tourists irk me sometimes by clogging up escalators, etc., but I try to put myself in their shoes and remember how nice it was when strangers helped me when I've visited other cities.

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | August 12, 2006 3:44 PM | Report abuse

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