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Name That Smell

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel saw this reader comment during my Live Online discussion Monday and pounced on it:

"Metro Center and Gallery Place have stunk of dead mice lately. This morning, as I exited the Orange Line at Metro Center, there was a smell, and Gallery Place was whiffy, too. Two or three weeks ago, at Metro Center, the smell was so bad people were holding their noses on the platform.
"Is there a dead rodent collection crew, or does Metro just wait for them to completely decompose? (yuck)"

Steve says Metro had received complaints of a rotten fish smell in some stations. He says there's definitely a problem, but the animal kingdom is not the source.

"What is it? Well, we checked and the smell is coming from new brake pads that were recently installed in our series
5000 CAF rail cars," he says. "We have 192 of these cars in service. These rail cars have been in service for 5 years. Anyway, the manufacturer of the brake pads is aware of the odor problem. We are working with the
manufacturer to eliminate the odor and to find a fix ASAP!!! We apologize for the odor."

By Robert Thomson  |  October 25, 2006; 6:08 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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Thank you so much for posting this, Dr. Gridlock! I've been wondering about the smell, which I've noticed in several stations during the last month or so. The dead animal theory didn't seem to fit, given that Metro has been in operation for 30 years and I never had noticed such a systemic problem. Now we know what the cause is! Please keep posting items such as this one, very useful.

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | October 25, 2006 6:54 AM | Report abuse

I just now had an opportunity to read Monday's discussion. Did I understand it correctly that those new awful cars will be entering the system soon? I'm talking about those cars with vast amounts of unusable space. Please, please tell me I misunderstood you. Thanks

Posted by: Orangle Line Shorty | October 25, 2006 8:01 AM | Report abuse

What unusable space are you talking about? I think they have less seats but plenty more space in the middle of the car.

Posted by: Stick | October 25, 2006 9:17 AM | Report abuse

BTW, I remember a comment in the chat about the pedestrian crosswalk at the new USAF Memorial. I clocked it yesterday. It is 1/10th of a mile from the crest of the hill above it and, while the curve below it is closer, the entire area can be seen as you're entering the curve from the downhill side. So all drivers and pedestrians have to do is pay attention; no neeed for another traffic clogging stoplight there.

Posted by: Stick | October 25, 2006 9:20 AM | Report abuse

The smell I have come across in the last 9 months in which I've been riding Metro is a acrid burning rubber odor that sometimes is so bad you want to hold your breath till you are off the train and out of the station. This is a very different odor than a dead animal smell. I always thought it was the brake pads but now I know that they are not failing, just smelly. Thanks for the info.

Posted by: Arlington | October 25, 2006 9:55 AM | Report abuse

I got this from them when I emailed about an awful smell last week at Rosslyn station:

Thank you for your email to Metro regarding the odor which our patrons were subjected to at the Rosslyn station. I apologize on behalf of Metro for your discomfort. I have received several complaints about the smell in our stations. This problem is not isolated to Rosslyn. Currently Metro is experiencing a foul odor from its organic brakes. A meeting is scheduled with the company who developed the brake pads, as well as the proper authorities within Metro on 10/26.

Some of the technical issues being addressed are:
a. Bad batch
b. Modifying the manufacturing process, specifically increasing cure time.
c. Retesting of pad, and
d. Qualifying a new pad

Because of the nature of this problem we can not ventilate. [], we ask for your patience as we bring a solution to this problem.

Posted by: M | October 25, 2006 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, M, very useful, supplements what Dr. Gridlock told us. A

rlington, I too occasionally smell an acrid "burning rubber" smell but that is different from the "rotting fish/dead animal smell" I've noticed recently. I've noticed the burning rubber smell from time to time over the years. I wish station managers would address it and tell us what the cause is, when we encounter it! The problem with the brake pads only cropped up within the last month or so, it seems to me.

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | October 25, 2006 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Wouldn't the smell be more prevalent in all the stations that the trains with these brakes go through? The Arlington Courthouse stop had a smell recently and it wasn't an acrid burning rubber smell. It definitely smelled like decomposing flesh. Yet a few stops down the line at Farragut West there was no odor problem.

Posted by: Arlington | October 25, 2006 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Hmmm, good point, Arlington. The only thing I can think of is that a train with the new brake pads pulled into Courthouse, perhaps in a herky jerky manner due to delays going into the Rosslyn tunnel, and then was held there for a while due to a backup. You might have been on the train right behind it and really noticed the smell. If the same train pulled smoothly into FW and had only a short dwell time, perhaps the smell wouldn't waft out so strongly and would be less noticeable to people getting off of the following train. Or maybe the different stations have verying qualities of ventilation? I dunno.

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | October 25, 2006 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I have definitely noticed the odor in question at the Rosslyn station!!! It literally smells like someone dumped buckets of shellfish behind the platform. It will make you gag. Not that I doubt Metro's answer, but how in the world do brake pads produce a smell like rotting shellfish???

Posted by: lisa | October 25, 2006 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Some of these odd smells may also be caused by odor causing bacteria and algae that tend to grown in moist, warm spaces. Not all stations are like this, but certain ones do collect water around the tracts (Bethesda comes to mind. You can even see small plants growing near the lighting fixtures on the wall). I have most definately seen the algae growing along the base of the walls in these situations. The smells won't hurt you though, just not the most pleasent scent to wake you up in the morning.

Posted by: Laura | October 25, 2006 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Arlington -- Out of curiosity, when did you notice that smell at Courthouse? I don't know if this is related, but a man was killed there this weekend when he jumped in front of a train:

Posted by: Alyson | October 25, 2006 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Before and after the Columbus Day Weekend. And I noticed the smell as soon as I went below ground, didn't have to wait until platform level to notice it. The only thing that really went through my mind was pity for the station managers/employees and questioning how could they stand it.

Posted by: Arlington | October 25, 2006 12:28 PM | Report abuse

When Orange Line Shorty refers to "unusable space," I think he or she is talking about some of the space in the new 6000 series cars. I found the following photos by Googling. The source is Interesting site, has lots of pix of the Rohr, Breda and refurbished Metro cars, as well as these recently taken pix of the 6000 series cars.
If you look at

you clearly can see a horizontal bar by the map. And another to the left of the door. There also are vertical bars next to the doors alongside the map on one side and the advertisement on the other side. Other than that, no place to hold on to anything, except in the aisle between the seats. Obviously, you couldn't stand in the space midway between the two wall-mounted horizontal bars, nothing to hold on to there. No more floor mounted vertical poles. I would guess that it is that midpoint space that Orange Line Shorty is referring to as unusable.

Posted by: Another Orange Line user | October 25, 2006 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Tall people at the ends, short people in the middle or over by the maps, end of problem.

Posted by: Stick | October 25, 2006 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Hahaha. As if you could regulate how people get on and where they stand on a train. Even Mussolini, a well known authoritarian type whose name is associated with trains, couldn't manage that!! The first people getting on grab the first spots available, that's the way it works. What if people of average and tall heights fill a train, grabbing the bars by the ads and maps and also moving to the middle aisle between the seats, and then a group of elementary school kids gets on. Yes, children actually do ride Metro, and they don't always get on at terminal stations. Ya think everybody is gonna change places, the taller people standing by the maps keeping an eye out for the shorties in order to offer them places to stand? Unrealistic.

I think Metro's designers need to think a little more about how tall people react to seeing children, old people, and short people board a train. Actually, they should study some of the hostility sometimes expressed by Get There posters about their fellow riders. Reading some of Post Metro section columnist John Kelly's comments about pregnant riders would help, too. There's an unreasonable assumption on the part of the car designers that Metro riders never are hostile to each other, that people will be nice, courteous, and considerate of each other. I wish!

I sometimes wonder if there is an unseen game going on in this blog. "Aaack, a short person or a mother with a child or a senior citizen just posted a concern about Metro, it doesn't pertain to me because I'm not one of those. I've quickly gotta ZAP him or her and riposte or he or she will win the game and rule the world!!!!" Kind of like viewing other people as if they were targets in a video game rather than people chatting about their concerns. If Orange Line shorties and Other Orange Line riders want to post, doesn't bother me any, that's for sure.

Anyway, I wouldn't count on everyone being nice. I try to be -- I'm a woman and I've actually offered seats to men, if they appeared to need 'em more than I. But I also know that the only one whose behavior I can control is -- me. Assuming you really don't think that you can control a car full of Metro riders, I'll take your comment about short on the ends and tall in the middle as humor to lighten up the day for us Get There readers, in which case, thanks! Anyone who rides Metro needs to laugh, that's for sure.

Posted by: Thanks for the humor | October 25, 2006 1:52 PM | Report abuse

I rode the NYC subway with its bench seating and overhead straps for 6 years, and never once did I see anyone fall. Somehow everyone managed.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 25, 2006 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Good point, thanks for pointing out that it is overhead straps that are missing here in DC. I think there has been some talk of adding them to later models of the 6000 cars. Bench seating is better than what we have here, in terms of flow, but we are not going to get them. I'm not convinced overhead straps will fix all the problems I've seen (too much to go into there), but they definitely will help. Thanks for pointing out what NYC has in its system.

Posted by: Overhead straps will help | October 25, 2006 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the humor--I couldn't have said it better myself!

Posted by: Organge Line Shorty | October 25, 2006 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Interesting stuff here today. I've seen old people stagger and nearly fall, I think they are most prone to that sort of thing. I have seen people of all ages nearly fall when the train lurches to a stop, especially in 1999, when they took the trains off of the automated controls to work through some computer problems and had the operators guide trains manually. I think that went on for many months, lots of stops and starts as the trains pulled into stations. Some people let go of poles and started for the doors, only to have the train operator lurch the train forward a few feet and then open the doors. I saw some near falls then; let's hope they can stay with autmoated controls for the most part, but you never know when they may have to switch to manual. Remember the fatal accident that killed a Metro train operator when a train had an accident because it was going too fast on icy tracks while on automatic a few years ago?

"Thanks for the humor" has a point. Children do face problems on Metro that adults do not. Some Orange and Red Line trains are so crowded, it makes it very uncomfortable for children standing and holding on to a pole or bar. The problem is that they are so short, when they are surrounded by a crowd of people, their air is cut off more so than for adults. Not completely, of course, but being hemmed in by so many big bodies can get scary for the little ones. I remember reading about that somewhere once, the problem with air circulation for kids, etc. Sorry I don't remember where or I'd provide a link.

I once was on a train where I saw a child who clearly was uncomforable. I made an effort to move back and have others clear some more space around the small child who clearly was feeling a little panicky as she stood next to her Mom. Unfortunately, none of the seated riders offered them a seat. I've given up my seat to mothers with smalll children, figuring, hey, I can stand much more easily! I once did that but lost my balance as I rose while the train was in transit and put my heavy tote bag on my shoulder. So, I fell against a pole, LOL. Despite the bruise, I'd do it again, she and her kid needed the seat more than I.

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | October 25, 2006 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I wish they would fix the cars that reek of mildew. Considering how many people have mold allergies, that has to be a health issue as well as a comfort issue.

The stink alone should be enough to get them to act, though.

Posted by: It's not only the stations | October 30, 2006 7:42 AM | Report abuse

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