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Weekend Frustrations on Red Line

Guys like Ben Ross, the president of the Action Committee for Transit, are among Metro's best friends. They are true believers in transit. So when Ross and his Montgomery County group have a complaint about transit, you notice.

Ross is among the many people angry about the delays and crowding on the Red Line this weekend, the first of four weekends for a major track repair project at the Van Ness Station. He made public he sent to Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr.

Dear Mr. Catoe:
Trains ran on 30 minute headways Saturday night on the Red Line due to single tracking between Friendship Heights and Dupont Circle. I was on an inbound train last night that was offloaded at Friendship Heights and told to wait for the next train coming in 15 minutes. This is an unacceptable level of service at a busy time for Metro; boardings at Bethesda on Saturday nights are half of what they are in the weekday morning rush hour.
Metro could easily have provided 15 minute headways. The single tracking was caused by switch maintenance at Van Ness. Trains could have single tracked on the blocked track from Friendship Heights to Tenleytown and from Dupont Circle to Cleveland Park and returned on the same track to the switches within 15 minutes. A shuttle on the open track between Tenleytown and Cleveland Park could have met the turned-back trains and made the round trip comfortably within 15 minutes.
It seems that inflexible train control may degrade service in other situations as well. On the New York subway, crowded trains frequently skip stops when another train is directly behind them. Our members have seen this on Metro only rarely in incident recovery situations and almost never during times of simple rush-hour crowding. Skipping stops could significantly alleviate loading delays caused by train overcrowding and prevent following trains from being delayed behind the first crowded train.
It is possible that Metro's automated control system limits the flexibility of train control. If that is the case, Metro should evaluate the merits of more frequent use of operator control during track maintenance, incident recovery, and other times.
At a time when Metro is stressed by increasing ridership, insufficient financial support from Maryland, Virginia, and D.C., and aging infrastructure, everything should be done to provide the best service possible within these limitations.

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said this morning that the transit authority will review how things went this weekend and see if there are any changes it could make to improve service. The work on the track switches is scheduled to continue from 9 p.m. Fridays through midnight Sundays on each of the next three weekends.

I can't tell whether Ross's proposals would have improved service in this particular situation. He says he checked the shuttle idea with some other members of ACT who are rail experts and they said it was feasible. And Metro does sometimes have its trains skip stops to even out the flow of trains or ease crowding in stations.

It's beyond doubt that riders are frustrated with weekend train service. There's hardly ever a weekend without significant delays because of track maintenance or rail car testing. All the lines are affected. But this winter, things have been especially tough for Red Line riders, with another switch replacement project at Medical Center and a bridge rehab at Metro Center. At this point, they're feeling abused.

The switch fix is a big project, Taubenkibel said, not the sort of thing that can be done in one weekend, or in a series of overnight efforts after the rail lines have been shut down. Actually, similar projects have gotten done faster, but they were on above ground tracks. The narrow confines of the Red Line tunnel limit what the workers can do as they rebuild the switches that allow trains to move from one track to another.

They did one switch on the Glenmont-bound tracks this weekend and will do the other next weekend. For the following two weekends, they'll move over to the Shady Grove-bound side. Meanwhile, trains traveling in both directions will be taking turns on the adjacent track.

Metro did put out the word that riders should add 30 minutes to their regular travel times because of this. And Taubenkibel said that eight car trains, which don't normally operate on weekends, ran through the single tracking area to help with the crowding. Service was not reduced during the evening hours along this busy corridor, he said.

I'll follow up with you later this week about the prospects for next weekend. You can see how many people wanted to talk about this by looking over my online discussion with readers earlier today.

By Robert Thomson  |  February 25, 2008; 2:57 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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What is this talk about skipping stops? How do they know people aren't going to get off at those stops? It's one thing to not be able to get on a train, it's another to not be let off.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 25, 2008 5:22 PM | Report abuse

He is talking about skipping stops when trains begin to get backed up (as in there is another train 1 or 2 mintues behind the first train so the first train skips 3 stops to get farther ahead of that train and allow things to get more spaced out). An annoucement is made before reaching these stops telling people to disembark and get the train behind if you want to get off at those stops.

The letter is a bit confusing because skipping stops wouldn't have helped the situation over the weekend as the trains were being run way too far apart. However, his overall idea is having more control over how to control the trains at various times (rush hour, service disruptions, etc.)

Posted by: Laura | February 25, 2008 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Given that clear communication of information to passengers is not exactly one of Metro's strengths, I suspect that the skipping stops idea would cause way more aggravation than it solves.

Posted by: Yikes | February 25, 2008 6:14 PM | Report abuse

The real problem here is not just train operators. If Metro runs trains normally on each side of a single-track-range, it needs to run only 1 train on the inside of the single-track-range. The one track train never needs to switch, and it can't collide with itself. Trains at their temporary terminus turn around normally.

When the condition clears and service is normalized, the only correction that needs to be made is in the frequency, rather than the direction of travel. Much smaller chance of bunching, and evenly distributed on the "inside," this should also produce smaller numbers of stranded riders. Even with a two coach train running inside (you can only get so may people in them, then you empty more quickly, and so on).

Posted by: Control can be efficient... | February 25, 2008 7:07 PM | Report abuse

I'm a major advocate and defender of public transit, too. My friends even joke about how I should be a paid spokesmodel for the Metro or public transportation in general ;)...I've never owned a car and have lived in Boston, Chicago and Paris in addition to DC - all cities with extensive public transit options. I've always thought DC did a fairly good job of getting people around in an efficient and comfortable manner. I've always recommended to people thinking of visiting DC that they think of going carless and getting around via Metro. I've totally bought in to the ad campaigns telling us to use Metro for everything.

And now I feel betrayed. This 4-weekend Red Line chaos is just the last straw (if only; I'm sure there will be many straws to come). The past year or so has seriously felt like a campaign to get us all to drive everywhere or something.

And I don't believe I'm asking for a utopian wonderland of a system that will be 110% perfect. I know systems need maintenance. I just would like a 2-mile trip not to take 45 minutes - for weeks and weeks on end. That would be an excellent start.

Do they care how this affects their riders? Oh, no, wait, they don't - they don't use the system themselves, so they don't care. (Remember the mini-scandal a few years back when we found out none of the Metro board used the system?)

Posted by: PQ | February 25, 2008 8:21 PM | Report abuse

I think Metro is sitting on its laurels for the system it used to be. I was in New York City a few weeks back and although their subway may not be as pretty (and I say "may") the trains run frequently and thus they are not as crowded. It seems Metro hasn't kept up with the population surge -- either in track maintenance or numbers of cars available. The Red Line seems to break down or be delayed nearly every time I ride it. It seems that a good ride on the Red Line is unusual, not a breakdown. Metro Center is also a mess at rush hour. There are so many people trying to get to Chinatown and Union Station that red line riders going home to Maryland can't board for train after train after train ... Why can't metro shuttle people to Chinatown and Union Station from Metro Center? A loop would save a lot of headaches.

Posted by: mclovin | February 25, 2008 8:31 PM | Report abuse

I found that it was well 'advertised' and, knowing this, I checked the train status info on my phone (wmata mobile service) before heading into the system Sunday evening. It gave me enough time to duck into the Portrait Gallery for a few minutes (same info can be used to linger at the bar or after dinner). Knowing an 8-car train was coming, I moved to the end of the platform and had a relatively empty car.

30-minute headways did strike me as excessive, but I'm surprised how few people use some of the new resources to deal with known service issues like this. They really are useful tools.

In fact, this morning's commute - with the train stuck in the station for what seemed like 5 minutes trying to get the doors OPEN was much, much less pleasant.

Posted by: swdc | February 25, 2008 9:42 PM | Report abuse

What's the number for the mobile service? I used to have one on my phone but it never seemed correct so I stopped bothering with it. Maybe it's gotten better...

Posted by: Laura | February 25, 2008 11:34 PM | Report abuse

What I want to know is how many more switches will they be replacing this year? They've done Medical Center and it seems like they're always single tracking on some part of the above ground tracks on any given line on any given weekend. They must have a schedule - can't they share it with us now rather than waiting until right before it happens when its tougher to change plans?

I always check the train schedule before I leave my house but when I'm out and about I can't and the Metro Alerts are useless. that being said on several occasions I've left my house with no delays on the wmata website, walked to the station (across the street literally) only to discover delays from scheduled track work that wasn't anywhere on their website not 5 minutes earlier. And when I asked I was told it was ongoing and I should have known - if it was ongoing it should be on their website and I would have known.

If they put the responsibility on the rider to know the schedule and delays and to plan accordingly then they need to make it easy to access this information so that we can plan accordingly. You leave me guessing after I've done my homework and there are no winners. An upcoming track work site wouldn't be that tough - it might not make us happy but at least then we'd know what we're getting ourselves into.

Posted by: Vienna | February 25, 2008 11:35 PM | Report abuse

Vienna, I have the same problem!! I live a block from the Metro and check the website before I leave, and it'll say that there are no delays; I get into the station and hear an announcement, "We are continuing to experience delays...."

Posted by: PQ | February 26, 2008 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Check this page for mobile phones

Posted by: dkf747 | February 26, 2008 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Every time there's a big uproar about poor Metro service, Metro trots out an increase in ridership over the previous year. I don't think they mean that as an excuse, I think they mean it as a 'finger:' "if Metro's so bad, why are more people riding?" They won't take service seriously, at least not on the weekends, until they get a drop in ridership. But when some people decide not to ride, it makes it less burdensome, so ridership won't ever drop very much. The only thing that would make Metro ashamed of itself is something like a crash in ridership, like those crashes in prey-animal populations that cause crashes in predator populations. But should that ever happen (and I doubt it will, barring infrastructure failures that Metro will just fob off as 'not our fault'), the local jurisdictions would just give up on Metro as a bad job rather than recognizing the need for a reorganization. So I think we're going to be stuck with "almost but not quite too unreliable to bother with" for the next decade, at least.

Posted by: DrBubbles | February 26, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I've stopped using the Metro on weekends recently when there is any other possible alternative. I've even stopped going places like visiting my grandchildren after it took me 2 hours to get from Arlington to Rockville recently. This weekend's Red line work caused a mess for all concerned.

Area residents are feeling betrayed; tourists are completely baffled at why this vaunted system is worth the money or effort.

It seems that between a total disregard for how its customers are affected and the increased prices, Metro wants us out of the system. Keep this up and they'll succeed.

Posted by: edgery | February 26, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I haven't used Metro on the weekends for over a year now because it's just not cost-effective in terms of time. I'd rather pay for parking downtown or in the 'burbs than waste time waiting for trains. And I doubt that I'll ever return to using Metro for the weekends -- my car is just so much more convenient -- and cleaner, too!

Posted by: WashingtonDame | February 26, 2008 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Metro just comes up with one excuse after another. They will never admit they were wrong about anything or did a bad job about anything. The few times I've sent in comments to Metro, they've had some customer service rep call me to berate me about how wrong I am and how right they are!

Rather than spend the time calling me up and basically scolding me for complaining, I'd rather those employees did something a little more productive....heaven forbid.

Posted by: Excuses | February 26, 2008 2:01 PM | Report abuse

If only we could believe Metro when it says an 8-car train is coming. Seems to be wrong as often as it's right. And it's not rare that, in the evening, the advertised 8-car train will be only 4 cars!

Posted by: nashpaul | February 26, 2008 2:05 PM | Report abuse

I don't get why the delays have to be half an hour. The red line bridge bearing pads project had a much better service plan: trains every 10 minutes, and all trains running through Shady Grove to Glenmont. The first train waited at DuPont for about 7 minutes or so while Shady Grove bound trains filed through the tunnel, and the next Glenmont bound train "caught up". Then when the second train was close behind, both trains were sent through the one track segment, minimizing the time it took away from waiting northbound trains at Judiciary Square. Not the most convenient, but not all that bad considering that the wait at DuPont was while you were sitting on the train, not standing on the platform. All trains went through so none of this offloading crap like at Friendship Heights. And every 20 minutes instead of every 30, which is excessive.

I thought switches were supposed to be placed close enough together to avoid these excessively long one-way operations. Friendship Heights to Farragut North is a LONG segment, much longer then DuPont to Judiciary Square!

Another issue I have is the passanger information displays. During these "early turnaround" operations, the displays will often say "Shady Grove", even for trains turning back at Farrragut North. Why? If I knew which train was going through and which was turning back, I might wait at my origin station for the thru train, rather then having to be offloaded onto a very crowded platform and then fight with the masses for a seat on the next train.

At the very least, Metro should be giving free rides to those forced to travel through this workzone. Its a slap in the face to be forced to pay for such subpar service.

Posted by: Woodley Park | February 26, 2008 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Weekends = the best reason to have a car

Posted by: Anonymous | February 27, 2008 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Is there ANY reason Metro can't run shorter headways for the non-impacted portion of the Red Line? Why not have 10-minute headways from Glenmont to Farragut North, for example?

Posted by: nashpaul | February 27, 2008 2:56 PM | Report abuse

These repairs or replacements of switches in so many places constantly on weekends are the result of year to year budgets instead of dedicated funding/better long range planning that could spread out replacements. Or have better routine maintenance programs to defer replacements that year to year budgets force cutting to be 'fiscally responsible' and 'cost-effective' and give 'the most bang for the buck.' Reaping what you have sown fiscal conservatives.

Posted by: Jon | March 3, 2008 11:20 PM | Report abuse

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