How it Worked, Part 4: Rail System Was Key
The Inauguration Day transportation plan worked as well as it did because the planners fully exploited the Washington region's biggest transportation asset: the Metrorail system.
Among the essential lessons learned last Tuesday was that we need to maintain this asset in top condition. That's a challenge right now, as Metro faces budget problems that could result in service cuts. And it will be a challenge for at least the next few years, because the transit authority needs a new plan -- and new money -- to buy new equipment.
On Inauguration Day, the transit authority says, Metro provided about 1,120,000 rail trips. That was the highest ridership day in its three-decade history. (We don't know the exact total, even on rail, because many people were allowed through the fare gates without paying, just to ease the crowding.) Sunday through Tuesday of inauguration weekend, Metrorail took people on about 2.6 million trips. That includes 17 straight hours of peak-level service on Inauguration Day.
That so many people could move relatively quickly over such a stretch means the system worked, even when severely stressed. It doesn't mean everything went smoothly.
There were traffic backups at some of the outer stations and confusion about whether all the parking spaces were full. Trains broke down when riders blocked doors, something that happens all too frequently during a regular day's commute.
Service was disrupted for about 45 minutes after woman fell onto the tracks at Gallery Place. (She was okay, thanks to quick action by Eliot Swainson, an officer with the Houston Metro Police Department who was helping us out on Inauguration Day.)
Federal Triangle Station closed unexpectedly for four-and-a-half hours because of concern about crowding on the nearby Mall. And crowding generally slowed things down. Authorities would hold back entering passengers to ease conditions on the platforms. The entry only and exit only system at some stations bordering the Mall got pretty confusing.
I recall that while I was trying to get out various exits at L'Enfant Plaza after the swearing in, I heard no station announcements telling us where people could get out and where they were coming in. Up on the street, no information was reaching thousands of confused and very cold people coming from the Mall.
Difficult as these situations were for many of us, they represent some lost skirmishes in the course of a big victory for Metro. My big concern with the transportation plan was that it would prove overly reliant on one element: Metrorail. For weeks, the region's leaders urged people to leave their cars and take Metrorail.
The transit authority rose to the challenge, spending those lead-up weeks testing the system and preparing the workforce. When the day came, the controllers, operators, station managers, mechanics, volunteers and other staffers showed they could handle the job.
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