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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.

By Robert Thomson  |  January 27, 2009; 8:19 AM ET
Categories:  Inauguration  
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Next: Morning Commute Was Practice Session


This may be a different set of issues you'll cover next, but for the most part the commuter rail worked great as well.

Penn Station in Baltimore was well managed, it was easy to get down to D.C. and out of Union Station, with great information provided by MTA.

On the other hand, the crowd control at Union Station in the afternoon was lousy. There was a lot of confusion about which entrances could be used for which Metro and the commuter rail and the security staff working there were not appropriately located to help direct people.

They also were letting people in in platoons and the constant start/stop led those of us who couldn't see what was happening to wonder if anyone was getting through.

Also, someone had made a decision to let everyone on say Penn Line trains to board any Penn Line train. Good decision, but it wasn't communicated to riders until we were boarding the train. Even once we were inside Union Station they didn't bother making that announcement, which would have reduced a lot of stress and frustration.

Moving one person to the front of the station, providing them a bullhorn, and having them direct people to the appropriate entrance, explain that they were letting people in gradually, and that they would be allowed to board any train to their destination would have made a lousy experience far more acceptable.

My experience at Union Station was one of the only negatives of the day (the crowd also almost got ugly in front of the Smithsonian "Castle" just before the inauguration started). People were willing to wait in line, but they need good information to help them understand why and help them know it's not a lost cause.

Posted by: patrick21 | January 27, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

We need a third and fourth rail on the Red and Orange lines.

Fire Catoe and get some real long term vision on the Metro Board.

Posted by: AngryLiberal | January 27, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

My own experience was very positive. The text messages worked well.

Posted by: Cali711 | January 27, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

The Metro system is one of the best in the nation, and its performance on Inauguration Day was outstanding. One can hope it will be extended to cover a greater area into both the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Rail transport is still the solution for rapid and convenient movement of people. My only suggestion is that the equipment be continually upgraded and that what is being used is kept cleaner. Money spent on Metro is well spent.

Posted by: Caponer | January 28, 2009 5:25 AM | Report abuse

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