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Riding on Red: A Metro Update

While riding all the Metro lines over the past two days to get those station temperature readings, I had a chance to make these general observations about the state of rail service:

-- While you may have a slow trip on any line, the Red Line is still the most consistently troubled. Riders on the Orange Line today have been caught up in a slowdown because a train struck and killed a man late this morning at West Falls Church. (See story by James Hohmann.) Or the trains might be slowed as Metro checks the condition of a track circuit. (See the current list here.) But Red Line trips are consistently problematic because the trains go one at a time through the June 22 crash zone between Takoma and Fort Totten. That disrupts the entire line.

-- More and more people are getting the idea that the trains stop at the front of the platforms. But the last two cars of six-car trains still tend to be jammed while the last two cars of an eight-car train offer the best bet for a seat.

-- Bad as the crowding might be, vacation season seems to be helping ease things.

-- The most immediate self-help in combating a bad ride is to try different things, from trip to trip and day to day.

-- If you're in a hot car, you'll know it right away, so don't torture yourself: Move to another car at the next stop.

-- Pay attention to the train arrival signs on the platforms. If an eight-car train is approaching, move toward the back end of the platform. If it's a six-car train, the front end of the platform is still the best bet, though not as much as it was a couple of weeks ago. If the sign says a couple of rush-hour trains are approaching close together and you see the first one is crowded, don't hurl yourself into the mosh pit. The next train is likely to be a lot less crowded.

-- The transit authority is starting to get this communication thing. I heard an announcement that began, "Due to the track circuit repair work ... " That's the most specific and accurate description that I've heard about the cause of current problems. Also, you can now see Metro ads in the stations that highlight where the trains stop and what you should do. ("Don't let a 6-car train pass you by," they say.) And I saw a Metro employee on a platform taking a properly active role in getting people to board a car: "Step in, step in, step all the way in," he intoned for all to hear.

-- Don't be lulled by one normal trip on the Red Line. The next one may be very different. That's why Metro still is telling Red Line riders to add an extra half hour to normal travel times.

By Robert Thomson  |  August 12, 2009; 1:41 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , transit  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail delays, Red Line crash  
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Dr. G, one of the reasons the last cars get so crowded is because at many stations, the escalators are located at the "back" of the platform as compared to the direction the train is headed. If a train pulls into a station as a lot of people are getting to the platform, they rush up the platform to reach the last train car, because sometimes it can take up to 10 minutes for the next train to arrive. I see this daily at Fort Totten on the green line headed into the city core. And because its a transfer station, there are a ton of people all trying to make the train rather than wait for the next one. I understand why Metro is having the trains stop where they do, but the design of some stations exacerbates the crowding problems.

Posted by: RedBirdie | August 12, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: RedBirdie, the very worst thing I've seen stemming from the new stopping point is at Gallery Place on the Red Line platform, Shady Grove-bound side. There, you have many people coming up the alcove from the street or from the Green-Yellow platform. They all turn right to head for the Red Line train stopping point up the platform, and may be met by an equally large herd of people exiting a train. It takes a while to sort itself out.

Also, a rider pointed out to me that many of the outdoor station coverings are in the middle. So if we're having bad weather -- rain, high heat, maybe ice someday before this is over -- passengers now must wait out in the open for the first couple of cars.

That said, I still prefer the safety of having every train stop at the front, rather than risking a train opening doors in a tunnel.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | August 12, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I always try to go to the rear end of an eight-car train myself, but for that to happen...

1.) An 8-car train has to be coming
2.) In less than 12 or 14 minutes
3.) The board must correctly identify the 8-car train *as* an 8-car train and not as a 6 or as a 2.

Posted by: EtoilePB | August 12, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

I understand why the trains are moving more slowly. I suppose I can even understand why the slow speed and frequent stops are making the ride so jerky (though some operators are clearly worse than others -- some days I wish for Dramamine). But I don't understand why we are consistently seeing long gaps between trains during rush hour. As a result, I can rarely get a seat in the morning, whereas I used to get a seat about 4 out of 5 times, if not more. And this is the August lull! If, as usual, trains get more crowded after Labor Day, I may finally give up and start driving.

Posted by: Janine1 | August 13, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Finally, the guys and ladies in the green-and-orange vests are actually doing something and helping people on the platform. I'd been wondering what their responsibilities were, besides standing around. These folks could do more by patroling the platform to make sure nobody jumps down on the trackbed so that they can get hit by trains. Ditto for stopping people from eating and drinking while in the system.

Posted by: ShepCWillner | August 13, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I've started driving. What a relief: faster, cheaper and more comfortable.

Posted by: DellC | August 13, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

I've been riding the red line from Shady Grove to Judiciary Sq and back regularly for a few years now. In general, I'm getting to and from work in the same amount of time as it's always taken me. Some days 5 minutes longer or so, but most major delays have been due to the usual old red line mess - trains with brake problems, sick passengers, etc. I've been pretty pleased with the service.

Posted by: kickabout | August 13, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

It's not easy to get from one end of the platform to the other during rush hour. The theory of getting on the back end of an 8 car train sounds good, but there are few 8 car trains on the Orange line. And you could end up waiting a long time. As you note the last car or two of a 6 car train are jam-packed. To get from the back end to the front end on a crowded platform will take some work. And all because the train operators aren't smart enough to remember how long their trains are. I hope this idiotic policy goes away sooner rather than later.

Posted by: fedssocr | August 13, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

A sham of a transportation system for a sham of a city.

Posted by: djones13 | August 14, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

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