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Metrorail outdoor plan stemmed from 2003 storm

If you had a problem with Metrorail's response to the Saturday storm, blame the President's Day weekend blizzard of 2003. After that snowfall crippled Metro for days, managers developed the plan to shut the outdoor stations when about eight inches of snow fell.

During my online chat on Monday, commenters were generally supportive of Metro's performance. Here are two examples.

Petworth, Washington, D.C.: "I used the Metro several times Saturday and thought they handled it as well as can be expected. The longest wait for a train was probably 15 minutes -- not so bad, considering the storm was still moving through the city."

Alexandria (Ft. Hunt), Va.: "I'm a native Chicagoan who lived through the Big Snow of '67 and Blizzard of '79, both of which stopped Chicago in its tracks; I'm not critical of how the area has reacted. Snows like this require some patience and it seems that when people move here they're always in a rush ...

"After all its recent problems, I think Metro acted prudently with the trains, but I think at least some buses need to stay running. However, the way things were done seemed to be ad hoc to me. After the '67 storm, Chicago developed a snow plan. Does the region really have one?"

The transit managers' inclination is to keep the system running as long as people want to use it. If they took you somewhere, they want to bring you back. But that theory had a devastating impact on service in 2003, when the snow and ice punished Metro's equipment. By Monday of that weekend, only about one in five rail cars was fit for service. It wasn't till the following Saturday that 100 percent of the fleet was available.

That fall, the transit authority formed a new policy: Harden the train equipment against the ice and snow, then shut the aboveground stations when the snow reaches the point at which equipment starts to breakdown.

Many of the managers who developed that policy have left the transit authority, so it was largely up to a new generation to execute the plan. But they accomplished the goal: Most of the fleet was ready for service during Monday morning's rush hour.

Still, things didn't go quite as smoothly as the play book would have it. Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said that after Metro managers decided that the trains had taken all the punishment they could early Saturday afternoon, the transit authority announced that as of 1:30 the trains would serve only the underground stations.

But calls came in from transit police saying that there still were several hundred pretty angry people in the system complaining that they had no other way to reach the outer stations. Metro made the call to send trains through to pick up those passengers even though the snow had now deepened to the point where train performance was highly questionable.

Tough call: If they took a chance on getting the passengers home, the trains might get stuck, forcing a rescue and knocking out some equipment needed in coming days. One train did get stranded and had to be pulled back into the Dunn Loring Station, where Metro staffers drove the passengers home.

Despite the new policies of hardening the train equipment before storms, storing many reserve cars underground, then halting aboveground service, Metro still wasn't sure sure it could operate full train service on Monday morning until Monday morning. The final decision to start up at 5 a.m. wasn't made until 4 a.m. Metro's track clearing equipment didn't withdraw to the yards until about 15 minutes before train service began.

Knowing about the policy, the experience on which it was based and the close calls involved in this weekend's storm, do you think Metro did the right thing? Would you change the game plan for the next storm?

By Robert Thomson  |  December 22, 2009; 10:17 AM ET
Categories:  Metro , Weather  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, snow  
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Next: Chicago source of severe air travel delays


Do the Post know if area airports (particularly DCA) are still backlogged? Should we plan on showing up four hours before a domestic flight instead of two just to make it through the check-in/security lines?

Posted by: EFroh | December 22, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Isn't there some way that metro could clear those third rails such as with the use of an electric heating cable or some type of attachment to the train to blow heat on the rail to melt snow and ice.

Posted by: kevindiffily | December 22, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Given that the trains were ready to run at the 5:00am opening on Monday, I'd say yes, Metro did as good a job as anyone could under tough conditions. No other transit system could have handled it any better; Boston, New York, Philly. Have we studied the snow plans of those systems, and looked to them for lessons learned in past snow storms?

Posted by: --sg | December 22, 2009 9:31 PM | Report abuse

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