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Metro's dilemma: Serve or preserve?

Airports | Amtrak | Buses | Capital Weather Gang | D.C. snow emergency | Plowing plans | Rails | Snow removal | Live traffic

What Metro decides to do about its above-ground rail service Friday night will be a flash back to decisions made by an earlier generation of transit managers on a snowy evening almost seven years ago.

On Sunday, Feb. 16, 2003, thousands of people were attending an ice show in downtown Washington at what was then known as the MCI Center. Many other transit services were shutting down because of the heavy snow, and the Metro managers were worried about how much more their rail cars could take before breaking down.

But they had just delivered much of the audience from the suburbs to the ice show. Were they going to strand them there, or get them home? It wasn't a simple question of being a hero or a villain. If Metro kept operating above ground to return people to the suburbs, it might cripple so many rail cars that the first rush-hour service of the week would be a nightmare for commuters.

This Friday night, the Washington Capitals hope to extend their 12-game winning streak before thousands of fans at Verizon Center, formerly the MCI. The game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Right now, Metrorail is scheduled to remain open till 3 a.m.

After the 2003 experience, which did indeed leave the rail fleet crippled for days, Metro developed a policy: When the snowfall reaches 8 inches, the point at which managers know the trains will begin to lose power and break down, Metrorail will serve only its underground stations. You can see what that means in the map below.

If suburbanites used Metrorail to get to the game and Metro shut down outdoor service before they went home, there would be virtually no way for them to make it home Friday night. They won't be able to take a bus. The buses will probably end service before the trains do. They won't be able to find cabs to take them to destinations far away from downtown. They won't be able to walk far in that snow.

Since setting the policy in 2003, Metro has confronted this decision about service only once. That was on the Saturday of the December blizzard. Metro made the right call in suspending service early that afternoon. But there were hundreds of people who had come into the District by train who didn't get the word and were stranded. Metro sent through extra trains to bring many, but not all, to their destinations.

Today, I hope Metro will do the two right things: Suspend service before the trains break down, so that service will be close to normal for Monday's commuters, and also make the announcement early enough so that hockey fans, and anybody else thinking about traveling far by transit, will know what they're getting into.

Map shows the above-ground stations portions in lighter colors.

Metro snow map.jpg

By Robert Thomson  |  February 5, 2010; 4:45 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , Weather  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, snowstorm  
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Next: See MoCo roads live during storm


If Metro runs trains underground only, at what frequency do they run them? Are there nightmare delays, or do they run at somewhat decent frequency?

Posted by: DCMike1 | February 5, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

This is a serious question, as I honestly don't know the answer. Is 8 inches a "normal" amount of snow to paralyze above-ground service on other mass-transit systems that use a third rail for power? The only other above-ground third-rail system that I can think of in a city with real winters is Chicago's L. I know they have to shut down occasionally due to snow, but 8 inches doesn't seem like *that* much. When do they have to shut down?

Posted by: reggie14 | February 5, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Phila, NY, Chicago & Cleveland (Boston?) all have above ground ops for much of their routes (as in Philly "El" and Chi "El") How do they handle big snows?

(In Chicago & Philly, lots of the snow but not all, falls thru the track bed onto the hiway below).

Dr G?????

Posted by: jralbert | February 5, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

When I took the Metro Thursday Metro was running info on the display system telling passengers that it would shutdown above ground stations when the snow level reached 8 inches. The TV stations repeated the fact Friday morning and all thru the day.
If you hear that there is going to be a snow storm of an epic nature with the most falling Friday evening, and you elect to attend a hockey game that ends around 10pm, and you find when you leave the game that the above ground stations have been closed you can't complain that Metro left you stranded.

But knowing the people in this area I expect to see front page coverage on the Post about how Metro stranded fans. You can't cure stupid.

Posted by: Jimof1913 | February 5, 2010 7:38 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with Jimof1913.

While Chicago does in fact manage to muddle through snow storms with its overhead metro tracks continuing to carry passengers, it is perfectly acceptable for DC to not do as well. In fact, these storms happen in Chicago fairly frequently, so its worth it to invest in infrastructure to manage large snow events. In DC, the economic impact of clearing snow does not match the cost.

So bottom line, this is one of the largest storms that DC has seen in recent years, so just skip the hockey game. Alternatively, talk a friend or neighbor into picking you up (or pay them) at the underground Metro station nearest your home.

Posted by: lrtman | February 5, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

DC doesn't have the equipment to clear 8+ inches off the rails. I'm sure Chicago does.

If these hockey fans get stranded...sorry, I don't really feel sorry for them, since a trip to a hockey game is not a "necessary" trip. The hockey fans were well aware of the fact that they could get stuck in DC for a couple of nights, from all the media alerts and publicity. I'm sure they'll make an announcement at the Phone Booth when Metro is shutting down. Then the fans have a choice...leave, or stay till Sunday. But if Metro needs to shut down, it should. Preserving the trains is far more important than the convenience of some sports fans.

When Metro runs service below ground only, it is every half hour. We aren't going to see rush hour demand in terms of crowds. Metro runs trains on only one track in much of the underground zone, since they store empty trains on the other track.

Posted by: thetan | February 5, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

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