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Tips for D.C. area transit users facing snow storm

[ Airports; Amtrak cancellations; Capital Weather Gang; D.C. snow emergency; MARC and MTA; Metrorail and Metrobus; Plowing plans; Snow removal; VRE ]

In a previous posting, I offered some advice to D.C. area drivers about the snowstorm predicted by the Capital Weather Gang. Here are some tips for D.C. area transit users.

Bus riders
While you'll see many local officials advising people to take transit if they must travel, there's still reason to be cautious. The bus services people use to get to work on Friday may encounter some difficulties in getting them home. This could involve some slow trips and some detours. It's possible -- as we saw in the December storm -- that some buses may not be able to complete their trips. As with drivers, have a plan for getting home and leave work early if possible.

Metro, the Washington region's largest transit service, has not yet issued a plan for storm operations, but it's likely to be very similar to the one for the December storm. With Metrobus and MetroAccess, the main thing to know is that they operate on the same roads as everyone else and are subject to the same problems.

What happens on specific bus routes depends on what conditions the drivers are encountering and what they are telling their supervisors. The decisions they are making about whether to proceed or detour on certain routes will be made quickly. It's very unlikely that Metro's alert systems will be able to keep up with conditions on specific bus routes.

Metro does have a bus service alert on its home page. And it also uses a Twitter feed for service alerts. While there is an e-Alert system for problems on the train lines and on MetroAccess, there is no e-Alert for problems on specific bus routes.

If conditions deteriorate significantly, as they did in the December storm, Metro could restrict bus service to snow emergency routes.

Bus travelers can try Metro's Next Bus real-time arrival system, available either by phone or on the Internet. But don't bet your life on the system's accuracy in predicting when a bus will arrive at your stop in a storm.

In some cases, it will be a lot more accurate than the printed bus schedule. But the GPS-based system relies on a computer model of how long it should take buses to get from one stop to the next. A detour, an icy patch in the road, a sudden traffic jam will throw off the prediction.

One aid to navigation with Next Bus: If you're waiting at a stop and getting a Next Bus prediction, look as far down the road as you can see. Is the traffic jammed or is it moving well? If it's jammed, then it's likely that the Next Bus prediction will be thrown off.

Some precautions apply to any snowstorm: Be careful walking on those brown tiles on the station mezzanines and platforms. Even if they are not directly exposed to the outdoors, they can become wet and may be slippery.

I thought Metro did a good job this week in treating the exposed parts of the outdoor platforms. But in a very big storm, there is only so much that can be done. For example, the Metro crews cannot simply push all the snow from the platforms onto the tracks. That would have a bad effect on the trains. Metro must wait until after the train system shuts down at night to bring in specialized rail cars that can take away the platform snow.

The big issue will be this: Metrorail operates very close to a normal schedule in snowfall of up to six inches. Once snow reaches a depth of eight inches, snow starts to cover the third rail. Also, snow can interfere with the rail car power system, even though Metro takes the precaution of hardening the undercarriages before a storm arrives.

So if the snow on the tracks reaches eight inches, Metro's policy dictates that aboveground operations be shut down. At this point on Thursday, it's difficult to predict when -- or if -- that will happen this weekend. You won't be able to tell just by monitoring what the weather people say about total accumulations at Reagan National Airport or in downtown Washington. What counts is how much snow is piled up along the tracks.

As you plan your travels, especially if you travel in from the suburban stations, be aware the train line that brings you in may not be able to get you home. In other words, you may be stranded. This did happen to some people during the December blizzard. If the aboveground stations close, you may have few travel options. At that point, the snow will be so deep that it will be difficult if not impossible to find a bus or a cab. Even walking will be difficult.

We'll keep you updated on traffic and transit conditions. See previous posting for advice to D.C. area drivers.

By Robert Thomson  |  February 4, 2010; 11:54 AM ET
Categories:  Advisories , Metro , Weather , transit  | Tags: Dr.Gridlock, snowstorm, tips for travelers  
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I just recently started taking the MARC train in, and haven't seen it operate in bad snow yet. Any tips on what I can expect?

Posted by: kickabout | February 4, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

It's comical that our subway system shuts down to several stations because of 8 inches of snow. Yet another of many examples that DC is a third rate city.

Posted by: JG55 | February 4, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Hey Dr. G, do you have a map or a good source for what the snow emergency routes are in the area? I have a general idea but it would be great to see this and compare to the buses I take. Also, if the bus travels on both snow emergency routes and regular roads, will it not run if metro annouces buses are traveling only on snow emergency routes. Will it only run the snow emergency route portion? Does Ride-On follow the same rules?

I'm fully expecting metro to shut down rail service on Saturday and I need to get from Shady Grove to Bethesda area (East-West and Connecticut) for work on Saturday night. I already know my planned route if I have to rely on just the buses (Q6 to Viers Mill and Connecticut, L8 from there to my destination). I also have alternative buses to take, but any trip will require the use of both a Metro bus and a Ride-On bus.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | February 4, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

DC snow emergency routes:

There's a snow call at 1:00 this afternoon, so we'll probably know soon if the Federal Government is going to be closed tomorrow. I'd be willing to bet they will be. Stranding everyone in DC would not be good.

Posted by: nevermindtheend | February 4, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Thanks nevermindtheend, but do you have one for Montgomery County?

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | February 4, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Montgomery County doesn't appear to have a map of that sort online. Here's their site:

You might try a search for "Montgomery County Snow Emergency Routes" to see if that reveals anything. Seems odd that this information wouldn't be available somewhere.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 4, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

I have a flight leaving tomorrow from DCA at 2:59pm for Atlanta, then Atlanta to Vegas. I've never flown out of an airport during snow. Can I expect my flight to get canceled? It appears that the snow will start falling around then, but won't be too bad until much later. I'm worried that because of the potential for a serious storm that they will just cancel flights regardless of ground conditions.

Posted by: SteveinAtown | February 4, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Yeah I looked there already and it just states that "Prominent red and white signs designate certain roads" as emergency routes. Which is why I have a general idea but not entirely sure if the whole bus route is or not. Booo for information not being readily available online.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | February 4, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

SteveinAtown, many airlines will cancel because they don't want their equipment getting stuck here, resulting in having to cancel flights elsewhere for lack of equipment. The 3pm time will be very tight too. Snow is expected to begin around noon (possibly earlier though) so by 3 we could have a couple of inches on the ground. I think most flights usually still fly out in those conditions, but if your flight is delayed at all, you risk not getting out at all.

I would try switching to an earlier flight in the AM or even tonight if you can.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | February 4, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Just got back from getting the oil changed, wiper fluid reservoirs refilled and wipers replaced. Windows cleaned inside and outside. Checked emergency kit. Think I'm ready?

SteveinAtown, so far, it looks like you should be a lot better off than folks -- like the GridSpouse -- who are planning trips over the weekend. The best advice from the air travel experts is to check with your own airline on its plans.

The GridSpouse is flying from Reagan National to cover the Olympics. Her flight was scheduled for Saturday. When she called to rebook, American Airlines asked her if she could go out on Friday. That wasn't possible, so she wound up with a Sunday reservation, a middle seat all the way to Vancouver. (That's if I can get her to the airport.)

TerpsGirl, you might find this MoCo map useful once the snow starts:
But we'll keep updating Get There with the latest and also post as many useful links about road and transit snow information as we can discover. There are some relatively new ones, such as Virginia's 511 Twitter feed, that are very helpful.

I've got some information I can post about MARC train service for Friday, too.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | February 4, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

For MARC riders:

Despite MARC saying they would have more capacity on the earlier, non-rush trains, that doesn't necessarily mean the track numbers will be early enough to alleviate crowding in the station waiting areas.

Furthermore, its a Friday, so that means heavier than normal passenger traffic for Amtrak (and MARC trains stopping at BWI)

And finally, everyone will leave work at first sign of a snowflake, so that means Metro will be extremely crowded.

All that adds up to this recommendation: Do not use MARC tomorrow if at all possible.

(Take it from one who has made this mistake before)

Posted by: zizzy | February 4, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

I have a flight arriving at DCA at 4:02 tomorrow afternoon from Atlanta, GA. What are the probabilities that my flight will arrive in DC?

Posted by: kimlfrey | February 4, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

I am scheduled to be on an Amtrak train arriving in Union Station at about 9:30pm tomorrow night. Any word on how the storm may/is impacting the Northeast Corridor route?

Posted by: littlenino | February 4, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

I do believe the cab companies should answer their phones with an accurate statement of their operational status... especially to indicate when they answer if they are open and providing services or closed.

Early last evening i was at an Arlington hotel trying to get cab service...i was on hold with Red Top for over an hour. They answered the phone with an automated message: "Red Top cab...Please hold, do not hang up, as calls are answered in the order received...all of our agents are serving other customers...some delays because of weather. Your call will be answered shortly" I gave up after an hour, and spoke with at least 5 other people, including the hotel desk staff, who said they'd had similar experiences.

We heard from some of the local delivery drivers that the cab companies had sent their drivers home and had stopped operations. It would have been most helpful if the cab company had said in it's phone response it was closed, rather than give us bad information and tell us to hold. Time was at a premium in the bad weather to make arrangemetns to get to safe destinations, and cab companies who implied they would provide service they couldn't were irresponsible and added to dangerous circumstances.

As well, it owuld be helpful if those reporting on transportation options would also include status of cab service!

Posted by: las100 | February 6, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

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