Tips for D.C. area transit users facing snow storm
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.
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.
February 4, 2010; 11:54 AM ET
Categories: Advisories , Metro , Weather , transit | Tags: Dr.Gridlock, snowstorm, tips for travelers
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