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Today's read: Snow winners and losers

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

Post columnist Robert McCartney: The epic snowstorms of the past week have divided our region into winners and losers. He provides a scorecard.

It lists the Virginia and Maryland transportation departments and Metro among the losers. I think many people, huddled right now in their homes, would agree with Robert, but I've taken another view.

First of all, it ain't over. For the highway departments, the two big storms arrived in such rapid succession that it's tough to rate the performance of the road clearing crews, whether they're the major ones, for Maryland, Virginia and the District, or the county and municipal departments.

Also, we lack a point of reference in scoring them. Many of us moved here from other parts of the country, some from northern areas where harsh winters are routine. But in Washington, we've seen nothing like this. Highway departments in the Washington region are set up to handle the Washington region's winters. What is it in our Washington experience that led us to believe we'd be cruising on clear roads 48 hours after one of the most severe winter storms in the region's history?

As for Metro: I think most people would concede that when the roads become impassable, Metro should pull its buses and vans from the streets. With all of our professed concern for safety in the transit system, are we really going to argue that the buses should be picking up passengers in a blizzard or the immediate aftermath?

Most critiques of Metro's performance focus on the trains. Basically, the question is: Have we got weenie trains? They can't go out in the snow because they get all stuffed up? Then, when they do run underground, trains show up once every half hour.

In a Presidents' Day weekend storm in 2003, Metro screwed up. In an attempt to maintain rail service for people who had gone downtown, the transit authority kept the trains running so long that many rail cars broke down. By the time the workweek arrived, there weren't enough trains to run anything like a normal rush hour service. Commuting was chaotic, and remained so through that week.

In the aftermath of the public outrage, Metro adopted the policy of moving underground when the snow reached eight inches along the tracks. It also said it would protect as many rail cars as possible by storing them underground rather than in the yards.

Metro rail cars at the Greenbelt rail yard. WMATA Photograph

Storms of that magnitude in Washington are so rare that the policy remained dormant until December 2009. Now, Metro has gone underground again twice in one week. Above ground service was restored as of 2:30 p.m. Tuesday and most rail cars were ready for action. It wasn't Metro's fault we had a blizzard on Wednesday.

Underground service was extremely slow. Metro said the demand for service also was extremely low, which was little comfort to the passengers who actually were demanding service. These are some numbers for comparison: Metro ridership this Tuesday was 261,522. The previous Tuesday, a normal day, it was 728,047. The difference this Tuesday was that the feds were at home, as were thousands of other government employees and schoolchildren.

Meanwhile, Metro had 506 rail cars underground awaiting their return. That's enough to make 79 six-car and eight-car trains when we need full service, which we haven't yet. That sure sounds like a better result than we had in 2003.

By Robert Thomson  |  February 11, 2010; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Metro , Weather , transit  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, snowstorm  
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Next: Can there be 'enough plows?'


Preach it!

Posted by: andrewmcleod | February 11, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: FridayKnight | February 11, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I don't blame Metro for running skeleton service these past few days. No one should have been out traveling around anyway. Their performance should be judged on the time it takes to get the service up and running normally (or normal for Metro) from when the system opened today - the first day after the storm. If it's tomorrow then I say kudos metro, if it's next Tuesday then I say changes need to be made.

Posted by: chass80 | February 11, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

What about the Caps-Pens game during round 1? It was easy to monitor the status of whether that was happening.

Posted by: S2MCDC | February 11, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: S2MCDC, I had mixed feelings about Metro and that Friday night Caps game at Verizon, at the start of storm round 1. Metro made the call on when to shut down above ground service during the game, and it was announced at the game.

Lots of fans wanted to see the Caps continue their winning streak, and in fact, Metro delivered the rail service. It shut the above ground stations at 11 p.m. Friday. But I thought that was pushing it: If conditions had deteriorated more rapidly and trains started to break down, Metro would have stranded many people and wound up with a lot of rail cars knocked out of service for days.

Posted by: Dr_Gridlock | February 11, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I think the problem isn't so much the efforts, but the attitude. Metro in particular has had a particularly defeatist attitude throughout this whole ordeal. They waited until 7 or 8 pm on Sunday and Monday to announce next day service -- but by 5 pm yesterday they had already declared that there would be no above-ground service today. Even last weekend state leaders were declaring that no one would be able to get to work until Thursday. Hardly inspiring. It does not give anyone the impression that the states are really doing all they can when they spend most of their time going on television and continuously whining about how hard it is. Everyone has had to shovel out their sidewalk or car. Most of us have already tried to get out. We know how hard it is. Tell us your goal for fixing it, not your excuses for why you can't.

Posted by: rjnickoli | February 11, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I have to give kudos to Metro during these two snowstorms. One of the biggest complaints in the past year and beyond has been WMATA's lack of communication. I'm a fan on their facebook page and have been getting updates a few times a day throughout the two storms that informed me not only what services were still available, but also, what they were doing to get trains back in service as quickly as possible. They have done an excellent job keeping the public informed while making responsible decisions about the safety of running buses, metroaccess, and the trains.

Posted by: fedup81 | February 11, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

My big concern is that Metro will try to restore full service, both bus and rail, too quickly. Both systems could be overwhelmed by doing too much too soon, especially if riders flock back in full force. I worry that if I go to work downtown tomorrow, Metro won't be able to get me back home in the suburbs at the end of the day. That has happened to me before, in a storm smaller than either of the past two.

Posted by: --sg | February 11, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

As long as we are keeping track of things Metro can do better...since they are only running trains on half hour schedules, it would be nice if they published that schedule.

You can tell I'm snow fatigued based on the fact that I've figured out the Red Line's schedule. The trains depart Union Station for Medical Center at 25 and 55 past the hour. The trains depart Woodley Park heading downtown at 15 and 45 past the hour. I was happy that I finally got it down right so I was only waiting for a train for about 3 minutes this morning. Then I changed at Metro Center and waited.....27 minutes...ugh.

Posted by: thetan | February 11, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

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