Today's read: Snow winners and losers
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.
February 11, 2010; 10:43 AM ET
Categories: Metro , Weather , transit | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, snowstorm
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