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Posted at 1:52 PM ET, 09/18/2009

Red Line Blues

By washingtonpost.com editors

By Matt Patterson
Rockville

Tuesday, Aug. 25. 7 p.m. After a long day at work, I haul my bone-tired bod down to the DuPont Circle Metro station. I swipe my SmarTrip card. Nothing. I swipe it again. Nothing. By now a disgruntled line has formed behind me. I step aside and watch as my fellow commuters gleefully — or so it seems — swipe their working cards, the gates opening before them like the entrance to Ali Baba’s cave.

I stare at my card. I am sure there is at least $30 on this thing, so I approach the booth attendant, ensconced in her octagonal castle, and tell her my problem. She waits till I finish an entire sentence before turning on the microphone. I hold up my card and repeat myself, this time giving her the short version:

“Not working.”

She takes the card through the slot and works it through some contraption, then turns back to me.

“I can’t get it to swipe,” she says

“That’s what I said,” I remind her. “Not working.”

She shrugs, returning my malfunctioning card. “What do I do?” I ask. She motions toward the little swingy gate to the side, the one you don’t need a card to get through.

“Go on ahead,” she says.

“But what about my card?” A woman behind me, who clearly has been in my position, takes pity on me and does the operator’s job for her.

“Did you register it?” she asks.

My blank stare is all the answer she needs. She takes my card, turns it over and points to the back. She says something, but all I hear is “register” over the train blowing through the tunnel beneath our feet.

“Will I get my money back?” I shout, cutting to the heart of the matter.

She shrugs — clearly I am beyond help — and is gone.
I pass through the swingy gate and make my way down to the platform. The Shady Grove side is full. Way too full. People standing, looking annoyed, checking the time on their cell phones (remember when people wore watches for that?). Then I see why. The sign flashes the news in taunting red: Fire at Bethesda station. Single tracking from Friendship Heights to Grosvenor-Strathmore.

So I wait. And wait. When at last a train arrives, we all pile in, pushing the already cramped occupants further into the bowels of the beast. I am pushed in from behind, and once I cross the threshold the breath is snatched from my lungs — there is no air-conditioning. It feels 15 degrees hotter than it did on the platform, on a day when the mercury climbed to 86. I am shoved up against the back of a large man in a sopping, sweat-soaked shirt.

The train jerks forward, and we’re all thrown off balance. Sweat rains from every brow. Everyone labors to breath in the infernal air. One woman looks near to faint. “You okay?” I ask, and she nods lethargically. The train jerks and crawls and screeches to every stop, where more people pile in. Some can’t fit and are left behind, cursing on the platform.

At one stop (I don’t know which because I can’t see out the window), the doors stay open. Minutes tick by. We don’t move. Anger and frustration emanates from every face. At last, a garbled announcement blasts from the speakers: Sick passenger at Friendship Heights. We’ll be holding until the situation is “resolved.” If they don’t fix this air conditioning, I mutter, there are going to be some sick passengers here, me included.

After an indeterminate amount of time — probably minutes but it felt like hours — the train resumes its jittery crawl toward Shady Grove. Eventually, I make it home, and I realize that the tension of the commute actually exceeded that of my workday, something I would not have believed possible.

Still, I am thankful. My Aug. 25 commute, hot and long and uncomfortable as it was, was only the worst of the many difficult Metro rides I’ve had in recent months. But it was a pleasure cruise compared to the rush-hour commute of June 22, when one Red Line train collided with another near Fort Totten station, killing nine and injuring dozens. My trip was just one more disturbing glimpse into our deeply flawed transit system, a regime with so many problems that it is all too easy to see how such an accident could occur — and may yet again.

The writer is a National Review Institute Washington Fellow.

By washingtonpost.com editors  | September 18, 2009; 1:52 PM ET
 
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Comments

You have described perfectly why I am now driving to work.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | September 18, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

After the Red Line crash, I started taking the 79 Express MetroBus to work. It's cheaper, gets me closer to my work place than Metrorail does, and with the slowness on the Red Line, it took about as much time and far less hassle. If you're tired of Metrorail, check out bus alternatives. You might be surprised. You might even be pleasantly surprised.

Posted by: phred20910 | September 19, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

WashingtonDame and phred20910 are both right, but what went wrong? Metro's subway service seemed to function well -- or well enough -- during it's nascent 25 years, but suddenly the June Ft. Totten accident seems to have turned the system inside-out.

Suddenly there are huge crowds in the system's stations making it difficult for passengers to get on and off trains and there are numerous station escalators that never seem to be working.

My personal gripe -- besides the aforementioned is the signage. As the system has grown beyond the core of Dupont Circle and Friendship Heights out to Shady Grove and Glenmont, the points of reference have been obscured for us old-timers. In only a few stations is there signage that indicates that trains are going one or the other direction |via| MetroCenter or any other useful orientation point. If I'm headed home from an unfamiliar station, it may take a few moments to find a route map to determine which train is headed in what direction.

Somehow, subway systems in Europe are able to get train information, the time and information about anticipated delays onto narrow LED panels that hang throughout stations in London and Paris. But here in the Nation's Capital, we don't even get the time, once we get past the Station Manager's Octagon.

We're years behind and what we've seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg.

Posted by: vhparrow | September 22, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

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