Dr. Gridlock

Jun 03, 2013

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Did anybody get to work on time today? Metro had problems on all the lines, and many highways and streets across the D.C. had extra heavy traffic -- unusual for a Monday morning, when traffic tends to be lighter.

Some people felt bruised by the weekend travel conditions, so I'm going to start there and more forward.

I recognize major track work has to be done sometime. But who authorized ZERO extra trains at Stadium-Armory after the USA/Germany friendly Sunday afternoon? Sending less than 6 trains an hour back into the city after a game attended by 47,000 is inexcusable, and the responsible parties should be punished for creating a dangerous situation at the station (in addition to extra delays and crowding throughout the system).

At the moment, this is a guess on my part, but I think the problem for the fans starts with the fact that Metro's weekend work involved a segment of the Blue and Orange lines that was bound to affect them directly.

The Blue Line trains were sharing a track between Stadium-Armory and Addison Road. The Orange Line trains were sharing a track between Stadium-Armory and Cheverly.

That was going to limit the number of trains that could go through that area.

Metro sometimes limits work because of events, but not very often, and not in this case.

The next comment broadens the issue.

This is getting crazy, and outrageous, and something has to be done. Thousands of people stranded at RFK Stadium thanks to unacceptable 22-minute headways. Track problems on EVERY line this morning. Offloads galore. Nothing is changing. Nothing is improving. The system is steadily getting worse and Metro doesn't seem to understand that their charter is to move PEOPLE, not equipment. How do we advocate for change? How do we light a fire under their collective asses? How do we hold anyone accountable under the current structure of the WMATA charter? I am about ready to move out of this city. I refuse to live in a place that requires me to have a car because of inadequate public transportation. I didn't think DC was one of them, but the longer I'm here...

In last Thursday's column, I addressed the concerns of a Nats fan who got caught in an Orange Line disruption after a Friday night game in early May.

So, I'm going to be quoting myself here to take you back to how we got into the present situation on Metro repairs:

The debate, such as it was, over Metro’s weekend track work program occurred in 2011. In the first half of the year, Metro managers outlined their plans for an increasingly aggressive approach to rehabilitating a deteriorating system.

They described plans to make station closings a more frequent part of the weekend rebuilding activities. They did not want to shut down entire lines, but they did consider ending the night-owl service Fridays and Saturdays to speed up the rebuilding.

That was rejected, although other basic elements of the plan remain in place, including the weekend combinations of station shutdowns on some lines and track-sharing around other work zones. Extended disruptions on long holiday weekends became a regular part of the program, as they were over Memorial Day weekend.

The blackout dates with no service disruptions were to be very limited: for the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving weekend, demonstrations and “select events,” and the December holidays.

Although there wasn’t a great deal of public discussion in 2011, riders have been howling ever since. But Metro has stuck with the program, rarely altering its track work schedule because of events likely to draw big crowds. In the nation’s capital, Metro managers say, there’s always a big crowd for something — sometimes for several somethings at once.

Now, back to the commenter's question: I see very, very little public pressure being applied to the Metro board to change the work schedule. Anybody who does advocate that should also suggest what they'd like to see instead.

Should Metro stop the weekend work? Should Metro slow it down? Should Metro decide to fix some things and not others? Should Metro close a line for an extended period of time (okay, not "a line," how about YOUR line?).

 

Do you believe that the area around the Wiehle Ave. Metro Station at the end of Silver Line Phase 1 is ready for the increase in traffic?

I think there will be a lot of traffic heading for the parking area on the north side of the Dulles Toll Road, but am not sure how it's going to work out. The Fairfax Connector is diverting some of its bus routes to bring people to the station, so that may ease some of the traffic.

On the other hand, people won't be familiar with the station set up at first, and that will cause some congestion. On the third hand, the traffic on the Dulles Toll Road at Wiehle Ave. isn't the same as the traffic on I-66 East at Vienna.

What's your opinion?

Is it more or is it just getting more difficult to get into DC from MD and VA? Beltway in MD and VA closed for periods, Metro ldelays on every line, MARC trains held up outside Union Station. Does one event trigger multiple events in other commuting options?

We've had quite a few incidents on both the roads and rails lately. That happens periodically.

Doesn't make it any easier, but it doesn't tell us much about the long-term.

Any chance that VA will continue widening I-95 South beginning at Occoquan bridge where they stopped previously?

I don't see it happening. The project you're getting on I-95 is the creation of the 95 Express Lanes, supported by the financing from the private partnership, which will then recoup its money by charging tolls.

I'm not talking about if you should buy a car or not. I'm saying if you have plans on the weekend, or a weeknight, why would you ever, if you have a choice, take metro? We stopped using it for Nats games last year because of the massive delays. I honestly prefer the 4 block or so leisurely walk back to the parking lot after a game and then listen to post game on the radio as we wait for the very slight traffic backup clears to get on to 395. Why in the world would I ever take metro? they have made it prohibitive outside of commuting for work.

I'm not sure people caught up in this morning's delays would say it's good for commuting to work.

But look, if you can't think of a good reason to take Metro on weekends, that's a pretty good indication that you shouldn't take Metro on weekends.

Many people feel that way. Just don't avoid Metro on weekends because you think Metro officials are going to be really upset that you've abandoned them. I don't see any sign of that.

 

The message I heard multiple times after delay notices was "We regret the inconvenience and thank you for riding Metro." ... NOT "We regret any inconvenience and hope to have the situation resolved as soon as possible." So at least the language was slightly better. Doesn't help much, though.

Somebody posted the following query in response to Dana Hedgpeth's blog entry today about the various Metrorail "rigamarole" this morning and I thought the writer makes a pretty good point. Ms. Hedgpeth hasn't responded, so I'm wondering if maybe you know the answer? Quote: "Dr. Gridlock, a question I've been meaning to ask: When a door is a problem, why does Metro take the entire train out of service? Why not just close off that one car with the problem door and continue with the remaining cars, esp. during rush hour?? Often we see one 'dark car' (and never know why) - so why not for a door problem? Thanks."

Yes, that's a good question. I don't know the answer. But you're saying that's Metro's policy, or that you've seen it happen?

I've certainly seen cars darkened and isolated.

While not happy to start my day with the delays on the red line, I have to give metro credit for fully advising me of the problem before I entered the station [Grovesnor]. They had signs re significant delays taped to the fare gates and the flatscreen display had information about the single tracking. Additionally, there were several metro workers on the platform letting riders know how many trains were coming (since they were being sent in groups in one direction, and then groups in the other direction)

You don't want the delays in the first place, but we've talked for years about Metro's problems communicating with riders in stations -- or just outside of them -- during emergencies, so this is a welcome report.

For the scheduled disruptions on weekends, Metro has taken some steps I like: The online Trip Planner now is updated on Fridays to include the weekend work. So if you ask how to get from one station to another, the electronic response is going to tell you how long the bus bridge will add, or how much extra time the single-tracking will add.

For a long time, Trip Planner didn't do that, and I complained that Metro needed to fix it, since transit officials knew things would be like this on weekends for years to come. So I want to acknowledge the improvement in rider communications.

Who else was late for work this morning because of Metro? Raise your hands! Anyone else have time to read this article while stuck on a crowded train with backpacks and bodies banging you in the head? Listening to unintelligible announcements from the operator about the delays? Bonuses? They're getting bonuses while I can't get to work on time because of the (ongoing) shoddy service? Good doctor, can you please ask Sarles how he justifies this?

Sarles doesn't set his own salary. The Metro board does. And the Metro board members have gushed publicly about what a great job they think he's doing. If you think he's doing a bad job, it's the Metro board you should hold accountable for it. The board has extended his contract to 2016.

Dr. G, since the WW bridge/Telegraph Rd project was completed, it seemed to be working fantastically well....except that for the last couple of weeks, evening rush hour traffic into Maryland in the express lanes seems to back up to Telegraph Rd. almost daily. Is something systematic causing this, or just random events?

I don't know of any road work that should be causing that.

One possibility is that you're seeing higher long-distance traffic as we move into the summer travel season. But is there a Beltway driver who's noticed a particular issue on the Maryland side of the Wilson Bridge? (Seems that's where the problem would have to be if traffic is congested into MD on the THRU lanes.)

Is there any explanation for why DC 295 South and I 295 North have worse/slower/denser morning traffic than ever since the 695 connector opened a few months ago? Is there a remaining component of 695 yet to be finished? More volume using this route?

There's definitely an important element yet to be opened and it's causing problems on the bridge, DC 295 South and I295 North: Completion of construction on the Navy Yard/Capitol Hill side in summer 2014 will add an inbound through lane. So at that point, you will see less weaving on the inbound span, which is the key element in the current congestion.

Two possible reasons why Metro doesn't isolate one car with failed doors in a train. (1) There are no Metro employees available to clear out the car and adjust things so that the doors on that car stay closed for the rest of the run. (I bet the driver is not allowed to get out of the cab.) (2) The entire trainload of people "has" to be punished, just like a whole classroom of elementary school kids "has" to be punished because a couple of them got into a fight during recess.

I think the train operators can get out of the cab. Some examples: The operator gets out onto the tracks to check for damage if the train loses power or gets hit by a tree limb. The operator can isolate a car if the air conditioner breaks down.

I agree that it must be Metro's policy to take an entire train out of service due to a single door problem. I was on an 8-car train a month or two back where the operator discovered the problem after leaving Foggy Bottom, and identified the particular car with the problem. Even though it was only one door on one car, he then off loaded a crush load train at the next stop, Roslyn where the platform was already packed. A very bad situation.

Some of you may recall the incident about a year ago when Metro closed off a Red Line car because a door was opening when it shouldn't. Then a door opened on the adjacent car.

We've lived in the District for four months and have used our car just three times. We take the Metro across town every weekend, including both Saturday night and Sunday this week. Yes, there are delays and inconveniences. Yes, riding the shuttle bus was hot and crowded. Yes, we're frustrated with non-working escalators. But it seems to us reasonably prices and fairly efficient at moving large numbers of people to many locations over considerable distances, We know most will say we just haven't endured it long enough yet, and we respect their feelings. To us it's a part of living not just in D.C., but in any urban area. We just hope improvements are truly being made as a result of rider inconvenience.

I think that's a good case. Just as I say Metro needs to upgrade its communications with riders because it knows the weekends will be disrupted for years to come, riders need to play this the same way: They also know the system will be disrupted on weekends for years to come, so they owe it to themselves to check the weekend schedule to see where the delays are.

But I'd also like to expand on the point "Lone Voice" is making at the end: We don't really know how all this rebuilding work is goingto come out. We haven't seen anything like this. Will the rail system actually work to the satisfaction of most riders? We don't know that, and I'd take any positive assertion with a grain of salt.

Dr. Gridlock: Who needs to look at the date to know it's summer when you can just take Metro and come across a car with the heat on. This just happened on the first hot day after Memorial Day, the Metro train I boarded had the heat on. I've reported these to Metro in the past, but is Metro doing anything to detect this on its own?

I know Metro employees discover and report hot cars. I've seen them do it.

Having the heat on in a car at this time of year would be downright dangerous, and I hope a rider would report such a thing to the train operator right away -- then get out of that car at the next station.

We're approaching the season when riders will noticed busted air conditioners. Metro should have air conditioners that work, but when they don't riders can do a lot to help fellow passengers by reporting those cars to the operators.

Has Metro worked out the logistics of keeping Orange and Silver Line trains out of each other's way at the future transfer point at East Falls Church? Rosslyn is already enough of a choke point on my way into DC from Vienna.

I think there won't be a schedule problem at East Falls Church. At Rosslyn, you will add the Blue Line, for the maximum number of trains per hour going into the tunnel under the Potomac.

At East Falls Church, it will be the Orange and Silver coming together, and some of today's Orange Line trains from Vienna will be switched over to become Silver Line trains from Wiehle Avenue. So I don't see an immediate problem at the East Falls Church junction.

Considering the chaos on Metro every weekend, why not shut down the entire system from Friday night to Monday morning and accelerate the work?

That was never given any serious consideration back in 2011. I'm not sure if it was wrong or right, but certainly, the business and entertainment industries would have been adamantly opposed to it. Given that the intensive level of weekend work will last about a half dozen years, counting from 2011, how many years without weekend service would it have been if we had full shutdowns. Maybe two? I doubt you'd find much support for that across the region.

I think Metro should shut down one line for a specific period of time. It's the inconsistency that is the problem. If I knew for example, the Red Line (which I take on a regular basis) was shut down for 4 weeks -- I'd make alternative arrangements for the entire time to get where I need to go, when I need to get there. It would be difficult, but not unmanageable. But the way Metro goes about the repairs, I never know if or when I'll get to work or, if or when I'll get home -- or whether I'll have long waits, long walks or need to figure out bus schedules on the fly or pay for a cab. .

I don't have an estimate on how long it would take to rebuild the Red Line with a full shutdown, but I think it's a pretty safe bet to say we'd be talking way more than four weeks.

Just guessing here, but I think six months to a year would be more like it, and that's assuming Metro had all the money for this in advance, so it could order all the material that would be needed and schedule the staff so that the work could be done efficiently.

Now, it's possible to argue that this would have been a better way to go, and there was no serious debate in 2011 about whether it was a better way to go. But I really doubt there'd be widespread support for closing the Red Line, Metro's busiest, or any other line for months.

I'll second the comment about the Beltway, though I have no idea of the cause. I use Van Dorn Street north towards Alexandria most afternoons and for several years I could see it was clear sailing on the Beltway and I marveled at how the Wilson Bridge project had uncorked such a longstanding bottleneck. For about the past month or so, it's been back to the old way, Outer Loop at a near-standstill. I don't get on the Beltway there, so all I see is the slow traffic. But what I wonder is whether those of you who DO use the Beltway have observed whether a lot of the traffic is trying to funnel into the lanes marked "THRU" to Baltimore. The other lanes marked "LOCAL" to Alexandria will also take you across the bridge, but I wonder how many people, especially summertime vacationers, don't know this and panic because they think they have to get over to the left when in fact they could just stay where they are?

I think there's some of that out-of-towner confusion, but out-of-towners tend to be more cautious going through unfamiliar areas. They go slower and study the signs better.

(I also notice that during the morning rush, there's very slow traffic on the inner loop on the Maryland side approaching the Wilson Bridge, but it's gone by the time drivers reach the bridge. So I've been thinking that's a problem with traffic getting to I-295 North. What do you think?)

I've noticed that the inner loop over the WW bridge is backed up almost as badly as it was pre-expansion now. I drive in the morning from VA into MD via the WW bridge, so I'm unaffected, but I feel for those on the inner loop, whether they're in the local or thru lanes. Both are equally bad. Have just noticed this over the last few months. You may be right about the time of year...

I hadn't seen this comment when I posted my previous. It looked to me like the inner loop traffic was heaviest on the MD side, then dissipated as drivers went across the bridge, but I'm basing this on the traffic maps and camera views from 7:45 to 8:15 a.m., not on regular driving of this route.

I think a challenge is that the standard social problem: everybody assumes somebody else has already complained, thus there's no reason.

Yes, I think there's something to it, but layer onto that a reluctance to use the intercom to contact the train operator. I don't understand it, but I've seen it on hot cars. Not only will some people sit in the hot car rather than move, but also, they won't go to the intercom and tell the operator.

I want to talk about the problems with moving people I support the plans to rebuild the system and make it safer, and I generally understand when they have to do the work that they have to do it (though I wish it would get done faster like all the projects around here which seem to NEVER have anyone working). But what is so worrisome about the system after the Germany-U.S. game and with these mornings is that Metro does a TERRIBLE job of communicating with people. I am sure that large numbers of people were encouraged to ride Metro to the game. Metro staff then let the platform become overcrowded after the game, as they did this morning on the Red Line. Plus, when they say that you have to add 20-30 minutes, that's 20-30 minutes for the trains, if you can get on them. It's the communication again, which is vital to moving people. To it's credit, Metro does pretty well with the crowds after the Nats games, keeping people on the platform space and restricting access to head downstairs if it is overcrowded, so Metro can communicate with people if it has to. But why is it that with a big event like the U.S.-Germany game or in this situation like this morning that Metro can't get it's employees to put in place a plan to move PEOPLE through?

Metro generally does a good job with platform safety. The Navy Yard station is the best example. When the disruption is widespread, the results are less satisfying. People may have better experiences with some stations than others. You'll notice that a rider commented earlier about a better experience today with Metro communication.

 

Also, re: the hot car reporting, I think many riders - and I'm one of them - are afraid that if we report a hot car it might cause the entire train to go out of service for the reasons previously mentioned.

I haven't experienced that after reporting hot cars. I have seen hot cars sealed off and the trains continue in service.

"Sarles doesn't set his own salary. The Metro board does. And the Metro board members have gushed publicly about what a great job they think he's doing. If you think he's doing a bad job, it's the Metro board you should hold accountable for it." This is all absolutely true. BUT: *how* can we hold the board accountable? They're appointed, not elected, and by four different authorities (DC mayor, VA/MD governors, Feds). There's no single point of accountability in the entire system. And even if say, we successfully lobbied Mayor Gray to replace Muriel Bowser on the Board (a boy can dream, right?), how does that help with the other 7 deadweights?

This is one of several comments about Metro accountability. It's very, very difficult for riders to hold the board accountable. The board members are accountable to whoever or whatever entity appointed them. Might be a governor, a mayor or a council. There's no single place to focus a lobbying effort.

Travelers, that's all we have time for today, but we'll be back next Monday. Please stay safe out there, and rejoin us.

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Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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