Dr. Gridlock

Jan 27, 2014

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.

Welcome, travelers. The early questions are about some of last week's commuting issues and a look ahead on the Silver Line. Plus, there's an interesting question about slugging history.

I enjoyed watching the trains finally move on the Silver Line on a regular schedule Saturday night. Is there any news on if the line passed its test? Are we closer to a hand off date?

I haven't heard anything about the results of the weekend tests, though I had expected it would take a while to evaluate them.

Just so everybody knows, the weekend tests did not signal that the Silver Line is on the eve of opening to passengers.

Lori Aratani, who has been covering the airports authority and the Silver Line progress, wrote about it this way:

"Officials at MWAA, which is responsible for overseeing construction of the $5.6 billion rail line, said they expect to hand it [the Silver Line] over to Metro sometime in February. They had originally anticipated the project would be completed in September, but a series of delays and problems with software systems related to the automated train control system forced them to delay the hand-off. Once it takes control of the Silver Line, Metro has up to 90 days to conduct training and its own testing of the rail line."

I commute from the Pentagon to Union Station and I was appalled by how many problems there were on Wednesday. First, there was no sign of a yellow line train (they were predicting 15+ minutes, but who knows if a phantom train would come before then, they frequently do), so I took a blue. The blue had to stop at Arlington Cemetery for 5 minutes due to a disabled train in Rosslyn (with the doors open-- brr!), and then stopped for about 4-5 minutes between each stop throughout the city. When I finally got to a red, they had issues too. My commute is normally 15-20 minutes, but it took over an hour on Wednesday. Do we know what the cause of the problems were and how they will be fixed going forward?

It was a tough week for many Metro riders. Here's a link to the week in review I did on Friday.

Here's an excerpt about Wednesday:

"During Wednesday’s big chill, service on all lines was disrupted by track and train problems. The most common cause of delay was a brake problem. Out of 51 incidents logged by Metrorail on Wednesday, 22 were attributed to brake problems. Five trains had door problems. During the rush hours, most delays reported by Metro were under 10 minutes. But at 8:23 a.m., a Blue Line train experienced a brake problem and unloaded passengers at the Arlington Cemetery station, an outdoor platform, resulting in a 14-minute delay on the line.

"At 9:25 a.m., an Orange Line train was offloaded at McPherson Square (underground) because of a brake problem, and riders were delayed 24 minutes. At 4:12 p.m., passengers had to get off a Green Line train at College Park (outdoor platform) because of a door problem, resulting in an 18-minute delay."

I am reading a mystery novel set in DC during WW2, and our heroine mentions slug lines at the Pentagon. I thought slugging was more of a 1960s-1970s development, which a couple of articles I found on the internet seemed to confirm. Am I right that slugging does not have a place in this WW2 book? I'm also not sold on the use of the term "the Pentagon" in this story, but that's maybe an issue for John Kelly!

What's the name of the mystery? I've never heard of "slugging" before the existence of the HOV lanes on I-95/395 created the carpooling incentive three decades after World War II.

The best explanation I've heard for the term "slug" is the one on the slug-lines.com Web site.  The early carpoolers gathered at bus stops to await drivers who would pick them up before getting in the HOV lanes.

This annoyed bus drivers when they realized that they weren't real bus passengers, so they started using the term for counterfeit, a "slug."

Why do the electronic signs in the Metro system show an incoming train has 2 (rather than 6 or 8 cars)? This is very confusing, since of course there are no 2 car trains. We'd really like to know where to stand to get on the proper car that puts us closer to the escalator at our destination.

It's a problem with the electronic detection system that is supposed to identify the number of cars in the train and relay that to the Passenger Information Displays on the platforms.

Metro knows about this problem, but it sure has existed for an awfully long time. It isn't related to the train detection system that was the problem in the 2009 Red Line crash. But still, it's annoying when you're waiting on a platform and trying to figure out where you want to stand.

Commuters have this down to a science, knowing what car is going to match up with which escalator at the start and end of a trip.

I'm seeing more signs lately that say "[Picture of a bicycle] may use full lane."Are these signs just a way of calling attention to a law that already exists across the board? Or are there only certain places where this applies?

This is a good question, and while I'll tell you what my understanding is, we'd all benefit from comments offered by cyclists checking the chat.

My understanding is that our traffic laws allow cyclists to use the full lane as long as they are not impeding the flow of traffic and endangering themselves and others.

I know there are yellow and black signs advising cyclists and motorists that cyclists can use the full lane. I'm interested in what cyclists think about the advisability of doing this. I've seen such signs on Colesville Road, a major commuter route through Silver Spring, and wonder if I'd be brave enough to do that.

But I also understand that cyclists need to be visible to motorists, and that they can't afford to get crowded by cars. Many cyclists I've talked with have urged other bikes to "take the lane."

....and I avoid that car at all costs, as it tends to be the first one to get overly crowded. Also, since metro is blaming the cold for last week's SNAFU, should we go into tomorrow expecting the same?

I know what you mean about the crowding. If I'm waiting for a Green Line train toward Greenbelt during the afternoon rush, I'm probably going to wait toward the back of the platform. The first couple of cars will be quite crowded. Many of them are riders who will get off at Fort Totten to transfer to the Red Line, and they want to be close to the Fort Totten escalators and stairs.

I think this week's cold snap could create extra problems for Metro riders. There's always the possibility that extreme cold may crack a rail. It was the most likely caused of Thursday morning's broken rail.

Also, it seems that problems with track switches and locked up train brakes become more frequent during the extreme cold.

Besides the stress on the equipment, there's the stress on riders. There's not much protection on those outdoor platforms, and any extra wait is extra difficult.

Now that our recent sprinkling of snow has melted, we can see how much salt has been thrown on the roads, and it looks like D.C. is worse than the suburbs. Are there recommendations for how much should be used and under what conditions? What do they do in places like Boston and Buffalo? This stuff is bad for cars, pavements and water supplies. Is it effective, and do we use too much?

That was the biggest snowfall in four years. It was followed by extreme cold that created many dangerously icy patches. The highway departments have an obligation to treat those areas and keep travelers safe.

I do believe that the local departments have become more sensitive to the use of salt and other chemicals, but not to the point of putting people at risk.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is doing some innovating with its trucks so that the salt dispensers know when the truck is idling, so there's a cutback in the amount of salt going out. This avoids the very wasteful circumstance in which you will see little hill of salt at a stop sign or red light where a truck had to wait.

Still, the truck drivers are instructed to put extra salt and sand at spots -- upgrades, or places where ice may collect -- that are known to be hazardous.


One straightforward Q that deserves a straightforward Answer from Metro: Why aren't at least 50-70% of rush hour Blue line trains 8-car, if not all? In last week's 'fire' on Yellow line downtown, Metro told riders to take the Blue to VA (whereas normally it says to Blue riders 'take the Yellow' due to crowding on Blue). The every 12 minute, 6-car Blue trains are wholly inadequate on a regular day and were dangerously overcrowded in that specific instance. Where are our 8 car trains?

Metro doesn't have enough cars to do that. Probably not enough traction power at the moment, either. The capital program called "Metro 2525" would raise enough money for all-eight car trains on every line at rush hours.

There should be more eight-car trains on the Blue Line at rush hour because of the cutback in rush hour service.

With 20-30 minute waits for trains on all lines all weekend, why does metro even bother providing even this token service? Ridership can't be that high, as who would want to suffer through a 2 hour trip across the city? Couldn't they just close down on the weekends for a month or three and get all of this rebuilding work done instead of this insufferable nonsense we deal with now? Not that the rebuilding work would do much good anyway-- several years in, and the full blown meltdowns that hit the system are more frequent, and more egregious than ever.

I'm not sure how you're calculating that service problems are more egregious than ever. I'm not saying it isn't true. Just don't know how you'd figure it out. I'm sure you wouldn't go by Metro's statistics, which show improvements in rail reliability over the years.

Metro never seriously considered closing lines for long periods to rebuild them -- and they would be for long periods. You wouldn't rebuild the Red Line or the Orange Line with a few months of weekend shutdowns.

Meanwhile, the impact on the several hundred thousand people who use Metrorail on a Saturday or Sunday would have been intolerable.


Last Wednesday I took the Metro from West Falls Church to Capitol South; it single-tracked due to a dead train at Rosslyn and took two hours to get to work. On Thursday it took 11 minutes for a train to arrive at W Falls Church and the commute (from when I reached the gates of the station) was one hour. The train was packed like sardines, lurched to a stop several times at every station, and we nearly had to abandon the train due to door jams from overcrowding. Friday I rode my motorcycle to work, as I usually do. Commute time, door to door: 25 minutes. Who here takes the train every day and how often do you have delays/arrive late? Is it a viable and reliable way to get to work on time?

I'm not into transportation ideology. If driving to work via motorcycle works for you, you should do it.

Same goes for other commuters who are disstatisfied with Metro service. Metro should fix its service problems. But why should you suffer through them if you don't have to?

I heard some ads/reports claiming that the Silver Line was 99% complete. I find this statement to be misleading as it made NO mention of just the 1st phase of the project through Tysons. The project won't be 99% complete until it reaches Dulles. Either way, I do hope it reduces some traffic along I-66 as people have the option of getting on the new Silver Line when it opens instead of having to use I-66 and the Orange line.

Second phase of the Silver Line will go to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County. Phase 2 should be done in 2018.

Phase 1's western terminal is at Wiehle Avenue in the Reston area. There's a big parking garage, and many bus routes will be diverted to bring people to that station.

This has the potential to help traffic on I-66. In particular, it might ease that traffic choke point around the Vienna Metro station.

But I-66 needs its own long-term solution, something that the Virginia Department of Transportation is studying now.

I know you've answered this question many times before, but I am really interested in your perspective on this. My wedding date is 23 May 2014, and I need to book a block of hotels. I'm getting married right off of the Toll Road, and Tysons Corner is an ideal place to make these reservations. However, I also want to provide some transportation for my guests since the wedding isn't very metro accessible. In a perfect world, the Silver Line would be open so I could just shuttle both the hotel guests and Metro riders to the same drop-off location. Do you think the Metro would be open by then? Is it worth the gamble?

Yes, I think the Silver Line will be open by then, and no, it's not worth the gamble on me being right.  Metro hasn't committed to any target date, not even a tentative target. We're all just guessing based on how much time the testing is supposed to take. Meanwhile, the Fairfax Connector and Metrobus have not set target dates to realign their bus routes to serve the Silver Line stations.

A friend told me that she is often stopped in the HOV lane with her kids in car seats in the back. The officers can't see the kids and will stop her and verify there are actually kids in the car seats. One time, she even had to wake her daughter to show she was real. I think this is just one of the problems with the HOV rules. It is too easy for cars to use the HOV lanes without the required passengers and drivers are considered guilty until they can prove themselves innocent. I think the police should be required to hand the drivers $20 for a false stop. Either that or change the rules so the HOV lanes require passengers to be 16 and over (old enough to be driving themselves)

There are plenty of cheaters in the HOV lanes. Many legitimate carpoolers will be glad to hear that police are so active. They often tell me they rarely see police enforcing the rules.

I've heard from people who set up dummy passengers and get away with it.

Enforcing HOV rules has always been difficult. Police have a tough enough job without requiring them to check passengers' birth dates.

How many new metro cars have been ordered? Are there extras? Or are there just enough to replace the 1000 series and new cars for the silver line?

I think there's 64 to add capacity based on the addition of the Silver Line, then 300 more to replace the oldest cars in the fleet, the 1000 series. After that Metro plans to replace some of the other old cars.

Right now, there's no solid financial commitment to adding capacity and getting us to all-eight-car trains at rush hours.

I just looked at the DC laws and the "impede traffic" prohibition applies only to cyclists riding two abreast, i.e., such cyslists must move into a single file if they are impeding normal flow of traffic. For single cyclists, there is no such requirement. Under DC law, cyclists are required to ride as far to the right as practicable, except on one way streets, where they are suppose to ride as far to the left as practicable (who knows that last requirement, and observes it?). There is an exception where the lane is 11 feet wide or less; then the cyclist can ride in the middle of the lane. Perhaps the signs the earlier poster mentioned have been placed in areas of narrow lanes.


I can tell you that the type of lane sign described by the earlier poster appear on some Maryland roadways.

"Same goes for other commuters who are disstatisfied with Metro service. Metro should fix its service problems. But why should you suffer through them if you don't have to?" I kinda have to suffer because I can't afford to pay $20+/- a day for parking...

I think your explanation that the under the law "cyclists to use the full lane as long as they are not impeding the flow of traffic and endangering themselves and others" is generally correct, as is the advice to "take the lane" wherever appropriate. This means that there is no hard and fast rule so that what might work for a two lane highway will not be the same as on a multi-lane city boulevard. To the extent that a bike is using a lane, however, cars must give way and change lanes when it becomes safe to do so. On my bike commute south on Connecticut Ave. NW each day, for instance, I generally go close to the speed limit with the four lanes of southbound traffic. I certainly "take the lane" because it's the only possible way to get to work alive (I'm travelling 20 to 30 mph most of the time downhill and take a different route home), and that's also what the traffic laws call for. There's no way to pull that off with a car and a bike in the same lane. DC law is that I am to take the "right half" of the lane, which is what I do. It allows me to "take the lane" and provides room for a faster cyclist to pass me. Bikes are vehicles and need to follow the law (cue the comments about bikes not following the law and the ones about cars and pedestrians not following the law) and be treated as occupying a lane in the same way a car does. That means there is usually no safe way for a car to occupy the same lane as the bike.

Many drivers can't see the street the way a cyclist does. A cyclist has to worry about car doors opening just ahead, about drivers making quick right turns without signaling or looking for cyclists. A cyclist has to worry about potholes that might mean little to a motorist.

And what a metal-encased motorist considers a safe passing distance may look like a very close call to the more vulnerable cyclist.

A friend often drives with his kids in the HOV lane. Whenever he sees a police officer, he tells his kids "wave at the friendly police officer". Since the kids are waving, they officer sees them and doesn't stop the car. Yes, doesn't work well for sleeping kids.

To the poster who was upset about being pulled over for a suspected HOV violator, I'd rather have a live stop than be sent a ticket in the mail, and have to prove my innocence based on a still picture. That is the way HOV enforcement is being done on the west coast and in places in Europe.

I don't have kids, so I don't have a dog in this fight. But I think saying kids don't count towards HOV is a bad idea and I think it's unworkable. How do you account for people who are old enough to be driving but who, for whatever reason, don't? For example, both of my grandmothers are long gone by now, but when they were alive, neither of them drove (I don't remember why, but I understand this wasn't unusual in their generation). How is a cop to judge which car contains adults who drive and which contains adults who don't? Setting that aside, who is to say an adult driving kids isn't taking cars off the road? When I was a kid, for example, my mom and some of the other moms used to take turns driving us all to soccer practice or to Cub Scouts or whatever. That absolutely took cars off the road. Say you have a Boy Scout trip to DC and you have six cars, each with a father and three Scouts. Isn't that better than having eighteen parents each driving just one kid separately? Same principle applies to, say, a school bus. None of the kids on the bus can drive unless it's a high school field trip, but is anyone seriously going to say the school bus shouldn't be allowed in the HOV lanes?

I think the key thing on this is the simple enforcement issue. If all passengers had to be a certain age, or be licensed drivers, it would just make the enforcement task impossible for the officers who would have to check everybody's papers -- something I don't like on general principle anyway.

Hi Dr. G, I know you say that the Trip Planner should be adjusted for weekend track work but my experience is that it really isn't. And because Metro doesn't provide details on track work anymore you can't know how accurate its going to be or not be. It gets close but no cigar. And really sets up false promises. I was trying to get from Dunn Loring to Archive on MLK weekend (Saturday). Metro told me that if I got on the 11:57 train I should be at Archive at 12:35. With a transfer at L'Enfant at 12:33. It also warned me that trains were running every 20 minutes on the Orange Line (and this is done to spread trains out enough to avoid backups). I got on the train at 11:56. We got all the way to Ballston and then we sat at every station through Courthouse for at least 2 minutes because they were single tracking at Rosslyn. I knew there was track work, I had no idea it was track work at Rosslyn. Had I know I would have know the trip planner was wrong and planned accordingly (i.e. driven into the city). I gave up at Metro Center and walked (something I was trying to avoid because it was so windy and cold). I got off at Metro Center at 12:33. So the trip planner was at over 10 minutes off (I was supposed to arrive at L'Enfant at 12:27 to make the connection and the train still had 3 stations to go). Metro needs to learn how to sweat the details. It's what causes us to have confidence and trust them...or not.

I've also had the experience of waiting a lot longer for a weekend train than the Trip Planner said I should. Of course, I've had that experience on weekdays, as well, but the impact is usually greater on weekends because there are fewer trains running.

The weekend advisories that Metro puts out each week always say where the work is going to be. Here's a link to the Metro advisory about this coming weekend's work.

Under the system for weekend work that Metro began using last year, the placement of the work zone shouldn't matter. The trains are spaced out so that they won't back up waiting to take their turns through the single-tracking area.

Now, if a train has a brake or door problem, or there's a stuck switch, that's going to through off the weekend schedule -- just as it does the weekday schedules.

I think this is a better system than the one Metro started out with, back when the intensive program of weekend work began. But it still won't account for problems on the lines, and people still may wind up having very long trips -- especially when they have to transfer between lines to complete those trips.

I have to concur with the previous poster about overdoing the salt. The material does work, but once the roads are clear, there should not be continuous application days after the event. Aside from spot application, there shouldn't have been a salt truck on the road for the past 4-5 days, yet there they were Sunday morning putting down more, including brine trucks applying saltwater to a road already covered in a quarter inch of dry salt. I think it's the fact there has been so little snow in the past 3 years that there's a huge surplus of material, and the agencies are dying to use up what they've had in salt domes for the past 36 months.

I read a while ago about a mom who, when she has her kids riding with her in the HOV lanes and is being followed by a police officer, will have the kids raise their hands and wiggle their fingers. The officer sees the kids and doesn't need to stop mom for an HOV violation.

Seems like a common strategy from experienced commuters.

If one common theme permeates all traffic and transit-rated discussions in this region, it typically boils down to a lack of alternatives. If a Metro line breaks down, or if Metro wanted to reconstruct an entire line over the span of a year, it couldn't because there is no other alternative (say like New York, Boston, or Chicago with multiple parallel lines). If someone hates driving on I-270 or just can't stand driving across the American Legion Bridge, they're out of luck, because there just aren't any viable alternatives. If there's anything this region needs more than a $3+ billion subway extension or $1+ billion road widening project, it has to be a more comprehensive system of parallel roads that offer drivers and commuters alternatives. In most cases, people maybe have two, if you're lucky, ways to get from their house to their job. Every other major metropolitan area with more than 6 million people, people typically have half a dozen or more parallel routes. The only place where we have that here is between DC and Baltimore, where I-95, BW Parkway, 29, and route 1 parallel between the cities, but even that is not enough sometimes. Other places like I-66, I-95 south of DC, and I-270, it's slugging along an overcrowded highway or stopping and starting along an overcrowded local route with traffic lights and locals. Urban planners need to start to create redundant commuting networks, BEFORE building high rises and extensions to existing infrastructure.

When I talk to transportation planners about what's likely to happen in the next 30 years, they rarely talk about parallel roads for anywhere in the region. They're most likely to say they don't have the land for that -- or the money to buy the land.

They're more likely to talk about intensified development around transit and making more efficient use of the road network we have already. That could mean rebuilding interchanges or using technology to make lane use more efficient, or creating rapid bus service along existing roadways.

There are many more exceptions to the "bike to the right" rule than noted by the poster above that the exceptions largely swallow the rule, including the catch all "when necessary for the bicyclist's safety." DC has the rules on pages 6 and 7 of this pamphlet. http://www.dc.gov/DC/DDOT/Publication%20Files/On%20Your%20Street/Bicycles%20and%20Pedestrians/Bicycles/Bicycle%20Laws/Pocket_Bike_Law_Guide.pdf

Thanks, and I can add this link to a very helpful Web page provided by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. It summarizes cycling laws in the three major jurisdictions. The site also has many other educational resources for cyclists and motorists.

Thanks for joining me today. I've got to break away now for an assignment.

Next Monday at noon, I hope to have Metro General Manager Richard Sarles as my guest to take your questions on the proposed Metro fare and fee increases, the transit budget and the long-term plans for service improvements. We could talk about those eight-car trains.

In This Chat
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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