Dr. Gridlock discusses Rush Plus

Jun 18, 2012

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

Welcome, travelers. I've just come off the first morning's experience with Metro's new Rush Plus service, and I see some questions and comments already about the new service. But bring on all your local travel questions. We talk about all sorts of things.

Last week, one traveler asked about who mows the grass where the Beltway meets Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda. David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, looked into that for us last Monday, and said the grass was scheduled to be mowed within the week, so it's likely done by now.

But let's get started with some of those Rush Plus issues.

Me: Franconia-Springfield to Judiciary Square. I'm interested in the dynamics of Rosslyn station. I don't understand why the platform would be more crowded today heading downtown, as there are the same/more trains going that way (fewer Blues, more Oranges). So, I gather the day's losers are those that transfer from Orange to Blue in direction of Pentagon (and points south). They can continue on to L'Enfant Plaza and transfer to YL southbound (which there are now more of). A lot more stops along the way but probably a shorter transfer delay. Is waiting for Blue line southbound at Rosslyn still quickest route?

A few thoughts on this, but I'd love to hear from other riders about the morning's experience.

First, I spent only a few minutes stadding on the Rosslyn platform this morning, about 8:05 a.m. At that time, the inbound platform did not seem particularly crowded -- I mean, for Rosslyn on a weekday morning.

Riders will need to experiment with these changes and figure out what's best for them, whether to stay aboard their train or transfer.

But this is difficult for the riders you describe, the ones transfering from the Orange to Blue to reach Pentagon.

To see the next train display on the platform, they've got to get off the train.

Any chance Metro will abandon this stupid plan and go back to "normal"? Or are we just stuck with this awful mess forever?

It's hard to imagine the circumstances under which Metro would abandon Rush Plus. There would still be the two basic issues: How to clear room in the Rosslyn tunnel for the eventual arrival of Silver Line trains, and how to add service in the central corridor of DC, where more people are living and working.

In any case, Metro certainly isn't going to scrap four years of planning based on one morning's experience.

I left earlier than I usually do, anticipating RushPlus headaches and Blue line trains were a LOT more crowded starting at Pentagon City. The Blue Crush is coming.

That may be. And it certainly was very crowded this morning.

Other possibilities: Some riders may figure out they're better off switching to those Yellow Line trains and transfering at L'Enfant Plaza or Gallery Place, depending on their destinations. Bet some riders are trading ideas with their coworkers right now.

Or Blue Line riders might learn this new pattern of two trains six minutes apart followed by a 12 minute gap, and adjust their arrival times at the stations. Or Metro could fix the platform display signs so riders always have the information they need to make decisions.

Why do roads in certain areas of DC like 295, 395, and Pennsylvania Ave SE use photo enforcement while roads in more affluent areas like Rock Creek Parkway, Mass Ave NW, Independence Ave SW and Whitehurst do not?

You can see the full list of DC speed camera locations here: http://1.usa.gov/bfeXde

Looks to me like they spread the pain around pretty well.


(The link should work now)

It seems like Rush Plus may alleviate the Orange Crush, but based on day one, is also creating a Blue Crush as trains were much more crowded. Thoughts?

That's possible. But I can't come to that conclusion based on one morning. When I look at road projects, where change comes more often in the DC region than on transit, I see that even when the finished project is a real improvement, it doesn't show up right away because it takes drivers a few weeks to adjust their habits to new conditions.

It's possible the same could prove true on the Blue Line. But for that to happen, Metro needs to fix the platform signs and get more personnel on the Blue Line platforms to offer useful information.

I get on the train at Huntington. I was 15-minutes late to work. The train stopped 6 times before it pulled into King Street. I give Rush plus an "F" for its first moring. I am terrified of what is going to happen this afternoon.

I'll tell you one thing I've been worried about with the new system -- but have no information on whether it was a factor this morning:

Metro controllers should have a somewhat easier time with the Blue/Orange switch leading into Rosslyn. But they may have a more difficult time under Rush Plus with the Yellow/Green switch leading into L'Enfant Plaza, because there are now more Yellow Line trains going that way.

There were some of the usual train-delay problems this morning, but it's hard to figure whether they account for experiences on the inbound Yellow and Blue trains: Metro said a southbound Yellow Line train had a door problem and was offloaded at Pentagon at 8:04 a.m. (nine
minute delay), and an eastbound Orange Line train was delayed four minutes at Federal Triangle because of  a medical emergency aboard the train.

if I had continuous cell phone service I could easily pull up the next train times ahead of a station and determine whether I should get off to transfer or stay on. Until then, I'm in total silence from Ballston to Rosslyn.

The gaps in coverage frustrate a lot of people, including me. This morning, for example, I was trying to send out some Twitter messages about what I was seeing, and sometimes they wouldn't go through. Just south of L'Enfant Plaza was one example. Service also was spotty just standing at the Court House platform.

OK, so day one appears to be a failure. From Ballston to Rosslyn between 7:30 and 8 trains were farther apart than usual. And it appears that the trains that used to run from West Falls Church to Stadium have been eliminated which means much more crowded trains through Arlington, which is a huge minus. And we still had to "hold" for a couple of minutes at Courthouse for no apparent reason. From Rosslyn to King Street the blue train wait was typical. But ultimately 10 minutes were added to my trip. Rush plus = massive fail for me.

I have some criticisms about this first morning -- particularly about Metro communications issues -- but nothing I saw made me think this new service pattern was a failure.

First off, it's just hard to assess, based on any of our individual experiences. Five minutes earlier or later, and the experience could have been very different.

When I was watching trains pass by at Court House from 8:15 on, for about 20 minutes or so, I saw a string of relatively uncrowded trains -- definitely not an Orange Crush -- followed by some pretty full trains, then more relatively uncrowded trains. (The frequency of trains at that point seemed pretty good.)

Even on individual trains, I could see that the first few cars would be relatively spacious, while the last couple would be crowded. (It was odd how consistent that was.)

Every day, there is an annoying backup between exits 64 and 60 on Interstate 66 Westbound. There's never an accident, and the only explanation I can come up with is driver stupidity. Is there a reason for this? Because it doesn't even matter if I'm in the HOV lane, I always have to slow down. Anyway, it's just rather frustrating.

We're talking about the area west of the Beltway, right? I think that's just a question of high volume. But other readers might have spotted something else.

Last week, I had a real slow time on outbound 66 at midday just east of  Route 267, because of road work along the left lane on 267 that had an effect for miles.

So, I got to the Eastern Market Station at 8:15 this morning. The platform was packed. The sign announced three Orange line trains were on the way - all 6 cars - one to West Falls Chursch, then two to Vienna. I let the first packed train pass. I let the second packed train pass. I squeezed onto the third packed train. Yay Metro! Thanks for making my commute miserable!

There's nothing about Rush Plus that eliminates train breakdowns and sick passengers and the other things that have slowed service for years.

That's among the reasons it's difficult to assess the long-term impact of Rush Plus from just one morning's experience.

(This isn't to say, Don't worry, things will get better. I'm just saying we don't really know yet.)

Is it possible that the complaints thus far were a tad overstated? Rushplus was supposed to ease congestion on some lines, not totally get rid of it. It's still rush hour... platforms and trains will be crowded. I don't know if metro's information blitz the last few weeks led some to have unrealistic expectations, but let's be honest there too--the information blitz was the right thing to do and had metro NOT done it, they would be skewered by the Twitterverse just as hard.

Include me in. I would have stuck it to them if they hadn't done the info blitz, including getting those new maps on the trains in time for people to check them out, and including handing out all those brochures.

But I've never, ever encountered a transportation change -- roads or rails -- where commuters understood exactly what they were getting themselves into, no matter how extensive the advance publicity.

Example: The Blue Line rider I talked to who was heading from King St. to Rosslyn knew that the Blue Line trains would be spaced 6-6-12. He was well informed and had read some of the stories about Rush Plus.

During our ride, he asked me about how many new destinations the Blue Line trains have under Rush Plus. But Blue Line destinations haven't changed. Blue Line is still Franconia-Springfield/Largo Town Center.

It seems that with less Blue trains/extended service on the end to Largo, that Orange trains will just see increased crowds. Did Metro see this happening?

Yes. That's why Metro is running the Rush Plus Orange Line trains between Vienna and Largo. There aren't any fewer trains serving Largo.

And there aren't any fewer trains going through the crowded center of DC on the east-west route.

This morning at Eisenhower station, a train displayed its destination as Reagan National Airport instead of Mt. Vernon. Weird mistake, or Rush + effect?

Can't explain that one. Definitely not part of the Rush Plus plan.

Dr Gridlock, What is DC's parking ticket rules for Sunday? I parked at a meter about a 10 minute walk from the Nats Stadium. The meter said no payment was required on Sunday, and when I came back every single car on the block had a ticket. There was no sign saying about a change in the rules or any other specific notification for this time. I plan on protesting the ticket, but is there anything else we can do?

You should definitely protest the ticket. But I am very, very surprised to hear there's parking 10 minutes from Nats Park that's free on a game day. That should be an area covered by the performance-based parking plan set up before the stadium opened.

...occurs outbound toward Vienna in the afternoon rush, when trains often queue up west of Dunn Loring, waiting to approach the Vienna station. With more trains heading toward Vienna during the PM "Rush Plus", has Metro taken any steps to keep the trains moving into and out of the Vienna station in an efficient manner?

We'll see this afternoon, but I haven't heard anything about a plan that would prevent trains from bunching near any turnback point or terminal.

I'm one of those folks benefitting from the yellow line trains at Franconia-Springfield. Service during the 7:16 am train was generally good, although we stopped a few times between Cristal City and L'Enfant. I'm hopeful that was just a hiccup and will disappear over time. I have seen a lot of people complain about the reduced service in the blue line in this chat, and wanted to make sure I speak out for the ones who are benefitting from the change.

It's just natural for travelers who feel like they're losing something to be more likely to comment than those who feel like they're gaining something.

One place I didn't get to stop this morning was Greenbelt. There may have been some commuters who park there and work at the Pentagon who couldn't believe their luck in having a Yellow Line train up that far. Others might have been heading for Reagan National Airport, and discovered on the platform that they wouldn't have to change trains.

All the reports aren't in yet -- and we haven't experienced the afternoon rush, for better or worse.

I have a flight out of Reagan National next Monday at 8:30 am. I am planning on taking metro from Shady Grove to the airport. My question is my best bet to get off at Metro Center and take the blue line or go to Gallery Place and take the yellow line to the airport? I plan on getting on Metro at Shady Grove shortly after 5:00 am on that Monday. Thank you

I'd transfer at Gallery Place and take a Yellow Line train to the airport, though the time savings is relatively small.

(Traveling at that early hour, you won't have the benefit of the extra Rush Plus Yellow Line trains we've been talking about, since Rush Plus doesn't start till 6:30 a.m.)

I rode in from WFC. I let one crowded train go by, and a less crowded one arrived less than five minutes later. We had a brief delay waiting to enter Rosslyn, but otherwise no trouble. So far, I'm pleased.

I really hope that continues for you and other riders. But as you experienced commuters know, adding more trains doesn't solve the other problems you're used to encountering during a rush hour trip. So tomorrow could be different.

Sometimes, it just seems like luck. One train is crowded and the next isn't. The front of the train has lots of room and the rear cars don't.

Metro has a limited budget and has to choose who is the most and least important. There is no reason that those of us who live in the more densely populated areas shouldn't have more trains. Having alternating trains, when most of the people come from the Orange line doesn't make sense.

For all the problems we talk about with Metro, I don't see the transit authority rating any travelers as more important than any other travelers.

In this case, what Metro is trying to deal with is the extreme crowding on the west side of the Orange Line, as well as the increasing demand for service to and from the central part of DC.

you talk about checking Metro's schedule and adjusting your station arrival time accordingly. When did Metro actually start adhering to any sort of a schedule?

You know -- and so does everyone else who commutes -- that the schedule becomes a tissue of lies as the rush hour develops. Especially after the trains have made a pass or two through DC and visited some of those platforms where lots of people get on and off.

If you're a Blue Line rider using a station like King Street, what you'd try to do is target your arrival for the time period when the trains arrive six minutes apart rather than for the time when there's a 12 minute gap. If you try that and find it doesn't work, you adjust your arrival time -- or you get on the next Yellow Line train and transfer.

The thing Metro needs to do is provide accurate real-time information so people can make the choices they have to make.

The whole scheme will only work if people are watching which Orange/Blue/Yellow train is populating. Which is a big problem because at least half of the metro platform displays don't work and the information is hardly EVER accurate!

I saw two platforms this morning where there was inaccurate information about train arrivals: Archives and King Street.

The arrival time at Court House, on the other hand, was pretty good.

(One reason I was curious what would happen at King Street is that the information system usually is stressed by having to deal with trains coming up two lines and taking turns on switches.)

Despite the rain, my drive in was incident free. Unusual for a rainy Monday when my normal commute can double. How many school districts are done already? I wasn't expecting summer traffic until next week.

I think most schools are done, but plenty of tourists are in town, and we're not deeply into family vacation season yet. Local traffic should start to decline, but the real dip doesn't come till August.

Actually most of the signs near the stadium do say that the parking rules are in effect during Nationals Stadium events and most of the space around there is under neighbors only rules 7 days a week.

That was my understanding, dating from the time I attended some meetings of worried neighborhood residents and District Department of Transportation parking officials before Nats Park was built.

Still, if I parked at a meter that said free on Sunday and was sure there was no other sign nearby that noted the exception for stadium events, I'd protest the ticket.

I might be willing to accept less blue line service if the fares were reduced to compensate. But paying the same amount for less service is really irritating.

We talked about this a little last week. I can't see Metro lowering rates for some Blue Line riders any more than I can see Metro raising rates for Orange and Yellow Line riders because of Rush Plus.

Not a question but an observation. I usually take the yellow line from Huntington to Gallery Place. Since I live closer to the Franconia - Springfield station I went there at 6:05 and there was a train on the platform almost full. The designation sign on the train said Franconia - Springfield. I said to myself well that is no help, it should say where the train is going. A lady came out train and asked me if this were a blue or yellow. I looked at the platform sign and told her it was a blue. The train operator then tuned the designation sign on the train then shut the doors and left. The designation sign on the train was working as intented. The next train was another blue line. The next train after that was a yellow. The yellow left the station at 6:20 and arrived at Gallery place at 6:55 a thirty five minute trip. Yikes.

Getting around with Rush Plus means that Metro staffers need to be more attentive than ever to the destination signs and line colors on their trains.

(Those very early ones, around 6 a.m.: They should all be Blue Line trains from Franconia-Springfield. The Rush Plus Yellows shouldn't be leaving till closer to 6:30.)

Dr. Gridlock You have said that metro-riders need to seek alternatives on weekends besides metro. I have followed you advice and purchased a car. Congratulations Metro! I have lived in D.C. for 7 years without one, relying on a combination of metro, zipcar, walking, bus service, bike, and the occasional cab. weekend scheduled track work was the end of the line for me and now there is one more car on the road. -Happy Driver

I always tell travelers that I don't believe in transportation ideology. They should travel the way that suits them best. They shouldn't do something that makes them miserable just out of habit, and they shouldn't think that changing their behavior is going to punish some transportation agency or another.

Changing behavior could include becoming involved politically and trying to influence the actions of the Metro board, or of the governments that appoint the board members.

Doc, why did VDOT change the FFX Pkway route number from the catchy 7100 to the random 286? Was it to get people to call the road by its name and not a number?

Over the winter, Virgina's Commonweath Transportation Board upgraded the parkway's status to primary road. Aside from the honor, the change qualifies the parkway for federal maintenance and improvement money. But primary roads get lower numbers in Virginia. I think they're 1 through 599.

Basic rule of commuting or traveling, unless you have lots of time to spare: Get on the first train going your way, always, unless you somehow know that something better is in the pipeline or you really can't bear to give up that one seat ride. Does this work for everyone affected by Rush Plus? No, but it works for the overwhelming majority. WMATA's communications might have been less than stellar recently and could use improvement (i.e. weekend trackwork advisories), but I've been on lots of public transit systems throughout the world. Somehow, service changes occur in these places without all the hubbub that has occurred here in the past few weeks, and people navigate the subway systems each and every day despite lines that branch and have all sorts of short turns (take a look at the London Underground Map and find all the Piccadilly line terminals, there are no fewer than EIGHT used each day).

I think you're right that riders can deal with this logically. It may take a week or two. That's not to let Metro off the hook about providing better guidance onthe platforms.

We've had a lengthy discussion about this, and I don't want to convey the wrong sense to people who didn't ride Metro today: Most riders I saw appeared to be going about their daily commuting just fine.

Travelers, thanks for joining me this week. I've got to break away now. This week is unusual in that there are many, many questions and comments remaining about one topic: Rush Plus. So I intend to do at least one more posting on the Dr. Gridlock blog just to air some of these comments.

You know from the chat that I think the polls haven't closed on Rush Plus yet. We're a while off from concluding whether it's a good thing for most riders affected by it, or how it can be tinkered with to make it better.

Please continue to let me know about your experiences. You can comment on the blog, or send an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.


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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