Dr. Gridlock chat

Jul 23, 2012

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. A first look in the mailbag shows questions and comments about Ride On buses, Beltway work and Metro hot cars. So I'll go for them first, but keep 'em coming.

Also, I figure I'll be writing soon about VDOT E-ZPasses and also about updating the BRAC-related work around the Bethesda medical center. So if you've got issues you'd like me to address in upcoming features, let me know here, or write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

If this situation is going to continue with the buses, is there any plan to actually provide a more formal schedule for the county's routes so that I will not be late for work?

You've got one more day like the past few workdays, Montgomery County says. Then the schedule should be back to normal, but there may still be some unscheduled delays stemming from the safety issues.

For those who haven't been following this, a Ride On bus caught fire last week. This was just the most recent fire with buses manufactured with certain parts. So County Exec Ike Leggett announced that Ride On would immediately pull all those buses from the fleet and replace them. That has led to a reduced schedul of buses. The county says it's about 80 percent of normal, and Ride On refers to it as the "modified holiday schedule."


Hello, If I wanted to leave for the Eastern Shore on a weekday morning (not Friday) between 8 and 9am from the Tysons area, would I be better off taking the inner or outer loop to get to Route 50 East? Thank you.

At that hour, I think I'd go over the top, taking the inner loop. You'd be going against the general flow 0f rush hour traffic, and you'd avoid most of the construction work that's been slowing traffic. (But watch out for the Northwest Branch bridge construction in Silver Spring.)

Why does metro have the policy of closing off hot cars? Doing so reduces capacity by 17% on a 6-car train and 12.5% on a 8-car train leading to overcrowding in the other cars. People are not trapped in a car and are fully able to move to a new car when the train is in a station. If the car is too hot, move. Personally, I don't mind the hot cars as I can take the heat and find the less crowded are enjoyable.

Metro's best policy would be, Don't have air conditioners that break down when it gets hot. But the way things are right now, I think Metro is wise to close off hot cars, for the sake of people's health.

When I was riding around on a couple of the hot days last week so I could take the temps in different cars, I was encouraged to see that more people than ever will recognize a hot car, turn around and find another one.

And I did see cars that were uncrowded, one of the tell-tale signs of a problem with the air. But I also saw many crowded cars in which riders would just sit, and suffer, station after station. The longer you ride in a hot car, the worse you feel. That shouldn't be allowed. So I'm glad Metro seals off some of those cars.

It used to be that the train would be taken out of service. Sealing off at least keeps four, or sometimes six cars in action for rush hours.

(Anybody else okay with hot cars?)

Hi, Doc, what's the latest on the Beltway portions of this interchange? Is it almost done? Please say yes.

Yes -- almost. The paving work on the Beltway -- part of the Wilson Bridge project -- is scheduled to be done at the end of the month, though I haven't yet seen a revised scheduled based on the unfortunate cancellation of this past weekend's work because of the crummy weather we had.

At least, when this is done, Beltway drivers should be pleased with the results. Opening all the Beltway lanes between Springfield and the bridge means drivers will get the full benefit of the bride widening, especially drivers approaching the bridge on the outer loop.

Thank you for that story on the Metro's air conditioner problem. Its something that has really bugged me. Seems to be really bad this year. First thought that enters my mind as the train approaches the station is "will the A/C be working?" Nothing more frustrating and painful than getting on a sauna-like metro wearing a suit. Like some you cited, I jump off immediately and race to the next car in hopes the A/C is working. Last Thursday, two cars had no A/C. Third car was the charm... So frustrating...

With the results of my survey last week, I wrote this for The Post's Commuter page on Sunday:


I hope the results will help at least some of you as the temps again get into the 90s this week.

We just talked about looking for cars with few people aboard as a sign of trouble. Another thing you can look for is the four-digit number in black letters near the front and rear of each rail cara. If the number is in the 5000s, be especially wary. The 5000 series rail cars, though only about a decade old, are the most problematic for air conditioning.

Because of the way Metro packages train cars, you won't find them right in the middle. The 5000s will be farther out. (The oldest cars, the 1000s, are in the middle, for safety reasons, Metro says.)

You might think that the oldest cars would have the most AC problems, but that's not the case.

I'm thinking about taking a job in Alexandria. I'd likely be taking 95S then 495E and getting off at route 1 or Eisenhower Ave. How bad would my morning commute be? The office is in the north part of Old Town. Would it be better to take 50E to 395N to Route 1?

Not sure I'm with you on the route numbers, but sounds like you're starting in Virginia and wanting to know if it's better to take the Beltway or cut across. That right?

If you're starting this job pretty soon, you might be better off cutting across, rather than going through the lengthy Beltway work zones. But I'm less sure how it will be as these work zones clear up.

(By the way, I love to discuss routing issues, but I always recommend that commuters test several routes before they settle on a residence or a workplace. And test them under real commuting conditions, not on a weekend.)

Anyone have a view on this route issue?

It seems like Metro has been working on a large new parking structure at the Twinbrook stop on the red line. Based on metro parking stats (and what I can see riding by every day), there is always more than enough parking at Twinbrook. Why does metro invest in more parking where it's not needed instead of increasing parking at places where parking is full early in the morning, such as Rockville or Grosvenor?

I think the Twinbrook construction is one of those public-private partnership deals, where the builder of the garage have development rights on or near it and is going to turn the garage over to Metro.

I can't recall the last time Metro paid for and built a parking garage on its own. And I'm not advocating the it should.

For example, if Metro build garages at Rockville and Grosvenor, think what that would do to the already bad traffic on Rockville Pike. I'd rather see the jurisdictions investing in more bus feeder routes to the stations.

Metrorail gets a lot of flack, so I just want to give some props to Metrobus. I ride the 63/64 to and from work every day, and they are clean, efficient, and about 95% of the time, on time according to Next Bus. One question: did anything ever come of that study about reducing the number of bus stops? I just find it weird that there are so many, including sometimes two on the same block.

We're talking about buses in the Petworth-Fort Totten-Takoma area of DC.

I should check about reductions in bus stops. Haven't heard much lately. The usual pattern is: Riders who take longer trips would like to see the number of bus stops cut, because stopping, unloading and boarding take so long and throw off schedules. Riders who take shorter trips, or who might be older, or disabled, fight to preserve the stops, because they're convenient to where they live and to their destinations.

Sometimes when Metro studies the problems on one particular route, it decides to preserve the routes with all the stops but add a limited stop route for the longer distance riders.

I recently moved to Annapolis and tried to go to the library on Saturday. Much to my surprise the whole town was gridlocked. I have never seen this and could not figure out what was causing the traffic jams. My only thought that people were getting off 50 trying to find another route back to the bridge. Is that possible or do you know of anything happening Saturday in Annapolis.

There's always something going on in Annapolis on a summer Saturday, plus we had all that rain.

If you're thinking back routes to the Bay Bridge, I doubt that. But people would be filtering toward historic Annapolis via several different routes on a weekend.

I recently extended my commute from Dunn Loring to Foggy Bottom to go all the way to Twinbrook once a week. I was shocked to see a Marc train go along the Metro tracks in the direction of Shady Grove. Does the Marc train run between trains all the way from Union Station to Shady Grove or does it go in and out of the system, occasionally using its own tracks? While I'm sure the Marc train is sometimes affected by WMATA delays, is the Marc train ever the CAUSE of delays?

MARC and Metro tracks are very close in that Red Line section around Twinbrook, but they were not on the same track.

Metro has plenty of reasons for delays but MARC trains on its tracks are not amont them.

In the past two days, I've seen a train on the Green/Yellow to Greenbelt track at Gallery Place say Orange Line to West Falls Church and one on the Orange/Blue to New Carrollton and Largo track at Federal Triangle that said "Yellow to Rossyln," which of course doesn't even exist. Is Metro doing anything about its terrible record with sign accuracy. I always think about how confusing it must be for tourists, who are paying $1 extra now for their paper cards, especially in light of Rush Plus.

I think that doesn't happen very often, but it shouldn't happen at all.

The sign issues are see involve rail cars where you know what the color is but can't find a working destination sign, which as we've been saying, is very important under the Rush Plus system.

Another problem is signs and annoucements that don't match. Ex: I boarded an Orange Line train at Vienna with a Largo destination sign. (That would be a rush plus train.) But the operator announced it was an Orange Line to New Carrollton. That wouldn't be a problem till you got to Stadium-Armory, but still, it shouldn't happen.


Hi Dr. G. I've been invited to visit a relative in Philly in August. I'm in Falls Church and I generally use 395. I know I'm stuck with the Penn Ave bridge to get to 295 NB for the next several months, but what's the status on the ramp from 295 SB to the SE-SW Freeway and on to 395 S? The Howard Rd turnaround is less annoying than waiting for that left Penn Ave, but I'd still prefer not to have to use it.

The new ramp from southbound 295 across the 11th St ZBridge to 395 is scheduled to be done around the end of this month. (Then the northbound ramp should open this fall.) These openings will be huge for long-distance commuters.

A large section of lights have been out on the lower level of Rosslyn for a couple of weeks now. Presumably the station manager or other Metro employees notice these sorts of maintenance issues and report them to the correct department, right? It's really dark down there which makes it even more gloomy and depressing than usual. Or is it the ridership's responsibility to complain about things like this via the website in order to eventually get them fixed.

It never hurts to notify Metro's customer service office, either by phone or by using the comment form on Metro's Web site at www.wmata.com. But you're right. An employee should have reported the issue with the lights.

It does make the lower level very gloomy.

Please explain, if you can, how it makes sense to charge a $1 fee per month for EZPass transponders when the state should be encouraging their use by giving users a break, not charging them more. It is not about money but principle. Why should those of us who contribute to smooth traffic flow be charged on top of those who require a person to complete a transaction. Does it not cost money for a toll worker to sit in a booth?

I have two E-ZPass transponders, and I think of E-ZPass as one of the greatest transportation developments of the 20th Century. But I never thought I was doing the government a favor by using them.

While toll workers do earn a salary, so do the people who maintain the E-ZPass accounts. Virginia figures it's going to vastly increase the number of its E-ZPass accounts when the HOT lanes open on the Beltway and 95.

Nearly as bad as the hot cars has been the temp control issues in stations themselves. Certainly, the outdoor ones are outside of Metro's control... but the U St metro first thing in the morning has been particularly painful - a good 15 degrees hotter than the outdoor temperature at that time of day. Not the best way to start a commute to work. Any idea why some stations have at least a reasonable amount of control, and others none at all?

I can't speak to U Street, because I didn't test that one. I have done stations in the past. Sometimes, the issue is the age of the equipment, sometimes it's the failure of a particular unit. (They take a while to replace.)

I hadn't heard of a particular problem with the U Street equipment. Generally, I find, the Green Line stations are in decent shape -- mostly because they're newer than, say, the downtown Red Line stations.

Another traditional problem is the portal stations -- places like Union Station or Ballston that are pretty close to where the tracks go above ground.

I usually find my orange line to Vienna trains to be consistently on time. In the past month, though, they have been stopping for 2-4 minutes at every stop (Ballston, EFC, WFC, Dunn Loring) for "schedule adjustments." Is there any way to do the "schedule adjustments" at Vienna instead? It's causing everyone to miss their buses and shuttles. I see no need for a schedule adjustment 3 stops away from the end of the line anyways (no one is getting on anymore).

When the operators say "schedule adjustments," they mean that controllers have told them to hold so that they can space out the trains better. The trains bunch up at rush hour, just like buses.

And I think when you get toward the end of the line, you might have two trains on the platform at Vienna, and you need to get at least one of them out of there and heading back downtown before other outbound trains can move forward.

Read your piece on hot metro cars. Thanks. Question, with new cars comming why can't they have tempatures displayed in each car and on the outside of the cars ? The display could be monitored by the train conductor and Metro controol. This also might be added to existing cars. This would be a cost but well worth it to correct and track problem cars quickly which i believe by no meams is happening now.

I know that the display panels in the cabs on the 7000 series will have a lot more information available to the train operator. Can't remember if each car's temp is among the items displayed, but that certainly would make sense. (Think it's much less likely the temp will be displayed on the outside of each car.)

Another thing about the 7000 series: Those cars should have more robust and better designed air conditioning systems, so that it will be less likely riders will encounter hot cars in the first place.

Doesn't happen very often? Do you ride Metro? I get on at Franconia-Springfield, where practically every morning, the trains are mislabeled or not even lit. This makes things especially confusing for people who are trying to figure out which train is Yellow and which is Blue, and this often occurs where there is a train on each side of the platform.

What I don't see very often is something like "Yellow Line to Vienna" or "Red Line to Largo." I see missing information frequently, and platform signs that don't match up with train signs.

Dr. Gridlock, I have never yet found a hot car in the very first car, where the train operator sits. Why is that?

I guess you're just lucky. Happened to me several times last week.

But delays mean you aren't getting rush hour service. Any way to submit for a refund of the difference? It is starting to really add up.

You can always submit for a refund. You're odds of getting a refund are very small.

If I'm out for a quick trip (for example, taking the red line from Judiciary Square to Metro Center before transferring) I'd rather have the empty-ish hot car than trying to squeeze into the other cars or having to wait.

Yes, that I can understand. (Unless I'm wearing a dark suit.) But last week, I was on a hot car (a 5000 car) that was crowded from Dupont Circle through to Silver Spring. That, I don't understand.

Thanks for the heads-up, Doc. Now I will avoid the 5000-series cars (at least until the weather cools down) in addition to the 1000-series death traps I already avoid. At this rate, I should be walking to work by the time the 7000-series cars arrive. Which is when, roughly?


I too am finding them worse than ever. But as a Blue line rider, I kind of have to take whatever train I can get for fear of that the wait for the next train will be 20 minutes.

Coolest car I was on last week was a Blue Line car: 77.5 degrees. (But that doesn't mean the whole train was cool. Next car up could have been much worse.)

I used to think leaving them open was a good idea, and I got on one recently. I thought I could handle it for the few stops I was planning on, but then we kept getting held in the tunnel and the trip from one station to another probably tripled in length. I knew I couldn't take it that long. Given all of Metro's other problems, I got worried about what would happen if the train actually got stuck in the tunnel - how long would we have to wait in the heat? Then you wonder about how many sick passengers might be sick because of the heat. Now, I think its probably smarter just to shut the car off.

I agree with your reasoning.

Getting aboard a hot car thinking you can handle it reminds me of walking up the north escalator at Dupont Circle when it was busted. I started out thinking this would be good exercise, and wound up regretting my decision about 3/4 of the way up.

Think twice about boarding a hot car for a long ride. It will take it's toll on you after just a couple of stations.

" And test them under real commuting conditions, not on a weekend." And not during the summer or early September will be a rude awakening.

Yes, summer is different. Though we don't get the full benefit of the downturns in traffic till August.

Why did Virginia DOT change the route number for the Fairfax County Parkway from 7100 to 286?

Because VDOT decided to make the parkway a primary road, and those have lower numbers. (Up to 499, I think.) Making it a primary road qualifies it for more federal money.

Does Metro really want ridership to increase? It seems that every decision the agency has made over the past few years has been an attempt to slow ridership growth. What business have you heard of deliberately goes out of their way to discourage customers from wanting their product? It's seriously complexing, and a question that should really be posed to Metro management.

I think Metro's performance -- the unscheduled disruptions and the scheduled disruptions -- should be very discouraging to riders. Metro has no interest in discouraging ridership. That's revenue.

Is there going to be a process for drivers to challenge the tolls assessed to your EZPass? I'm concerned that I will either be charged when I not even travelling in the lanes, or that I will be charge a toll that does not match with what appears on the signage. What evidence will VDOT need to present to prove they have charged a driver accurately (photo, database, etc...)?

Good question. I'll ask.

Have any new ridership studies/surveys been conducted to determine how many and who will actually ride the Silver Line? Is it expected to just be passengers that transfer off the Orange Line because the Silver Line stops are closer to their homes in McClean, Reston, and Herndon, or will the Silver Line be handling an entirely new group of passengers?

Initially, I think it will be mostly people switching from the Orange Line stations. That will be drivers switching to the new parking areas by the Wiehle Avenue station, at the end of line's first phase, and also bus riders whose routes get switched to Wiehle Avenue. (As I think you know, the four Tysons stations won't have Metro commuter parking.)

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. Write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe out there this week, and come back to our discussion next Monday.

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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