Dr. Gridlock

Aug 01, 2011

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, and thanks for joining me. We already have quite a few questions and comments in the mailbag -- very good for our first chat in August, when many commuters are off on vacation. (Have you noticed that on the roads and rails?)


What is Metro doing about the lack of air conditioning in some of the stations--in particular Farragut North? It's is clearly not working. I use this station every weekday and I think it gets hotter each day. Hard to believe that on a sunny, humid 90+ degree day outside, it feels hotter in an underground subway station than above ground. Why doesn't Metro use the industrial size, floor-drying fans in there, instead of the heavy-duty pedestal fans? Three pedestal fans in a two-block long station just doesn't cut it!! Can you share some insight on Metro's thinking here?

I'm not sure about the air cooling equipment for Farragut North specifically. It's one of the oldest stations in the system and may have some of the older cooling equipment.

Temperatures can vary a lot from station to station -- even from one end of the platform to another. The fans that Metro places on the platforms can be a big help, but only if riders get to stand quite close to them.

No underground station is going to feel really good in the heat we're having, but in some stations, the equipment does break down and it can take a while for the maintenance staff to replace the busted parts. I'll ask about Farragut North.

My SmarTrip card demagnitized, and I lost $20 trying to load more money onto it. I talked to the station manager and filled out a refund form - what are the chances of me ever seeing the money? Also, any tips on how to prevent demagnitization of my next card? I don't do anything abnormal with it, though it is in my wallet with credit cards and the like. When are they going to get a new system?

I've often heard from riders who complain about how long it takes to transfer their stored up fare value from one SmarTrip card to another, but I don't recall complaints that it doesn't ever get transfered.

It would surprise me to learn that there's any way of demagnitizing a SmarTrip card. They're not the same technology as paper fare cards, which can be demagnetized in a variety of ways -- even keeping them too close to your cell phones.

The plastic farecards, with their embedded chips, can get broken -- could happen if you put one in your back pocket and sit down, for example

Metro is going to have to go to a different system, because the company that does SmarTrip cards isn't going to do them anymore. I think it may be several years, though.

Best solution would be an all-purpose card, a credit card that can be used for transit fares as well.

It looks like the expansion of the local/thru lanes starting at Eisenhower (and headed to the WW Bridge) is nearing completion. Any word on when this work will be complete and when the additional lanes will open?

The project hopes to get the work on the Local/THRU lanes done by this fall and open them to traffic. But if the paving and lane stripping can’t be done before cold weather sets in, the lanes may not be open till spring or summer 2012.

The Braddock Road bridge over the Beltway looks complete, but the eastbound side is still closed. When is the complete bridge expected to open?

That's part of the HOT lanes project. This phase of the bridge reconstruction is supposed to be done by late summer. Still to come is the construction the flyover ramp at the interchange.

I just returned from a trip to England and I was amazed by how much information I could gather from the London Tube's website before I left. It was amazing and something that I hope WMATA can aspire to. As you can imagine they've got a ton of track work going on because the system is old and they're preparing for the Olympics next year. On the Tube main page there is a link to their track work schedule which is scheduled out for 3 months. So you can look on a specific day and see what lines are affected and which stops are affected. Even more impressive - the trip planner figures the closures into the planner so you know timing and scheduling and what other lines or buses you're going to need to deal with. I was so impressed - after 10 1/2 years of riding the Metro it is still impossible to find their track work schedule on their website. You include the info on Thursday for the following weekend but it is impossible to schedule stuff any further out because you just don't know.

There is one list you can look at for Metrorail. It's the list of major trackwork projects, the kind that involve halting rail service in certain section for the entire weekend and using free shuttle buses to span the gap.

Here's a shortened link to that list:


It's good that Metro is doing this. The list runs to June 2012. But it's not complete. There's plenty of weekend track work that Metro does not define as "major" but still is very important to riders -- especially if they are transfering trains on weekends.

Metro posts the additional information about those other maintenance delays early in the week for the upcoming weekend. For example, the list is just out for this coming weekend. In addition the "major" work scheduled for the Red, Blue and Yellow lines this weekend, which involves shuting some rail service, there's single-tracking planned for work between Eastern Market and Stadium-Armory.

I wish Metro could go back to showing us the full list of weekend projects at the start of each month.

As you note, I do a posting each Friday morning with the full maintenance schedule for the weekend. For this coming weekend, there's an especially big deal affecting service on the Red Line. I want to devote a blog posting to that today. Not only is it a fairly big disruption, it's also likely to affect some of the tennis fans planning to take the shuttle buses to the Legg Mason tournament from the Van Ness Station.

I often see no parking signs in my neighborhood for people blocking areas off for moving trucks or church events. This is frustrating, as our street is increasingly becoming a heavy-traffic street with limited parking as it is. The signs look fairly official, but can I really be ticketed/towed for parking there, or are people just filling in the blanks on official-looking signs? Thanks!

Those signs are usually issued by the local police department on the grounds that it's better to have a moving van park in a reserved space than block a through lane. It's also routine to get permission to block off a street for a community event.

If you were to park in a reserved space where a family expects to see their moving van, I would expect the family would either ask you to move or call the police.

Dr. G: I went to the Mets-Nats game Saturday night and was apalled at how poor Metro service was. After getting down to the station, my friends and I boarded the crowded train and just sat there for almost 10 minutes. I'm not complaining about the crowd- I expect that- but what was the point of having us all standing there? It's a shuttle train- shuttle us off already! Then I got to L'Enfant Plaza for my transfer to the yellow line (with about a thousand other baseball fans who live in Northern Virginia). Next train was 20 minutes! Metro has made a big deal of riding it to go to baseball games... shouldn't they increase their service to handle this? Keeping the normal schedule when there's a ballgame is just dumb. Is this some sort of plot to make me pay the ridiculous parking fees for the ballgame?

Metro doesn't normally run regular weekday service on a weekend because of a ball game. The transit authority does normally have extra trains on standby to help clear the platform after games.

I think Metro generally has done a good job clearing the platform at Navy Yard station after the games, though it can get pretty tight in some of those rail cars.

I notice that many riders don't realize that some of those post-game trains are shuttles rather than regular trains. I've seen the looks of surprise on the faces of many fans when the operator tells them that Mount Vernon Square is the last stop.

But the main complaint I've received is that while Metro does a good job clearing the Navy Yard platform, people have to wait a really long time on nights and weekends at the transfer stations, L'Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place.

Its now been almost 1 full year since all 4 escalators at the Union Station Metro station were working. The latest work, according to Metro's sign, supposedly was to be completed by the end of July. Do you have any idea how much longer riders are going to have to share the one escalator that goes down to the tracks? As you can imagine the scene gets might ugly during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

I just peeked at Metro's escalator maintenance list to see that it shows two escalators out of service between the platform and mezzanine on the First Street side. One was out for a modernization and one was being used as an up and down walker, because the other was out of service. They're both listed as returning to service today.

The list doesn't always show the up to the moment status, but I think it's gotten a lot closer to that recently.

Union Station, such a busy station with so many escalators either busted, out for repairs, or being used as walkers, is one of the top sources of rider complaints about the equipment.

Last year Metro hired a new guy to fix escalators and elevators. Has it made a difference? I'm not noticing that it has. Where's the accountability?

I'm not sure any particular guy is going to make all that much difference, given the scop of the long-term problem. It's more about money and an overall management plan.

And in that regard, the transit authority is engaged in a major effort now to fix the escalators. But the transit officials have been quite upfront in saying that they expect that because of their intensified repair program, riders are going to encounter a lot of out of service escalators this year, perhaps more than ever before.

The Toll Plaza remains chaotic and frustrating during peak commute times. Is there going to be any relief soon? It is so horrible now, I can't imagine what it will be like once school is back in session.

I haven't heard of any further changes coming from VDOT to ease the congestion and confusion for toll road drivers heading east in the morning when they reach the HOT lanes work zone at the Beltway.

The number of complaints I received peaked in the three weeks right after the new work zone configuration started in June. It's fallen off, but I have a feeling it's mostly because it's summer and because many drivers felt they made their point and the problem for them hasn't changed.

I'm worried about September, when everyone is back from vacation. The work zone is scheduled to remain well into 2012.

I still get letters of complaint. The focus recently has been on drivers on the left side of the toll road heading straight toward I-66. I doubt there's going to be much more relief over there, because that's a work zone for the new HOT lanes ramp.

Earlier in the chat, a traveler asked about the AC at Farragut North. Dan Stessel, Metro's spokesman, responded quickly to the question. He says Metro is in the process of completely replacing the old chiller unit at Farragut North. That was the good news. The bad is that it's a long-term project and unlikely to affect the temperature in the station this summer -- this very, very hot summer.


There was one--once. I think it was from Chase. The application was on Metro's web site. Chase discontinued it. I've got one. It still works as a Smartrip card, but not as a credit card.

The good idea get a little out in front of the technology?

Just to be clear, is the "walk left, stand right" rule on escalators still a rule (however unofficial), or has that been abandoned in recent years? I still abide by it myself, but frequently see it being broken (i.e., people standing on the left, even if they're not tourists), and wondered if it went the way of the dodo.

I think it's still pretty well observed -- it's just one of those things that's really annoying and really obvious when someone doesn't do it.

Not exactly a rule. More like a guideline.

The following happened twice last week. I entered the system using my SmarTrip. The turnstile recognized my card, displayed the balance, and opened. When I went to leave the system, the turnstile said "See station manager." The first time, the manager swiped the card on their reader and a couple of key strokes on his terminal later, it worked. The second time, the manager said "Slow down entering the system" as if I didn't let it recognize when I entered. But as the gate was closed and then opened for me, it must have recognized it and I wasn't tailgating the person infront of me. My SmarTrip is old (so old that when I called the other day to view my online account, the rep commented that I had "one of the first cards"). Is this a card problem, turnstile problem, or something else? Have you heard of this before?

It's hard for me to say exactly what was going on with your card, but you'll probably recall that Metro has been trying to upgrade the software that reads the cards and makes the calculations so that it can accommodate fare passes and other things we all want the cards to do -- like make it possible to cross between Farragut North and Farragut West without being charged an extra fare.

None of this upgrading seems to have gone smoothly for Metro.

I usually try to be a polite ride and move towards the center of the car at rush hour. But I've noticed that it's a lot hotter in the center of the car. It seems like there are more air conditioning vents towards the doors. Do you know if metro's new car design takes this type of air circulation into account? Also - why hasn't metro switched to bench-type seating like NYC and Boston? It seems like you could fit a lot more riders. I've been close to fainting in poorly air conditioned cars this summer.

Temps can definitely be different from place to place within a rail car. Can be different even if you just happen to be on the sunny side of the car. Haven't heard anything about changing the AC setup for the 7000 Series. Some series perform better than others. Lots of complaints about the AC and other equipment on the 5000 series especially.

Metro told me a while back that its tests showed that bench seating didn't actually add much space for passengers. And there's no plan to configure the new cars that way -- although the car construction deos allow them to reconfigure a bit.

Travelers, my producer is begging me to wrap up the chat, so I must go. Thanks for joining me. I'll keep the questions still in  the mailbag and see if I can address some of the remaining ones on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week. And write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe out there.

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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