Dr. Gridlock

Sep 08, 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.

Thanks for joining me in our first post-Labor Day, post-vacation season chat about the D.C. area's traffic and transit issues.

OMG Dr. Gridlock what in the world happened on 295 last Saturday that they had to close off all access to the outside world from Anacostia for 7 hours? I'm exaggerating a little but was it terrorists? Anthrax? Aliens?

I think you were caught up in the very lengthy aftermath of a crash between a car and a trash truck on DC 295 near Pennsylvania Avenue. Two people in the car were killed, and 295 was closed for much of the daytime after the crash at about 8:45 a.m.

Is it just me, or are the Smartrip readers on buses frequently broken? Probably between a quarter and a third of the time I get on a bus (usually the DC Circulator, but WMATA buses too) the Smartrip reader is broken so I, and anyone else who wants to pay with their Smartrip, gets to ride free. I'm not complaining, but it seems that our transportation agencies should fix this before they raise fares to cover deficits again.

Travelers have noted this ever since the SmarTrip readers were first installed on buses. It's happened to me from time to time. I don't know whether it's increasing, but it certainly costs Metro revenue.

Do other travelers think they're seeing busted readers more often?

The federal government could be doing a lot more to reduce traffic in this area. I work at an agency in northern Virginia that is almost four miles from the nearest Metro stop. Despite the issues that presents, the GSA just signed us up for a lengthy extension of the lease. To make matters worse, the agency does not allow telecommuting. So everyone here drives five days a week and clogs up the roads. I don't understand why the government operates like this. There is lots of vacant office space much closer to Metro stops.

I think I can comment only on the general idea, since I don't know the details about your particular agency and its lease.

The federal government is the key player in how good or bad commuting is in the DC region.

The biggest effect on the negative side in recent years was the base realignment that sent thousands of federal workers to suburban locations that had very limited access to transit.

The biggest effect on the positive side has been federal encouragement, particularly by GSA, of telecommuting. That, more than any other transportation policy by any government in the DC region, will have a beneficial effect on congestion, both on the roads and on Metro. The feds just need to push this harder, but they are coming around.

What happened? They were supposed to finish by about Labor Day, and instead stopped work about two weeks in. Now it's scheduled through October. I've deliberately altered my commute since spring because the inbound lane in particular is so horrid.

Tell me if it's something else, but I think you're talking about the Virginia Department of Transportation paving project between the Beltway and Springvale Road. That's eight miles.

If that's the one, and it started Aug. 10 as VDOT says, there's no way it would be done by Labor Day, and October would be much more realistic.

The only other project I know about on G'town Pike this year was a tree removal and guardrail replacement near Difficult Run that occurred back in the spring.

But let me know if there's more involved.

Dr G - what are the speed limits for Metro trains? I was cruising the Dulles Toll Rd yesterday at 65 mph (I know...) and the Silver line train next to me was matching my speed. Since the trains are manually controlled are they at least monitored or have speed governors?

The speed limit for all Metro trains is 59 mph. Like your car, a Metro train is capable of going faster, but unlike your car, the train's speed is monitored and regulated by central controllers.

The details about Metro train control are complicated. I know I need periodic refreshers. But the basic idea is that automated train operation was suspended after the Red Line crash in June 2009. The operators drive the trains. But the trains and the operators still are subject to automated controls that regulate their speed and proximity to other trains.

I just got a smart phone and figured I'd download the wmata app. But after going to the play store, I see that there are many metro apps. Which one is the official wmata one? It's not exactly obvious. Thanks!

Metro doesn't have a mobile app, but it does have a mobile site that works pretty well. Use this link to see it. It's not real fancy, but it does cover the basics with advisories, maps and schedules. Meanwhile, there are plenty of apps that use Metro data and display it in different ways.

I'll tell you one of my favorites, but must warn that I'm biased, because it was developed by The Washington Post. It's the DCRider app.


Hate to break this to you sir, but federal employees are targets for all kinds of groups so GSA cant just lease any old office building that is close to Metro. Office space has to meet certain requirements for setbacks or be basically fortified like certain office space just off Wilson Blvd in Arlington.

It ain't as simple as being close to Metro. You don't want make the bad guys job easy!

When I used to commute from Fort Totten back home, often the bus drivers would put their hand over the smart card machine, but after you left the Fort Totten parking lot, they would not do that and people would swipe their smart cards to gain entry. I took the 64 regularly for 8 years from Fort Totten back to Grant Circle, and this happened all 8 years about three fourths of the time.

I know Metro's weekend track work is nothing new, but when WMATA puts out the press releases announcing weekend projects (which I always read so I know what to expect), they really need to leave out the following: "You will experience the additional wait time on the platform. Once your train departs the station, it is not expected to encounter additional delays en route." I have rarely found that to be the case. Yesterday I was on a westbound Silver line train that held 1-2 minutes at each station in Arlington, 8 minutes at Ballston, and then 7 minutes outside East Falls Church. 20+ minutes of "holding" en route. That's the case more often than not these days, so they not only get you with the longer waits on the platform, your rides take a lot longer once you do get on a train. Any chance they can improve the scheduling to avoid this? Or maybe they can follow through on their promise from a couple of years ago to phase out the weekend single-tracking and go with closures of entire segments; that's not ideal either, but at least trains would run at their regular intervals throughout the rest of the system.

Your specific experience matches my general experience with riding on weekends, and that' s very disappointing. After the aggressive rebuilding program began in 2011, I often urged Metro to come up with some  way of letting riders know just how long the weekend trips would take.

We're talking about schedule disruptions two days out of every seven into 2017.

Metro came up with a plan that seemed to make a lot of sense: Put enough space between the trains so they wouldn't bunch up waiting to take their turns through the work zones where they must share tracks.

The downside was that this often mean a lot of time between trains, sometimes 24 minutes in the new weekend schedule. But the upside was that Metro could put that schedule on the online Trip Planner each Friday so riders would know when they needed to reach the stations and how long their trips would take.

Well, in practice, it often doesn't work out that way. The trains still bunch up waiting to take their turns through the work zones, and the real train schedule doesn't match what we see on Trip Planner.

Do we have any ridership numbers for the Silver line? Going home, it seems like the silver line trains are far less popular than the orange line and are practically empty by Ballston.

The last numbers I remember seeing for Silver Line ridership reflected the first week of service. The Post's Lori Aratani wrote:

On average, 15,942 passengers boarded a Silver Line train at one of the five new stations each weekday ...

According to Metro’s calculation that puts them roughly two-thirds of the way to achieving the goal of 25,000 weekday boardings after one year of service.

Even if there is a novelty factor involved (it is after all the first new line to be opened in more than 20 years) those numbers are probably good news to Metro since summer is traditionally a slow time in the region. Come fall, when folks are back, we could see a boost in ridership (or not, which would be a bad sign).

Wiehle Avenue, with its big parking garage at the west end of the Silver Line, is the busiest of the five new stations.

Tom Biesiadny, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, told me last week that the county's Wiehle garage is about 59 percent full.

Why has Metro forsaken Orange Line riders to Vienna? It's now standing room only to and from Vienna, which is not fun for a 40-minute ride into town. I realized we would lose Rush Plus, but given the demand, Metro should be having 8-car trains to and from Vienna during every rush hour. On 8/26, they had a (full) 6-car Orange and an 8-car Silver that emptied our at East Falls. I've been riding Metro for 30 years, but I never expected to be treated so poorly.

Seeing an eight-car train on the Silver Line is very unusual. Metro's plan called for only six-car trains on the line, at least to start.

One problem with the overall situation on rail cars is that Metro had to open the Silver Line before any of the new rail cars, the 7000 series, had entered service. The original arrival schedule for the cars had to be pushed back, so Metro had nothing more than the existing fleet to spread out onto the new line.

Now the new cars aren't scheduled to begin entering service till the end of this year.

The road condition on North Capitol Street near CUA and the VA Hospital is horrible -- there are bumps in the road that may as well be speed bumps in a section of road where cars are traveling 45 mph. Who do I tell about this before my teeth get knocked out?

I think the best way to go is use the mayor's call center for service issues. That's 311 on the phone in DC. Online, it's 311.dc.gov.

But I've got to say, I drove that portion of North Cap just yesterday and had no problems with the road surface.

OP here. The office building for my agency neither has set backs, nor is is fortified. It is "any old office building."

I left Dunn Loring to get to the Nats game on Saturday. The train sat for 25 minutes at W. Falls Church. There were shorter delays for the next few stops. The web site had said nothing. The D.L. station had no signage. The train's speakers didn't work, so all we heard was hissing and squawks. It was maddening.

Another Nats fan who took the Silver Line from Virginia to the Saturday game also wrote in about lengthy delays. Crews were working on the tracks between West Falls Church and East Falls Church, affecting service on both lines. But the trains on each line should have been 15 minutes apart, with no delays after boarding, as I said in the early exchange.

Sorry, but the previous poster who claimed that GSA has to locate federal agencies in fortified suburban locations cannot possibly be correct, given the huge number of federal employees who take the Metro to downtown locations (e.g., DOT, HUD, EPA, IRS, SEC, all of which are walking distance from at least one, and sometimes several, Metro stops).

Dr. G, have you noticed errors in the signs stating how many cars are on a train? As a Blue Line Sardine now, I pay close attention, and twice last week the signs said it was a 6-car train, but when I got off at my stop it was actually an 8-car train. And those last 2 cars were pretty empty whereas the others all had standing room only.

Errors on the platform signs have been a problem since the platform signs were installed. The whole system needs to be replaced with something more modern -- and more accurate.

Riders are paying even more attention on the Blue Line because they actually have some eight-car trains now in response to the crowding.

If the platform signs are working properly and there really is an eight-car train coming up on the Blue Line, it's a good idea to move toward the back end of the platform. I've spent a lot of time watching the trains go by since the Silver Line opened this summer and the rear cars on a Blue Line train can be quite spacious even with the forward cars are jammed.

Last week, I parked in a Metro parking lot for the first time in a long time... at least on a week day when I needed to pay to get out. I was at the East Falls Church station, if it makes a difference. When I got to the exit, I saw the credit card reader, but not a place to scan the Metro Farecard. My card doesn't have a magnetic strip. Was I just not looking right, or do some only take credit?

I can't comment specifically about the East Falls Church setup, because I haven't parked there in a really long time. Metro had greatly expanded its use of credit card readers at the Metro lots and garages, which is a good thing -- cuts down on delays at the exits. But there are still readers at all those parking facilities where you can use the SmarTrip cards.

Yeah and once the lease ends you may move. However, all new leases must meet the current GSA standards for set back or be fortified. And being an "older office building it might meet those standards. GSA cant just choose a site close to Metro that any company or firm can occupy. be happy your agency didnt move from glorious Arlington with hundreds of choices for lunch to Fort ***** with vending machines!

Yesterday, I was in a situation where I had to take metro from Rosslyn to Franconia-Springfield. I arrived on the Rosslyn platform at 5:12 pm. The train to Franconia-Springfield did not arrive until 5:42 pm, and it diod not arrive at Franconia until 6:22 pm. Is this really the best WMATA can do for weekend service? To my knowledge, there weren't any warnings or notifications associated with the Blue line, and I still had to wait for half an hour. Was there something else going on?

There was no work scheduled on the Blue Line, as you note. My guess: That work zone between East Falls Church and West Falls Church that delayed people on the Orange and Silver Line trains also wound up affected the Blue Line trains where they share the tunnel through DC with the other two lines.

I too have needed to take an alternate route when traveling Georgetown Pike between Old Dominion and the Beltway because of the terrible road conditions in the curvy part. I have magnesium rims and they can't take the bumpy patches and potholes at speed and I can't stand the headlights in my rear view mirror from the high-riding SUVs when I slow down to maneuver. There was so much rain in August which prevented them from working because of the method that they are using to mill, put down a sticky mixture, and then pave. They got so far behind I figured that they needed a new contract with extended time. Remember that they don't mill and pave on Friday and Saturday nights. I was very glad to see new pavement westbound at Old Dominion and Georgetown this morning which means that I can now go westbound. Hopefully the company with this contract can work faster and get the job done on time!

I know that any project like this, a basic shave and pave, is very sensitive to weather. The milled road surface must be dry and clear when the sprayers put down the tack, the liquid binder that will hold the new asphalt in place.

An ill-timed storm can cancel an entire night of paving.

My husband and I moved out of the city over the summer & have been commuting in/out of DC with our infant in the HOV-3 lane on 395. We have been wondering for weeks now, why don't they make 395 HOV-2? There are not that many cars in the HOV lane as it is and allowing for 2 people in the car would get some more cars out of the regular lanes without having a huge impact on the HOV lane. Why not? Is there a reason they do not want to make it HOV-2?

I don't believe Virginia will go that way, and in fact, converting to HOV2 would have a huge impact on travel times in the I-395 HOV lanes, which are among the most successful carpooling lanes in the nation.

I think we're so used to horrible congestion that highway drivers who spot free-flowing traffic in HOV or tolled lanes think something is going wrong when it's actually a sign that something is going right.

So I get that we may not have this issue for the rest of the season, but on Saturday I hopped on the blue line train at Braddock Rd. and there was no AC and quickly jumped into the next car-and guess what, no A/C. At National Airport I changed cars again, and yup no A/C and finally found A/C after switching cars one more time at Crystal City. 3 separate cars-all 6000 series. with no AC. By next summer will things be working better?

Metro has gone through various programs to improve the performance of the air conditioning units, yet each year, riders sweat through the failures.

Things may be better by next summer, but mainly because some people will have the benefit of riding on the new 7000 series cars, with their better designed AC systems.

This rider did the right thing -- not just sitting and stewing, but switching cars -- but to no avail. Do report those AC failures via the intercom to the train operator.

Thanks for joining me today, and let's do it again next Monday. Write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com or comment on our Dr. Gridlock blog postings.

And 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 the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
Recent Chats
  • Next: