Dr. Gridlock

Jan 04, 2016

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.

Happy New Year, travelers. I'm going to start 2016 with several questions and comments about Metro service -- seems like those are always plentiful -- then go for one about pedestrian safety, and a couple of other traffic issues.

Happy New Year Dr. Gridlock! I read your predictions column the other day in which you mentioned more 7000 series Metrorail cars arriving this year. Do you have any more specific information about when, and on which lines, those new cars will/might be deployed? Thanks!

Paul Wiedefeld, the new general manager, has spoken about the new rail cars in various forums since he took over on Nov. 30. He's not happy.

Problems with the 7000 series led to a shutdown at the Kawasaki production plan in Lincoln, NE, late last year. Wiedefeld has said that getting those problems fixed is a top priority, and that Metro will accept new cars only when it's satisfied that its getting cars it can actually put into service.

Metro officials said late last month that they have 76 cars, but not all of them are in service. The most recent predictions I've seen are that cars should start arriving in late winter at the rate of about eight a month. (I think Wiedefeld would like to see that increased, as would we all.)

I've seen no information about which lines would get new cars in what order. They're not meant for any particular line.

There was one mention in the Post of the new 7000 series cars having software problems. I have never seen any follow up. Can you give us an update?

It turned out to be more than software, as Post Metro transit reporter Paul Duggan told us in November.

This is from Paul's story:

Design flaws in Metro’s new 7000 series trains, involving brittle door bolts and loose seats, have slowed production of the high-tech rolling stock, exacerbating a chronic shortage of rail cars during rush hours and putting the transit agency behind schedule in the long-term modernization of its fleet."

Part of the problem with Metro is that it appears held together with masking tape-- I do not sense that the system is maintained to prevent failure, it is just managed from one crisis to the next. Examples include trains that need to be offloaded due to malfunctions just hours into the workweek, signal failures being commonplace (is it that hard to maintain the functionality of a signal?), and train doors that don't like to be looked at the wrong way. All of these issues add up to an extremely unstable system, one that melts down without a moment's notice. The only option I have as a passenger is to get in and out of the system as quickly as possible, trying to get to my destination ahead of the next failure. Does the new Metro GM understand how unstable Metro operations are? Perhaps someone can suggest a goal for Metro to operate so well that the #1 cause of delays becomes those truly out of Metro's control, such as medical emergencies (not hoping for them, just an example of a legitimate reason for a delay).

That's a good description of how many riders assessed the system's performance in 2015. I think the new general manager is aware of the nature of the problems, but there's no way someone who started the job on Nov. 30 is going to have mastered all the intricacies about the decades-long history of deterioration.

In my preview of 2016, I started with a prediction that Metro will rebound, but I did note for readers who may be startled that they need to consider that 2015 was one of the worst years in the transit system's history.

What is the reason that Metro escalators are so prone to functionality issues?

I'm reading a transit history book called "The Race Underground" about the construction of the subways in Boston and New York.

I got to the part about how Boston planners decided they would keep the subway near the surface so riders wouldn't need to use elevators to reach the platforms, and thought, Wow, that was foresighted.

Metro, built in the late 20th century, is the most escalator-dependent system in the world. It was like the original planners never thought these things would need to be fixed.

That's the original problem from which the escalator mess stems. There's just too many of them.

So over the decades, you got various companies involved in making escalators and you've got Metro varying between internal repair crews and contractors.

They're dealing with old equipment, which of course is prone to break down, and the repair crews don't even know what's busted or who made the busted parts till they tear the things open. Then sometimes they have to go back to the shop and manufacture parts, because the original maker has gone out of business.

You have called on the new GM to pick one thing and fix it quickly and completely to help restore rider confidence. Has he? On this chat the new GM said he had a meeting with all station managers and told them to improve customer service (as in be nicer). Has this happened?

I'll leave it to riders to say whether their station experiences have been any different over the past several weeks, but I wasn't expecting significant changes on anything in Metro in just a month.

I'll say again that one thing I'd like to see fixed in the short-term is the annoying situation at Franconia-Springfield where riders can't tell the destination of the next train. That seems fixable in the short run, even if it means having a staffer on the platform pointing to the next train.

On the subject of pedestrians in danger,  the current concern --  a valid one -- is with walkers who cross streets while using their cell phones.

I would like to suggest another which deserves attention, pedestrians who walk on the wrong side of the road. The law, and good sense, dictates that when walking on a road without sidewalks, pedestrians walk on the left facing the oncoming traffic, but every day while driving in Bethesda I see several violators who put themselves at risk, especially at dusk during these short winter days.

Some even are dress in dark clothes which makes them even harder to see and some are leading dogs or pushing baby strollers, and even talking on their cells at the same time. Please dedicate a column to this situation. I'm sure that most of the violators don't even know the law or are they aware of this basic rule of the road.

Howie Lane, Bethesda

When I walk around my Montgomery County neighborhood, I'm surprised when I see someone doing the logical, commonsense thing: Walk facing the oncoming traffic. It's so rare. In walking a few miles on streets that don't have sidewalks, I might see just a couple of people out of 50 facing the traffic.

And it's often just as the commenter said: They walking dogs or pushing strollers, they've got headphones over their ears and they're wearing dark clothing.

It's suicidal. 

Question for a small but growing number of my fellow drivers at dusk and in the early evening: What's wrong with you??? Why do so many of you persist in driving your hard-to-see vehicles without lights. Turn your %$#@! lights on!!

I see them, too, but as with many of our other traffic issues, there's no way to tell if the behavior is more common than it was a decade or two ago.

Some travelers have commented that they think it is more common because daytime running lights are more common, but I think that's giving these drivers the benefit of the doubt.

One bit of encouragement for the forgetful: Many police officers watch for vehicles without headlights because it's a telltale of a drunk driver.

Are electronic maps of the interiors of Metro rail stations available? This would be helpful, especially when navigating through stations with multiple exits. I've seen a physical one in L'Enfant so I presume they exist for all the stations. WMATA lists online Entrance/Evacuation maps but those don't show the station interiors.

I don't know of any source for online maps showing the platform, stairs, escalators, elevators, mezzanines and other station details.

This is an interesting question. Do riders feel they would benefit from such maps?

For many months, there have been lengthy (typically 20 minutes) delays on the Red Line between 10 and 3. This is very tough for commuters who travel outside peak rush hours. How much longer is this going to last?

I think this is a reference to the midday track work program, which officially lasts from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Metro started midday track work, then stopped it, then started it up again last year to speed up repairs. I don't know of any end date. The work involves different segments of lines.

On the Red Line this week, the work is between Medical Center and Grosvenor.

When is the public transit benefit increase that Congress approved in December expected to go into effect? I still had my old insufficient amount of $130 on my card when it was used for the first time this month today.

The higher transit benefit of $255 per month is in effect right now. I think many of you will want to check with your employer's benefits office this week.

Dr. G - Now that WMATA has retrofitted all their fare vending machines to dispense Smartrip cards instead of paper farecards, when will they update the fare charts on each machine? They list the paper prices ($1 more per trip) and it's confusing since they don't even sell paper farecards anymore. I tried contacting Metro but didn't get a response.

I wouldn't have expected any need to change the fare charts until the use of paper cards ends in early March. (You can't buy them any more but you can still use them.)

Before I left my house at 10:30 for my Pentagon City-Tenleytown trip to work this morning, I checked wmata.com to see if there was any single tracking on the Red Line as there had been for much of 2015. No alerts, no advisories, so I figured I was fine. Not so. When I got to Gallery Place, I saw that every other train terminated at Farragut North, which means one thing: single tracking. While I was waiting (after 11), Metro finally posted the advisory after someone Tweeted asking what was going on. This is SCHEDULED track work. Why can't Metro post these alerts and advisories well in advance and not after work has started? This seems like an easy enough thing to fix, and yet...

This is confusing for Red Line riders: The midday work zone is between Medical Center and Grosvenor. Trains should be leaving the ends of the line about every 15 minutes, but there are more trains in service between Silver Spring and Farragut North to increase the frequency in that zone.

I saw the alert on Metro's website under Alerts and Advisories, but am not sure what time that advisory was posted this morning.



So when all the 7000-series are finally in, will WMATA's fleet really be any larger than it is today? The 1000s are being retired and the 4000s and 5000s are being scrapped from what I understand. I've got to imagine the 2000/3000 series cars don't have a ton of life left in them. Additionally, the 7Ks can only be operated in 8-car sets. Therefore, say you have eight 6-car trains today - that's 48 cars, but it would take 64 7K cars to replace those 48 cars. Maybe it's just me, but I don't see any relief coming anytime soon...

Yes, the fleet will be larger, but still not enough for all eight-car trains at rush hours. Many riders will recall that this issue came up among board members early in 2015. Most of the new cars will be used to replace old cars.

Knowing that, I still say that the increasing availability of the new rail cars is likely to be the single biggest factor in improved rail service reliability in 2016.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, Appreciate all you do. I run home from work at least 4 days a week and although I try to change up my route, I have noticed a pattern, specifically in the Dupont Circle area, I'm hoping you can shed some light on. I see pedestrian crosswalk countdowns skip several numbers, such as skipping from 16 seconds to 4 seconds. Are these malfunctioning lights or is this a way to control the traffic flow? It seems like it would defeat the purpose of the countdowns, which I always thought were to let people (especially those with mobility issues) determine if they can safely make it across the intersection with the time allotted. And to get on my soapbox for a second...some resolution suggestions for 2016: get your faces out of your screens people, turn your headphones down if you can't hear me yell for you to move to the right, turn your lights on when your wipers are on, and everyone share the road! Thanks!

I've seen the ped countdowns skip seconds, and believe that's a malfunction in that particular signal. As the commenter says, any other explanation defeats the purpose of the countdown signal.

The "soapbox" tips are good ones. One behavior pattern I think we can reasonably assert to be true: More people today are staring into smartphones while walking than were a decade ago.

For all the bashing that gets done, in this forum and others, I'd like share a positive exchange, although not mine. I entered Woodley Park station this morning around 9:30 and was at a machine adding fare. A station manager approached a man using one of the machines and asked if he was trying to buy a pass. The man replied yes, that he was here on business and thought he'd be riding downtown everyday for about a month and thought the 28-day pass was his best bet. The station manager then asked which station he'd be exiting and proceeded to calculate the fare to Metro Center, time of day, how often the trip etc., to help determine the customer's need. I finished my transaction and proceeding to the train thinking I needed to send this to Dr. Gridlock. Like any workplace, there are good employees and bad employees. Now if only the operators would stop saying "Groz-venor"

Perhaps it's just hope springing eternal, but it seems to me on-train and station announcements have been clearer, livelier and more effective since the new GM came on board. Could this be one of the small improvements for which you've advocated?

It's possible. I know the garbled announcements are a problem Paul Wiedefeld says he has experienced and wants to do something about.

In these early days, its a message he could have conveyed to train operators, but he couldn't have had time to fix some of the electronic and mechanical issues involved. For example, when different generations of cars are combined into one train, it messes with the loudspeaker system.

Just as predicted when these lanes opened, the cheating on the I95 HOT lanes is rampant during rush hour in the morning and the evening. More single drivers are realizing the police cannot realistically enforce the "HOV" rule during rush hour, so they set their transponder to HOV and ride for free. That's because when you have three lanes of traffic going by at 65+ MPH, there is no way the trooper can read his scanner in his vehicle and then look in all the vehicles to determine which car was set to HOV at the last reader but only has one rider. So the Virginia State Police have given up trying to enforce the HOV/HOT rules during rush hour. Oh, sure they sit along the side of the road just south of the Prince William Parkway, but they aren't really scanning for cheaters. They are simply waiting for the occasional truck and trailer to drive by and stop them. This fact should be easy to disprove. Just ask the State Police to provide the total number of traffic tickets written during rush hour for violation of the HOV rule by single drivers. Bet you any amount of money it is zero or close to it and that's not simply because all the dishonest people who used to cheat on the HOV lanes suddenly became honest once the lanes changed to HOT. As for the HOV lanes north of Edsall Road, I haven't seen a State Trooper on that section enforcing the HOV rule since last year.

I don't have ticket stats. I can tell you that officials with Transurban, the company that operates the lanes, say they are satisfied with the enforcement system and have no plans to ask the state for a change.

That impressed me, because to Transurban it's not just a matter of fairness among customers. It's potential lost revenue.


Why is Virginia so keen to jump to expand the Express Lanes concept? Sure, the lanes seem to be moderately successful on the Beltway (assuming you don't get stuck into them for 2 hours when a truck load of marble spills and you have to fight tooth and nail to get a $15 toll removed from your EZPass account), where 4 lanes of additional capacity and reconfigured interchanges were included as part of the project. However, on the I-95 lanes, where existing "free" lanes have been co-opted into 24-hour HOT lanes the verdict at this point is at best inconclusive, bordering on failure when you consider the mile-long backups at the southbound terminus that won't be remedied for TWO YEARS!!! So if you've got one somewhat successful HOT project that included significantly increased roadway capacity but another with limited data and a botched terminus design, how can officials so quickly push even more chips into the HOT lane pot? It seems like madness to me.

I think the lack of data about how HOT lanes have affected traffic is a significant issue. That said, I'm not sure that traffic data based on a year, or two years of HOT lanes would tell us much about the long-term impact of high-occupancy toll lanes.

As you know, Virginia now has several different plans to expand the network. The biggest, or course, is the plan for I-66. The inside the Beltway plan is the most controversial because it will convert existing HOV lanes to HOT lanes at peak periods. State officials see this as a way to better manage traffic -- by the variable t0ll -- and also as a way of raising money to help commuters leave their cars behind, through more support for carpooling and commuter buses.

The other plans are to extend the 95  Express Lanes eight miles north up I-395 to the D.C. line. To me, it seems logical to make that route into one system, rather than continue going with two (HOV transitioning to HOT). Plus, the state's plan calls for using toll revenue to enhance carpooling and commuter buses in the I-95/395 corridor. This was a big piece missing from the original HOT lanes plan.

The southern extension on I-95 is different from all the rest in that it's meant to ease the worst traffic problem stemming from creation of the HOT lanes, at the point where the express lanes and regular lanes merge.

That design problem doesn't tell us that the HOT lanes concept is invalid.

Why do metro employees who are based at rail stations seem so ambivalent towards fare jumpers? Riders sneaking in behind paying riders, riders jumping the turnstyles: and while this is happening, metro staff can often be seen in their booths with their heads down (if they are in the booth at all!). Perhaps this speaks to the general hands-off approach we've seen from metro employees, but as someone who has had fare jumpers sneak in behind me more times than I can count, I'm extremely frustrated by this.

Station managers have legitimate safety concerns about confronting fare jumpers. That's why the transit police launched their enforcement campaign last year and plan to extend it this year.

I just read this column and was blown away with his statement that 270 cars currently in use are not "crashworthy" (his quotes). What does this mean? I read it as saying 270 cars are deathtraps. How in good conscience can Metro use cars that they will not survive a crash? Wouldn't it be better to reduce service than expose thousands of riders to sure death in the case of a crash?

This is a reference to the 1000 series rail cars, the oldest cars in the Metrorail fleet. The program to buy the 7000 series cars has, as a key goal, the replacement of the oldest cars.

This should have been set in motion long before the Red Line crash in 2009. But it wasn't. Faced with a choice of withdrawing such a big part of the fleet from service or waiting for the new cars, many riders, I believe, would make the uncomfortable choice of sticking with the old cars. (The 1000 series cars are embedded in the middle of the trains, though there's no clear evidence that this makes the trains safer.)

Why is Metro not buying cars that are already in use and tested by other systems around the world?

Metro did that for decades. But that left us with old technology when there were many upgrades available. (The 7000 series cars have many fine features that riders will appreciate, but this isn't exactly SpaceX technology.)

Now I'll have to add "The Race Underground" to my reading list too! Can you share something like a list of your top 10 transportation books that help explain how we've arrived at the current state of DC transit and roads?

That's a great idea, and I'd love to get suggestions from readers. My top two:  "The Great Society Subway" to explain how Metro got to be Metro, and "The Big Roads" to explain our urban interstate system.

Speaking of pedestrians: we exist. There are two crosswalks on my route home where I *routinely* come close to being hit by drivers who are turning right - in one case because they're looking for traffic coming from their left, i.e. straight through the intersection, and never checking to see if anyone is in the crosswalk; in the other, because they misjudge the time it will take them to turn right on red across my path. In both cases, again, I'm in a crosswalk with the right of way - and in any event I'm on foot and they're in a two-ton vehicle. I've hung bike lights from my coat among other please-don't-drive-through-me precautions. But we can't do it all alone. Thanks for your ongoing efforts to remind drivers that walkers and cyclists and so on are out here as well.

This is a major, major problem. Drivers tend to look for other drivers, rather than for pedestrians or cyclists.

I hang around at intersections -- I think I've described this odd behavior before -- and watch what everybody does. When I look at the faces of turning drivers, I mostly see them looking in the direction of oncoming motorists rather than at the people they're about to turn into. I see this with drivers turning right, as the commenter notes,  and with drivers turning left.

In bad weather and night time, I've started to notice a number of folks with no tail lights on, but some sort of headlights on. Are these daytime running lights that people think are enough for night time use? How can you tell someone on the highway how dangerous it is that they don't have tail lights?

That's most likely people with their daytime lights on automatically. The daytime running lights are in the front. Nothing shows in the back.

One tech issue I'd like to mention here: Dashboard indicators can be confusing on this. I wish the dashboard indicators for lights were standardized throughout the auto industry.

YES! Especially for stations with multiple lines and entrances. It would be helpful to be able to see the layout and for the maps to label what exits to use to get to nearby sites/buildings so you aren't wandering the station trying to read the signs in the crowds.

I think that maps showing platform details would be useful to visitors, especially to chaperones of school groups, etc. Also useful would be either a compass rose or an arrow pointing North at every metro exit. Emerging from underground is disorienting, especially at night.

I couldn't agree more with the comment about headlight use. Particularly with the increasing number of higher-powered lights (LED, HID), it becomes increasingly necessary to use the day/night mirror - especially at dawn or dusk. Cars with no lights on simply disappear in the mirror. I think a primary problem is the brightly-lit instrument panels. Used to be you couldn't see the instruments when it got dark - a sure sign you needed to turn on the headlights. Toyota was a big initial product with these lit panels. You can still see it now - take a look at how many cars with no lights are Toyotas! But that's changing fast. Why not just mandate auto-on lights? Yeah, I know. Someone will scream "too much government control." Give me a break.

I think that's the way of the future. Automate the headlights so drivers can't forget to turn them on in low visibility.

Seriously, I forget to turn my headlights on occasionally because the daytime running lights provide enough to see by. I've learned to double check, but it's happened several times. On a related note, I'm noticing that the new LED lights are so bright cars might as well have high beams on. Has there been any discussion about safety issues because of the brightness. Willing to consider that I may need my eyes checked, but other friends have complained of the same.

Just a note about the medical issue you raise: As my father got older, I noticed he complained more and more about oncoming drivers with their high beams on.

It wasn't so. As our eyes age, they have a tougher and tougher time adjusting to rapid changes in lighting, and we need to be aware of this.

I read somewhere that WMATA's plan is to improve on-time rates even if this results in fewer trains passing. I think customers don't track train scheduled times but just want as many trains passing as possible. Any update on this?

I think the commenter is referring to the Metro staff proposal from last summer about decreasing the number of trains on some lines in an effort to improve the reliability of the overall schedule.

The board sent that proposal back for more consideration.

One of the issues was whether fewer trains would actually make the schedule more reliable, or just wind up decreasing service.

Dr. G: Longtime reader of your chats. Want to give a shoutout to the Glenmont Station Manager on Christmas Eve morning. He saw my wife using her old paper farecard with a Smartrip in her other hand, left the office, and sprinted down to the platform to make sure we knew that Metro was no longer selling paper farecards and that she could add the value from her paper farecard to the Smartrip, explaining exactly how to do it when we got to our destination. Nothing huge, nothing remarkable, but a mental checkmark in my mind for perhaps the greater emphasis on customer service trickling down from a new GM to station managers.

The Red Line track work advisory was posted at approximately 11:25 am. Trains were already terminating at Farragut North by then. I just don't see why WMATA can't post these advisories and subsequent reminders well (as in at least a day) in advance.

Do you think the new Metro GM feels that WMATA is a good value for its customers? Shouldn't the first thing he does, something that would only require some reprogramming of computer systems, is to lower ALL fares and parking fees? Riding the rails, buses, and parking at WMATA lots is one of the biggest ripoffs in the transportation industry. It costs me over $300 a month for my daily commute with trips that regularly take over 30-40 minutes longer than it does to drive. The only reason I use WMATA is because my employer forces me to, and pays for all my transportation expenses, even though I never get that hour commute time back each day. Nonetheless, it strikes me how expensive it is for a system that doesn't save any time or offer any greater convenience over driving in the region. The new GM must understand this, and if he did, he first move should be to lower the cost of riding.

I think riders should be deeplysuspicious of any new transit chief who, after a month on the job, decides he knows enough about Metro's long-term finances to recommend a fare cut. (And a fare cut involves a lot more than reprogramming some computers.)

Paul Wiedefeld did go along with the idea that there should be no fare increase during the next fiscal year.

Happy New Year, all! Here's to hoping 2016 is better than 2015 for Metro!

Let's end on that hopeful note. Thanks to everyone for joining in today and getting our 2016 discussions off to a good start. Back again next Monday.

Stay safe out there and enjoy the new year.

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 Dr. Gridlock blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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