Dr. Gridlock

May 16, 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.

Welcome, travelers. Let's start with some Metrorail talk, then I'll add in some other issues.

This morning was an hour of stop & go riding between WFC and Metro Center, mostly between WFC and Rosslyn (due to "traffic in the tunnel to Rossyln" and "reduced speeds downtown");l a trip that should take 25 minutes. I understand there are the bigger issues of the timing and other Metro problems, but why must they do this herky jerky stop and go activity? Also, we know driving erratically (speeding up and slowing down rapidly) wears out car parts more quickly, does it also cause problems with Metro mechanisms (increasing breakage and costs of maintenance, etc)?

I saw reports from some riders about slow trips on the Silver, Orange and Blue lines during the morning rush. At that time, it looked to me like the delays that have become routine for people traveling in the tunnel between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory.

Then after rush hour, I see this Tweet from Metrorail: "Trains encountered extra congestion this AM due to the speed/power restrictions asked of us by the FTA. Sorry for your experience!"

Did I miss a pre-commute warning from Metro to riders that their trips would take longer? I've looked around and can spot nothing like that from Metrorail.

Did anyone else see an alert in time to anticipate an extra-long ride this morning?

Here's some more information about the morning situation. Metro has put out an advisory saying:

"In the interest of safety, Metro has implemented speed and acceleration restrictions in certain areas to reduce the electrical power draw by trains. In the following areas, trains will depart stations more slowly and travel at a maximum speed of 45 mph:

  • Red Line between Grosvenor and Dupont Circle
  • Orange Line between Rosslyn and Minnesota Ave
  • Silver/Blue Line between Rosslyn and Benning Road

"These restrictions may result in congestion and increased travel times, especially if there is a service issue (e.g. train offload, mechanical problem, etc.) on the line. Metro will work to minimize the impact of these restrictions to the greatest extent possible.

"Metro apologizes for any inconvenience as we work to comply with federal directives and provide you with the safest ride possible."

There seems to be some uncertainty within Metro about the impact of the speed restrictions. They were in effect on Friday, said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel, and the rail managers thought they were having a negligible effect on travel times.

"The original thinking was that the restrictions, in and of themselves, should not have too much of an effect on service," Stessel told me in an email. "Friday was fine. This morning was a different story."


Okay, I'm an optimist, but don't you think Metro planning and communication have improved with the new general manager? What concrete positive signs are you looking for next? What can realistically be done in the next year?

Yes and no on communication.

I thought Metro GM Paul Wiedefeld did a good job rolling out the SafeTrack Plan. I was around when Metro rolled out the current version of its rebuilding program back in 2011. This new version was much more elaborate in describing what riders are in for, and it wasn't presented as "this is what we're doing" but rather as a draft version for review and comment.

That's all good.

However, what riders experienced this morning was dismaying. We knew that Metro planned to go ahead and comply with new safety restrictions from the FTA designed to reduce the power draw from the third rails.

Apparently, speed restrictions were imposed on Friday, and rail managers didn't see much effect.

But I don't like the sound of that. I'll share more information with you as I get it, and I expect you'll have some comments, but the Friday thing sounds like, "Let's try this and see what happens."

What I expect in the new era, if it really is a new era, is that Metro managers will tell the riders ahead of time, "This is what we're doing to comply with the FTA orders." That way, riders can have the information they need should they encounter the slows.

There may have been something going on this morning in addition to the speed restrictions. But no matter what, the riders should have known about the speed restrictions.

I can plan my daily commute from Eisenhower to White Flint accordingly but with the notice I just saw about speed restrictions I have a new concern. I have to be at my office by 7am this week, meaning I have to get on the yellow line by 5:42 am to arrive White Flint by 6:44 for the 15 minute walk to my office--How can I plan for the speed restriction that takes a good portion of my trip?

I'm not sure how to advise at this moment. If you were on that route last Friday or Thursday, you probably encountered the speed restrictions that were worked out between Metro and FTA late last week.

Metro managers apparently did not see an impact on travel times, but something happened -- maybe several things, including the speed restrictions -- that affected the Silver, Orange and Blue lines this morning.

You could have whatever combination of circumstances that was on your upcoming Red Line trips --  or not.

One thing I'm asking about: I noticed that MetroHero was Tweeting this morning about a lack of eight-car trains on the Orange and Blue lines.

The FTA's order had included the possibility of cutting back on eight-car trains to limit the power draw. But apparently, the agreement worked out between Metro and FTA late last week did not include cutbacks in eight-car trains and there were plenty of eight-car trains this morning on the Red Line.

Still trying to understand all this.


Regarding this morning's Stop-and-Go on Metro en-route from Rosslyn to Gallery Place-Chinatown, my Blue Line train had to deal with it because there was an Orange Line train ahead of us dealing with a sick rider at Foggy Bottom. Question: Can dealing with a sick rider be handled better if other riders notified the operator w/info about what car number, what door set numbers (left or right), side of the train, and which seat the sick person is located so that trains don't have to be unloaded? After giving the operator this info, then at the next station, Metro Transit Police can board the train, quickly identify the person and get him or her off the train without unloading and inconveniencing everybody else.

First, an incident involving a sick customer certainly could have contributed to this morning's stop and go experience for many riders on the Silver, Orange and Blue lines. That could have combined with the speed restrictions.

By the way, the speed restrictions are not just about the max speed but also the rate of acceleration. If the trains were getting backed up during rush hour, restrictions on the max speed plus the rate of acceleration might have accounted for the exaggerated stop and go experience that some of you have been describing.

But about the strategy on sick customers: The more information the train operator gets from the riders the better, but I'm not sure how much better. The riders can't diagnose the sick person's problem. Emergency responders are going to be needed for that. And it's not like the emergency responders are going to roll the sick customer off the train so it can go on its way. The situation still may take time to resolve.

Not a question, just a plug. Folks, consider giving a bike commute a whirl this Friday. Registration and info is available here: http://www.biketoworkmetrodc.org/.

Thank you. I've also got a blog posting about Bike to Work Day. I thought the event might have some extra value this year as commuters try to figure out what they're going to do during the extended maintenance disruptions on Metrorail.

When we talk about Metro's lack of adequate communication, do we know what the problem is? Is it that there's nobody to physically type out the tweets and alerts? Or is it more at the top that the directive to communicate issues don't get to the social media/alert person? Who's responsible?

I think there are different issues in different situations. This morning, I think the actual situation on the Silver, Orange Blue lines wasn't clear at the Metrorail Twitter account, or to people doing the Metrorail eAlerts by text and email.

This is still a confusing situation, but what I'm most concerned about at the moment is that there was no advisory to riders late last week saying, "Here's what we're going to do in order to comply with the FTA order. You're going to see speed restrictions here, here and here."

I don't know who exactly should have made that happen, but I'm thinking the general manager should have made sure it happened.

Do you think it is possible to eliminate the 3rd rail in the future? A lot of the problems seem to be connected with the third rail. Also eliminating that would make it more safe for self evictions for example.

But I'm not sure how you would move the trains, unless we all got out and pushed.

Were the speed restrictions today a one time thing or is this something that we will need to account for in our future commutes? And why were the speed restrictions not on WMATA alerts? If there were 15-20 minute delays, it would seem prudent to let the public know that the trains were going slower than usual.

If there were 15 to 20 minute delays, as some riders were reporting, there should have been alerts about that. Period. Knowing what the cause was would have been an additionally helpful layer of information.

Not sure if this is your lane here, but with all the gloom and doom I've been hearing over airport security wait times, can I actually believe it when Dulles says online their security wait times are 3 minutes at the east gate and 11 minutes at the west gate? http://www.flydulles.com/iad/security-information

I'm not sure who's doing the timing. My guess is that there are midday times at Dulles when the wait is short. But I wouldn't count on it being exactly what you're seeing on that web page.

By the way, I want to encourage air travelers to sign up for TSA Pre, to get through the security lines faster this summer. I signed up last year and love it like I love my E-ZPass.

Any word from OPM on a government-wide response to the Safe Track plan? Will the feds treat this like inclement weather where there's such a policy? Or will agencies handle it themselves?

Haven't seen anything from OPM yet, though I think federal policies on telecommuting and work hours will be crucial to the success of Metro's SafeTrack Plan.

One thing is we're all waiting to see a final version of SafeTrack. The schedule isn't set yet.

Metro is the favorite topic right now--and I understand. I use it daily myself and the whole situation is extremely difficult. But I'm curious about the new(ish) signs on 66 between the Beltway and Rt 50. I like the warning of "Slow Traffic Ahead", but the speed limits are whack. Reading on the VDOT site, their hope is that drivers will "eventually" start obeying the signs and that it will facilitate traffic and prevent backups. Has this worked in other places that you may know of? All I know is people either ignore them (staying at speed if the traffic is clear or basically stopped if it's not) or only a few obey and cause a dangerous situation. (Drivers going 70 and 35 on the same stretch of road is just ASKING for an accident to happen.) Do you have any thoughts as to the benefits of these signs?

Check out the column I wrote about VDOT's Active Traffic Management system on I-66.

The variable speed limits are generated by sensors and computers. There are two goals: 1) Balance the speeds across lanes and within a sector of I-66 to make travel safer and 2) prepare drivers to encounter a slowdown up ahead.

Drivers routinely ignore any type of speed limit sign.

What's the latest on the I-66 tolls, widening, HOV exemption, hot lanes, etc? And when will the changes go into effect? And when they go into effect, what will be the best route from Manassas to DC for those that can't pay $85 a week? Thanks.

My latest posting on I-66 was about VDOT's public meetings on widening the four miles on the eastbound side between the Dulles Connector Road and the Fairfax Drive exit.

The HOT lanes are scheduled to start operating in mid-2017. The widening should be done by early 2020.

I can't imagine paying $85 a week, so what I'd do is pick up a passenger so I could carpool for free at peak periods or get on a commuter bus.

There was discussion a few months ago about replacing the dim lighting in stations yet there hasn't been any news since the original announcement was made. I believe a station on the Red Line was going to be used as a test bed and if it went successfully all stations would be remodeled as well. I would appreciate knowing the status of this project.

One of the goals Metro has set for itself in the Customer Accountability Report introduced by GM Paul Wiedefeld is to improve station lighting and other aspects of the station environments. So you might keep track of progress there. You'll find the Customer Accountability Report by using the search box on Metro's website. The last update was May 9.

But you're memory of the "test bed" has to do with a plan for the Bethesda station. As far as I can tell that specific plan has not advanced. There was a lot of negative reaction to those ideas, though to me, it looked like  a worthwhile experiment.

A friend and I went to the Nats game on Saturday evening. (No need for sympathy, cuz I love 'em.) She lives less than a mile from West Falls Church metro and I live in Woodbridge but no way did we take Metro to get to the game. I picked her up at her house, we drove in and parked at a lot in Metro Center for $10, then caught a quick cab ride to the ballpark for about $15. It was quick and convenient and worth every penny.

I was on the train, and in the car, where a passenger fainted this morning at Foggy Bottom. The train was not offloaded.

Speed restrictions are one thing, but I would love it if the train would start and stop once per trip between stations. The other day I counted nine stutter-stops before my train finally got moving and stayed moving between Metro Center and Gallery Place. (A co-worker says she was told there's a track issue in that spot on the Glenmont side? I haven't heard or read anything official about this.) One of these times they're going to find themselves with a sick passenger they didn't have before. Urp.

I don't know of a speed restriction or a track issue between those two very close stations. (Not saying it doesn't exist. Just don't know of one.)

Will there be any increased bus service along the Metro routes while there are extended maintenance disruptions?

There are a couple of things on bus service: When stations are shut, Metro is going to use a special fleet of buses to serve as shuttles -- the thing called a "bus bridge."

But it's also that suburban bus systems may be able to add extra service to off-set the Metrorail disruptions. No announcements on that yet.

Any word on changes to the Metro SafeTrack Plan following input from FTA? And, when can we expect to hear further info on something that was going to be implemented at the beginning of June (or a new plan and timetable based on FTA input)? To be sure, it takes time for Metro to negotiate and plan to implement a significant maintenance initiative. But, it will also take riders and employer some time to adjust to the potential and actual impacts of the Plan, or the modified plan. Finally, the rider impacts of work on the 15 major rail segments is useful, but we have also been waiting for info on maintenance work on the underground tunnels within the metro core. Currently, we have no information on what will be done within the metro core, and have no basis to judge potential impacts or Metro and rider work-arounds to those impacts. Yes, we have more information that we received in the past, but there are some fairly wide communication gaps that need to be filled very soon as well!

We don't have a revised version of SafeTrack. We hope to see one later this week that incorporates the FTA orders, but no guarantees on that.

My suggestion to riders: You know from the draft version what Metro has in mind for particular segments. That's likely to happen sometime. It's just that the FTA directive may change the order. So it's still a good idea to be thinking about how you would commute during the disruption.

I think we do know what's going to happen in the core: There won't be any night-owl rail service on Fridays and Saturdays.  Weeknight single-tracking will routinely begin at 8 p.m. rather than 10 p.m. And there will be a moratorium on early openings or late closings for special events.

We still need to see a specific schedules for the late-night track work. Those usually are available a week or so before the work, but with the extended hours, it would be good for riders to have even more lead time for making their nighttime plans.

Just FYI, I am on the Orange line between 5:30-6:00 am. This morning I didn't notice any issues. For the most part, delays start building in the system later in the morning. For the reader who needs to be at work by 7am, I suspect they might be OK time-wise as they'll be in the system pretty darn early. Regardless, I wish them good luck!!

That's a very good thought on the timing for the Red Line rider.

Metro reports that this morning's delays on the Silver, Orange and Blue became noticeable at 8:20 a.m.

Pretty sure you have to bike to work...

Could they put it overhead above the trains or use a different source of electricity? I never understood why it was put in the position it is because it also causes an situation to become unsafe all because of that rail.

We've become obsessed with the third rails, and for good reason, considering all the electrical problems Metro has had for more than a year. But given all the problems we've got right now, don't you think it would be too much to have the entire system rebuilt to accommodate a new power source for the trains?

Who determines which direction the HOT lanes are set for I-95 on weekends? I was coming out of Woodbridge headed North towards DC Sunday afternoon and the lanes were opened Northbound. The main (free)lanes were pretty open the whole way and few cars were in the toll lanes. Meanwhile the Southbound lanes were at a standstill for several miles North of the Ocuquan. It seems like the other direction should have the extra capacity on a Sunday afternoon. Is the schedule fixed or does it vary?

Transurban, the express lanes operator, sets the hours in coordination with the Virginia Department of Transportation. The hours are based on studies of traffic flow over the years.

They don't change direction on the fly and they don't change them based on traffic in one particular sector at one particular hour.

I guess technology may someday allow for that, but I don't see it happening any time soon.

Why does it sometimes take 10 seconds or more for train operators to open the doors when arriving at a station?

The operators are supposed to pause for at least a few seconds after stopping to make sure they're going to open the doors on the correct side. I guess it's the equivalent of coming to a complete stop at a stop sign so you can look left and right before proceeding.

Thanks for joining me today. I extended the chat and tended to focus on the Metro delays because that was the news of the hour. And I didn't publish all the comments you had about this morning's situation or the general issue of Metrorail delays. Will try to add some of this on the blog.

Talk with you again next Monday, and as always, 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 Dr. Gridlock blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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