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Dr. Gridlock
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Posted at 03:36 PM ET, 02/06/2012

Metrorail riders: Which work-around is less annoying?

For many Metro riders, what I’m about to ask is the equivalent of “Would you prefer to be shot or burned at the stake?”

Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad. My question is: During Metrorail’s weekend maintenance, is a rider better off with the single-tracking system to get around work zones, or the system that shuts down entire sections of lines and uses shuttle buses to span the gap?

I raised the issue during my online chat Monday in response to a traveler who had seen several letters in my Sunday column. The letters praised Metro’s performance during late-January shutdowns that affected the writers’ weekend trips.

In Monday’s chat, the commenter wrote: “To echo your recent letters on prior shuttle service for scheduled shutdowns, the shuttle service at Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom [this past weekend] was marvelous, with understandable signs and helpful staff. Metro can behave very well when it can schedule its behavior.”

In response, I said that I understand why Metro wants to do these weekend shutdowns. “They create more space for workers and several projects can be tackled during the same weekend. And from the riders’ side, Metro has a pretty good record when it can schedule the bus bridges, as opposed to the ones it tries to create on the fly to deal with emergencies.

“It’s unclear to me whether riders prefer this style to the single-tracking style. At least with single-tracking, they can stay on the trains or in the stations, rather than having to get off, go out in whatever the weather is, and board a bus.”

It’s not that Metro is offering to let riders pick their poison. But given that the maintenance disruptions will continue for years, we could at least discuss how we feel about these facts of life.

Pro station shutdowns: The trains can be set up to offer something close to normal weekend service on either side of the disruption. Metro generally has enough buses ready to handle the crowd getting off a train where the disruption starts. The amount of extra travel time is pretty well known.

Anti-station shutdowns: You have to get off the train, walk out into all sorts of weather to board a bus, get off the bus and get back on the train.

Pro single-tracking: Once you get on a train, you get to stay on the train.

Anti-single-tracking: Riders often find single-tracking a less predictable way of traveling. It can throw them off schedule up and down the line and at transfer points. It really messes with the electronic train-arrival displays on the platforms.

What’s your view? And is there a third way?

Here’s how the letter writers in my Sunday column described their experiences.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

On Saturday, Jan. 28, my 8-year-old grandson and I left my home and walked to the Bethesda Metro station headed for the Monster Truck show at Verizon Center. I had heard on the TV news that the Red Line would be closed and a shuttle bus trip required, so we left home at 5 p.m. for the 7:30 show.

Our train stopped at Van Ness, and we all had to get off. There were plenty of Metro employees on the platform to answer questions and direct us. And there were three empty buses waiting for us with more Metro employees to line people up and move us along.

We arrived at Dupont Circle, and more Metro employees were waiting to herd us to the entrance and explain not to swipe our cards until we reached our final destination. We got to the Gallery Place station about 7 p.m., walked into Verizon Center, got food and drinks, got to our seats and enjoyed the show.

After it ended at 9:30 p.m., we reversed the process, again with plenty of Metro employees and plenty of buses. We got back to the Bethesda station about 11 p.m. and home before midnight. No problems!

Nobody likes to have Metro stations shut down for scheduled repairs when we want to use it, but Metro did a great job and our local media did a great job getting the word out. Thanks to all.

— Charles Morris Pelham, Chevy Chase

That was unusual. I write frequently about the difficulties riders have with the maintenance disruptions on Metrorail. Yet here was a traveler telling me the transit authority did something right.

And here it is again.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

On Sunday evening, Jan. 29, we were at first dismayed to learn that our train would terminate at Van Ness because of Red Line closures. We were concerned that we would be late for a work event. Instead, station personnel and others could not have been nicer, the shuttle system worked smoothly, and we arrived at our destination near Dupont Circle no more than five minutes later than we would have if the trains had been running.

Yes, it’s inconvenient to live through any kind of system upgrade (even in our own homes and offices), and I look forward to when we have our old reliable Metro system up and running again. At the same time, Metro seems to be taking extra steps to ensure that the work-arounds are easy.

— Angelica E. Braestrup,

The District

Now, neither of these writers is a Pollyanna about the passengers’ plight. Both note the inconvenience of having to get on and off buses and trains when Metro splits a line for weekend maintenance. Braestrup also said in a follow-up exchange about Metro that “there’s a lot to be critical about.” She highlighted the jerkiness of manually operated trains.

But Metro does tend to perform well on weekends when it builds bus bridges to span the gaps between closed stations. Many riders tell me they think Metro is getting too much experience at it. They don’t want shutdowns to become any more routine than they already are.

Yet Metro officials tell us that the shutdowns and the disruptions caused by trains sharing tracks will continue for years. If transit officials know we’re locked into this, they could make improvements in communications about the delays.

How about upgrading the electronic information displays on the platforms so schedule disruptions don’t fry the little computer brain they rely on? Metro Deputy General Manager Dave Kubicek tells me there’s a way to do that, by creating a system that uses train location data coming through the operations control center.

That wouldn’t take away the pain of delays, but we’d have a better idea what to expect.

By  |  03:36 PM ET, 02/06/2012

Categories:  Metro | Tags:  DC transportation, Metro, WMATA

 
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