What options do riders have when Metro stalls?

Blue and Yellow Line trains were forced to single track in Virginia on Monday, delaying thousands of riders. (File photo by Linda Davidson – The Washington Post)

A big part of the discussion during Monday’s online chat involved riders’ frustrations over the morning commute on the Blue and Yellow lines. Some questioned how Metro handled the incident, others vented about communications problems or looked for practical ways they could deal with these incidents on their own.

The lines are back to normal operations for the afternoon rush, but shortly before service began at 5 a.m., a utility engine began leaking fluid onto the rails near Reagan National Airport station. During the cleanup, Blue and Yellow line trains had to share a track through that part of their route.

Here are a few examples of what riders said, wrapping in some comments that I posted during the discussion and a few that I didn’t have time to publish while we were live. I’ve edited them down for space, while trying to keep the commenters’ main points.

Morning Mess: Dr. G,  The Metro problem this morning was ridiculous. I stood on a Blue train at Braddock Road for 40 minutes (8:35 to 9:15). No less than 7 times did the conductor say that the train would be moving momentarily — a complete joke. But my real question is why Metro didn’t adjust for rush hour with single tracking. A Metro police officer told me that they were doing 3 trains northbound and then 3 southbound. Setting aside the issue that it should not take 40 minutes to get three southbound trains from Pentagon City to Braddock Road, why 3 and 3? Why not 6 trains northbound and then 3 southbound?

DG: In my reply, I said in part that Metro would have needed to get trains south of the trouble so that it would have trains to send back north from Huntington and Franconia-Springfield. But another rider took a broader perspective.

Regarding the “3-3″ issue: One reason WMATA can’t prioritize the inbound trains in the way the earlier reader suggested is that they’d back up the trains going in the other direction. Bear in mind that the other end of the Blue Line is in PG County and you have a lot of commuters there who want to get downtown; in addition, the Orange Line shares tracks across DC with the Blue and you have a LOT of commuters coming from New Carrollton on the Orange. So what all that means is that if you don’t let the “outbound” Blue Line trains get through from Pentagon City to Braddock, you cause a backup that cascades all the way across DC. Instead of having angry riders in Alexandria, you have angry riders all the way across the area.

DG: The “morning mess” commenter’s statements about confusion and incomplete information were reflected in many of the comments added to our blog posting on the delays. But during the chat, I got other types of comments on Metro communications. Here’s an example.

Unpopular opinion about this morning’s Metro delays:
Slightly delayed getting from Pentagon City to L’Enfant to Federal Center this morning. I say “slightly” because unlike about 80% of the people in the Pentagon City station, I stayed up top & actually listened to the announcements about which train was arrived on which platform. I then proceeded to the correct platform (which wasn’t crowded) & got on an empty train. (The announcements were clear & correct.)

DG: One of my favorite topics on online conversations is how to use the information we do have — or can get — to help ourselves. So I enjoyed seeing this next, very useful comment.

Ways of getting traffic info:
I think today’s Metrorail schemozzle in Virginia is a fine example of why it’s a mistake to rely on any one news source. I usually drive my wife to the Blue Line in the morning and pick her up in the evening. Our alarm clock plays WTOP when the alarm sounds. Their traffic reports didn’t mention the Metro situation when we were struggling to wake up. My wife listens to WNEW while getting dressed. Theirs didn’t mention it either. The iTransDC app on my iPhone did not sound an alert to warn us.

BUT while I was waiting for her to finish getting dressed I looked online and saw all the Twitter reports about the single-tracking, and I also looked at your blog and saw the news there. So I told her I’d drive her into the District. Only when we were already on the Beltway (I took the Beltway to US 1 in Alexandria so we could go HOV-2 through Old Town) did WTOP mention the single-tracking. By that time I’d have already dropped her at the Metro stop. Now I’m seeing reports of commutes taking upwards of two hours for many people!

Look, DC-area traffic is prone to changing big-time in the amount of time it takes to snap your fingers, and it’s impossible for any one news source to keep up with all of what’s going on. No RESPONSIBLE person would try to read Twitter or traffic blogs while driving, but in almost 40 years of living here I’ve come to the conclusion that if you don’t inform yourself thoroughly before you leave home, you’re being foolish, and days like today underscore why checking the commute news is not solely for people who drive!
DG: Here are a couple of comments that I didn’t get a chance to publish but that reflected on the previous comment.

Being Informed Only Goes So Far: It’s great for people with other options to be listening to the radio and checking Twitter, etc. I was checking Twitter and saw massive delays on the Yellow Line (which of course is what I ride from the District to the Pentagon). But the real problem is that it *doesn’t matter* how informed you are if you have no other options, and that’s what’s so utterly infuriating about the whole situation. We RELY on Metro, and we NEED it to work, and when it all goes to hell like it did this morning, there’s nothing else we can do but suffer along with everyone else. That’s also why fixing communications, etc. is much less of an issue to me than just ensuring the trains work. And come frequently.

Metro work-arounds: This morning highlighted, yet again, why it’s problematic that Metro doesn’t really have very much of a bus alternative for crossing the Potomac. I waited on the sardine-like platform at L’Enfant for ages as it got more and more crowded (they offloaded several Virginia-bound yellow trains before one finally came through and took passengers) and the problem was compounded by a real lack of alternatives. When things get backed up on the afternoon commute at L’Enfant, I just walk upstairs and take the bus home, as there are several that stop there and continue through the District. But there’s no bus connecting the L’Enfant and Pentagon stations.

 

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Robert Thomson | March 11, 2013