Metro’s ‘improvements’ during delays may be hard to spot


With big crowds and trains tightly spaced, even a small delay can have a big impact on rush hour. (Susan Biddle for The Washington Post)

The transit staff plans to update Metro board members on how it manages severe delays on Metrorail and communicates with riders caught up in them. But most items in this progress report involve behind-the-scenes actions that passengers would have a tough time noticing.

Here are a few of the more visible developments cited in the staff report:

  • Electronic display screens have been installed above the kiosks at station entrances to warn riders of delays before they go through the fare gates.
  • More than 75,000 riders are signed up to receive Metro’s electronic alerts about delays and serious incidents.
  • The latest version of Metro’s mobile Web site has a breaking news bar on every page to highlight incidents that may cause severe delays.

Given the great frustration riders voice during severe delays, that list isn’t going to wow them. If Metro had a way to routinely allow riders to exit the fare gates without paying during a serious incident, that would get their attention. The red and blue kiosk signs are a partial solution to this problem, as long as riders remember to look at them before going through the gates.

The electronic alerts also help, but 75,000 subscribers represents a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Metro riders. Here’s a link to the sign-up page for MetroAlerts. Metro sends out alerts via e-mail, text and Twitter (with one account for Metrorail and another for Metrobus).

The Metro mobile Web site, with that breaking news bar, is the page you find by going to wmata.com on a mobile device.

The behind-the-scenes elements in the staff update include these:

  • Metro has more clearly defined roles and responsibilities for incident management and communications.
  • The transit authority has gotten faster at deploying managers and police to incidents.
  • Stations managers have more tools to quickly get information and relay it to riders in emergencies.
  • The incident response training program for employees has been improved.

It’s difficult to say how much any of that has helped. In recent incidents involving lengthy delays on rail lines, or blocked lines that led to emergency shuttle bus operations, riders still have the same complaints they’ve always had: In the early going, there’s confusion about how long the delay will last, what riders should do about it and where they will find the right bus.

Some of the dynamics of managing a rush hour incident are difficult to overcome. In the early moments of a service breakdown, Metro’s staff may not be able to predict the long-term impact on rush hour travel. There aren’t enough transit staffers at the station to answer everyone’s questions. The buses used to establish a shuttle system need to be assembled in the midst of rush-hour traffic.

The Metro staff report, scheduled for presentation to board members Thursday, will leave many riders unsatisfied as a progress report, but it does provide a good description of the challenges.

During one hour of a peak period, it says, the oldest and most heavily traveled line, the Red Line, is scheduled to operate trains about every three minutes between Grosvenor and Silver Spring, with each train carrying up to 1,000 riders.

Any train malfunction or change in track conditions — such as a switch problem or a broken rail — has an immediate effect not only on the first train, but also on all trains of the line. Since the trains are so tightly spaced, thousands of riders along the line feel the impact of the delay. The Red Line is the only one of the five that operates exclusively on its own tracks. An incident on a Blue or Orange Line train, or on a Yellow or Green Line train, is likely to affect service on both lines since they share tracks and stations for much of their routes.

The lines have pocket tracks, where trains can be stored for deployment in emergencies, but there’s no third track that would allow trains to bypass problems or provide express service in emergencies. Platforms and trains just get more and more crowded. Even after the original problem is resolved, it takes the line a while to recover. The first few trains reaching crowded platforms are already jammed and can take on few passengers. Riders often need to let a few trains go by before they can squeeze aboard.

So what you really want are for the trains and tracks not to break in the first place. Metro is replacing old equipment, including the 40-year-old rail cars, but that program has yielded limited results. The intensive track work is scheduled to continue into 2017. The new rail cars won’t start arriving in force till 2015. And the transit staff report notes that as long as parts are in motion they will sometimes break. So delays will never be a thing of the past.

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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