John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

After Silver Spring Metro fire, information proves hard to find

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post - A police officer directs traffic across Wayne Avenue in downtown Silver Spring on Tuesday.

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The restaurant was out of the Barolo that My Lovely Wife wanted. “How about a glass of prosecco?” I suggested.

“No,” Ruth answered. “I don’t want a happy drink.”

Video posted to YouTube from the Silver Spring Metro station.

She wanted to enjoy her bad mood, and she wanted a blood-red drink to help her wallow in it.

She’d spent an hour getting from Takoma to Silver Spring after Tuesday evening’s Metro fire, one of hundreds of commuters who milled around outside the Takoma station trying to figure out what they were supposed to do. I was trying to cheer her up by taking her to dinner.

Metro’s going through a particularly bad patch. Multiple stations are closed on weekends for track work. Escalators continue to defy the best efforts to fix them. Then explosions rock an out-of-service train at the Silver Spring station, smoke darkens the sky and Metro must shift to an emergency footing.

And that, My Lovely Wife says, is when things started to fall apart. The train she was taking home Tuesday evening stopped at NoMa-Gallaudet U for a while as the operator explained there was a problem ahead. Then he announced that the train would be off-loading at Takoma and that shuttle buses would take passengers onward.

But Takoma was chaos. No one from Metro was telling passengers where they should line up or where the shuttles would pick them up. Meanwhile, Red Line trains were disgorging more and more riders.

There were plenty of Metro personnel in high-visibility vests, but none was offering information beyond, “Shuttles will take you to Silver Spring.” It seemed a mystery to them when or where those shuttles would materialize.

Did they really not know, or did they just not feel moved to share that information? Either scenario is appalling. Aren’t there contingency plans in place stipulating that when shuttles are used, they will pick up here? If not, isn’t there a bullhorn in the station manager’s office so she can clue the crowd into what’s going on?

I’ve noticed that Metro train operators do a very good job keeping passengers informed, almost to the point of annoyance. We need the same thing on the emergency bus side.

Things weren’t much better in Silver Spring, where I was interviewing commuters. Several told me they were having trouble finding the shuttle buses that were supposed to take them toward either downtown Washington or Forest Glen. “I asked for a supervisor,” one told me. “They couldn’t find a supervisor. It’s a bit frustrating today.”

Meanwhile, in Takoma, the police came — not to help passengers get to their destinations, but to shout at the crowd for clogging the bus lanes. (My Lovely Wife isn’t sure which police they were. I assume Metro Transit Police.)

Ruth finally walked with fellow stranded commuters toward a bus marked “Petworth” that was taking on passengers. Someone asked whether it was the shuttle to Silver Spring. A Metro employee in a yellow vest who was aboard the bus chatting to the driver said that it was. Ruth politely asked whether it might make sense for Mr. Yellow Vest to be outside the bus, announcing to everyone that the bus marked “Petworth” was, in fact, going to Silver Spring.

He gave her a blank look.

In Silver Spring, the shuttles I saw were emblazoned with “Not in Service.”

How is it that the lighted signs on these buses can’t be easily programmed to read “Shuttle: Takoma” or “Shuttle: Forest Glen” or “Shuttle: Alpha Centauri” or something that might actually be useful to desperate people starved for information?

I get that by their very nature, emergencies are unpredictable. I understand that the hour it took to transport Ruth two miles is, when measured in geologic time, a mere eye blink. And I accept that it probably isn’t easy to run a complex, cash-strapped public transportation system.

But this stuff just doesn’t seem that hard. Set up a system, and keep passengers informed.

Oh, and Ruth settled on the pinot noir. She seethed less as she drank it down and tried not to think of the next day’s commute.

Cold comfort

Poor Metro. And poor Silver Spring. What with Tuesday’s fire and the long-running problems with the transit center, that location seems cursed. Built on an old graveyard, perhaps?

No, said my friend and history buff Jerry McCoy. He said that in 1972, the Reindeer Frozen Custard stand was torn down to make way for the Metro bus bays on Colesville Road, where the new transit center is.

“The site is forever cursed,” Jerry said. “Don’t mess with custard lovers!”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

 
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