Metro on weekends: Anybody seen a train?

Robert Thomson
Columnist October 15, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I flew into Reagan National Airport about 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 25, intending to take Metro to Shady Grove. I knew there were 20- to 30-minute delays because of single-tracking but thought it would be tolerable. I was so wrong.

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. View Archive

The Yellow Line from National to Gallery Place went smoothly. When I got to the Red Line platform, the sign listed only trains to Glenmont for the next 18 minutes. There was no indication of when a train to Shady Grove might be coming.

I gave up and took a cab home for $48. The van shuttle to Gaithersburg would be $32 plus tip one way.

The weekend track work should be restricted to overnight shifts, like 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The inconvenience to weekend passengers is intolerable.

— Joel P. Bennett, Gaithersburg

We know what the theory is: The transit system for many years lacked the resources to reverse the effects of aging. As a result, it got old in a hurry, and now it’s time for a bracing plunge in the fountain of youth. It’s going to be years before Metro is back to what transit officials perpetually refer to as “a state of good repair.”

But meanwhile, what about the wear and tear on weekend riders? Who’s going to keep them in a state of good repair?

Metro officials say that if they restricted the weekend work to overnight shifts instead of the current system of starting work late Friday nights and continuing till early Monday mornings, we’d lose ground. The system would deteriorate further, and there would be no catching up. That would be more than unsightly. It would be unsafe.

The transit authority now does weekend maintenance in two styles. There’s the traditional single-tracking system, in which trains share a track to get around a work zone. And there’s a more aggressive style in which several stations may be shut down completely so that repair crews have full access to the system and can get more done.

That’s supposed to help us renew the system faster. But at this point, weekend riders can’t see how this is good for them.

On the weekend when Bennett found catching a train to be more difficult than hailing a cab, the Yellow Line was the only one not experiencing maintenance delays.

On his Red Line route to Shady Grove, trains were sharing a track between Dupont Circle and Judiciary Square to clear a work zone for the endless repairs to the mess that is the Farragut North station.

The schedule was complicated, because Metro was trying to make the best of a bad situation. Until 9 p.m., trains were leaving the ends of the line every 10 minutes. But every other train from Shady Grove was turning back at Dupont Circle, and every other train from Glenmont was turning back at Union Station. By Metro’s estimate, the single-tracking would add half an hour to normal travel times on the Red Line.

The odd schedules for weekend maintenance throw off more than a rider’s disposition. You can’t go by the schedules found via Metro’s Trip Planner, a normally helpful feature on the transit authority’s Web site, at wmata.com. And it plays havoc with the next-train displays on the platforms, an information system that many riders distrust anyway.

This goes on for about 100 days out of every year. It’s important to fix the system. But it’s important to remember that this program involves serious disruptions that are shaping the way many regular riders perceive the transit system’s value.

What are ramp gates for?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Every time I drive to the Outer Banks, I am intrigued by the red-and-white, railroad-crossing-type gates that flank the entrances to and exits from Interstate 64 between Richmond and Norfolk. Do you know why they are there?

— Tom Thompson,
Vienna

If you’re down by the shore when a hurricane threatens, you may see the gates in operation. When lowered, they prevent drivers from entering lanes where the traffic flow has been reversed to get people away from the beach. There are two gates at each end of the ramps to provide a little extra insurance that motorists won’t try to drive around them.

The lane reversal setup starts just east of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and ends at the Interstate 295 interchange east of Richmond. But reversing the lanes is a big decision involving many safety issues and lots of personnel. Only the governor can authorize it. And in the case of Hurricane Irene, emergency officials thought it wasn’t necessary to carry out the plan.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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