Metro riders looking for a message

Columnist December 16, 2011

These three letters send a mixed message on Metro, but that’s typical of the feedback I get about this huge transit system’s equipment and personnel.

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

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

On Wednesday at approximately 4:30 p.m., an Orange Line train had to pause at the Virginia Square station. The train was crowded, and the operator had a problem with one of the doors not closing.

After repeated efforts, she finally blinked the car lights and said that the train was out of service and that all passengers should exit onto the platform. About two-thirds of the passengers did as she directed. The rest remained in the train as the doors closed.

The operator walked through the train and eventually closed the offending door. (All other train doors were closed, with the remaining one-third of the passengers still on board.) The operator then returned to the head of the train and immediately took off, leaving all of the obedient passengers stranded on the platform and having to scramble to overload the next two trains. Is the message here that we passengers should ignore all commands to unload the train?

— John Davey, Oakton

I’ve been there, too. The train stops. Operator says there’s a problem, and we have to get off. Many of us do. Others stay on. The train eventually closes the doors and continues its run. No explanation.

I’m not declaring someone to be in the right in Davey’s scenario, though I do think the passengers who followed instructions were wronged because they didn’t get an explanation of the train’s status before it moved out.

It’s possible, given the varied quality of train announcements, that some of the passengers still on board didn’t know what was going on either. I’d rather have gotten out onto the platform than remained on a train with an obvious mechanical problem that could recur.

At the same time, it’s tough to fault the operator, who can’t tell from the front cab which door is having a problem. Dan Stessel, the Metro spokesman, said that asking the passengers to disembark may well be the fastest way for the transit staff to figure out the problem and minimize delays down the line. (The problem on Davey’s train occurred during the afternoon rush, when the Orange Crush earns its name.)

Stessel asked us to consider the alternative to off-loading the train.

“Let’s say there is door problem in the last car of a crowded rush-hour train,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Imagine how long it would take for the train operator to weave through eight carloads of passengers, identify the malfunctioning door, troubleshoot the problem, and then walk back to the front of the train.

“On our two-track system, minutes count. While the operator was walking back and troubleshooting, many other trains would be held in stations. By quickly off-loading and taking the malfunctioning train out of service, we are minimizing the delay to you and thousands of customers on trains behind you.”

That makes good sense. But in Davey’s case, the passengers who did as instructed also felt minimized by their treatment.

Back on board

These next two letters show that a human voice and a human touch can send a different message.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I’m writing to commend the operator of a six-car Red Line train to Glenmont that departed the Shady Grove station Thursday morning about 7:40, after a 20-minute delay.

The delays were caused by a train that had broken down at Tenleytown, resulting in single-tracking. More delays followed when another train broke down.

Every few minutes, our train operator informed us why we were being delayed, explained what WMATA was doing to correct the problem, estimated when we’d be moving and apologized for making us late.

He even advised passengers on the Grosvenor platform to wait for the next train, which would be empty, sparing those on board from being packed like sardines.

— Paul Franklin Stregevsky, Poolesville

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Farragut West Metro station is greatly brightened these days, with gold garland on the railings and holidays lights in the station manager’s booth.

And the station employees even have holiday music playing for the commuters who pass by. It is a very welcome gesture and reminds us all to stop and enjoy the holidays a bit, even in the middle of a frantic commute.

Please thank all of them for their time and effort!

— Janet Weber, Arlington

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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