Red Line misery: Riders bond as they endure delays and packed trains

Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 1

The legions of long-suffering Red Line riders arrived early for the Thursday morning commute, expecting the worst because that’s often what they get.

“Riders on Metro’s Red Line should expect delays Thursday morning,” warned The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock. “The delays are in both directions, as trains are sharing the track between Farragut North and Judiciary Square.”

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Red Line riders are veterans of alerts like that. They are embattled, grizzled, resigned and — often — late. They trade horror stories: 20 minutes in a tunnel, hours to get home, a bazillion people packed into one car.

The commute home on Wednesday night was particularly awful because of the deluge of rain and single tracking.

“Left work early, thought I was getting home early; then, the #redline happened,” tweeted Kenrick Roberts, who works at Georgetown University Law School.

Danielle Peyton, 27, risks the Red Line from Silver Spring to Dupont Circle every day. “I’ll never forget the day it took me three hours to get home,” said Peyton, who was ready for Red Line fury Thursday morning.

But the delays were minor, and the scarred Red Line denizens rejoiced. “Not so bad today,” one woman at Silver Spring told me. “It’s better than driving.”

Not everyone has come to this conclusion. One veteran commuter wrote a scathing, online review of Metro and the Red Line in particular, confessing that its shortcomings had driven him to car ownership.

The Red Line rarely gets more than one star on Yelp. It is a big, scarlet U through the region, dipping into the heart of the nation’s capital, with each end perched in some of our most populated ’burbs. It’s still — with all its flaws — a big selling point for real estate. “That was certainly a factor for my location,” said Angela Atherton, who bought her home in Gaithersburg 20 years ago because of its proximity to a Red Line station. And she has been enduring Red Line delays for two decades.

In recent years, problems have gotten worse. Metro officials acknowledged as much back in November when they issued a public apology for an especially bad stretch of rush-hour messes and even refunded some fares. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles told The Post’s Paul Duggan that until a $5 billion improvement project is finished in three or four years, delays are inevitable.

“I think intellectually people realize we’ve needed to step up repairs,and they know there’s progress being made,” Sarles had said. “But, yeah, all that gets lost when you’re caught in a delay.”

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said it’s true, “You’re only as good as your last rush hour.”

But it’s tough to counteract a decade of maintenance backlogs, a two-track system that doesn’t allow for error and rain that pooled higher than the tracks this week, Stessel said.

It’s not just the sheer volume of Red Line ridership. Of course, there’s the sardine issue on a train that goes to Union Station, Dupont Circle, K Street and Verizon Center, running through most of the system’s top-10 busiest stations and serving more than 150,000 riders on a weekday.

You’ve got to make that quick call when a packed train comes roaring in — do you suck it in and force yourself into a car? S’cuse me, par’dn me — whoa — too much perfume! Or do you roll the dice and wait (and wait) for the next train?

Sometimes, riders do remind themselves that it is the oldest subway route in the District and try to be forgiving. It was on March 27, 1976, that the first car whooshed into a tunnel under the nation’s capital, a train going between Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut North. So the aging line is prone to needing more repairs, more time spent single tracking.

Twitter is clogged with the protests of commuters trapped in tunnels for 30 minutes, just a few yards from the office. They post to @unsuckdcmetro, digital, muffled cries of pain and woe. So. Close. And. Yet. So. Far.

In some D.C. offices, living on the Red Line is seen like an unfortunate handicap that will kindly — or sometimes grudgingly — be accommodated.

“Anyone who lives on the Red Line, they’re going to be late. You just know it and you deal with it,” one boss told me.

There’s a voodoo, cursed quality to the train’s existence, like that sketchy uncle who has just had his identity stolen — again — or always has some kind of sling or splint on a limb. The Red Line is a mayhem magnet. It’s always the line with a deer squashed on the tracks or a hydraulic fluid spill or cracked rails or a fire or flooding or loose cables dangling like spaghetti.

It was, unforgettably, the scene of a horrible collision in June 2009 that killed nine people and injured 80.

There is a camaraderie that forms when riding the Red Line. Lauren Polun said she almost always forms one of those quickie friendships on a bad commute because it’s easy to bond over misery. “Whenever I’m on the Red Line, and I’m close in next to somebody, it always becomes a conversation about the Red Line,” said Polun, 23, the marketing director for SevenTwenty Strategies in Dupont Circle.

The situation Wednesday evening, with flooding in the tunnels, single-tracking and hundreds of soppy, smelly, wet umbrellas, may have been the worst day in a while, Polun said.

Polun showed up at the train extra early Thursday, braced for a mess. But it wasn’t.

“These days, I’m more #shocked when the #redline is not delayed ,” she tweeted, before getting to work extra early, with a spring in her step and a smile on her face.

Twitter: @petulad

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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