As Silver Line draws new riders to Metro, some tips for the newbies

Get an aerial view of Metro’s Silver Line, set to open July 26, as it snakes its way through Tysons Corner and on to Reston, Va. (McKenna Ewen, Lee Powell and Osman Malik/The Washington Post)
Robert Thomson
Columnist July 25

Transit planners are very confident that they will draw thousands of new riders to Metrorail in the months after the Silver Line’s opening. If you’re one of the newbies, here are some essential things to know.

SmarTrip card. Get one from a station vending machine or from Metro’s online Web site, www.wmata.com. The plastic card that electronically adds and subtracts fare value is the Metro equivalent of E-ZPass. It costs $2. You cover the cost with one round trip, because there’s a $1 per ride surcharge when using the paper cards. And you get a discount when transferring between train and bus. Remember to make sure you have enough money left on the card before you get to the fare gate so you don’t delay riders behind you. Your fellow riders will thank you.

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

Trip Planner. In setting the frequency of train service, Metro divides the day into big blocks of time: rush hours, midday, evening and late night. But to find out more specifically when trains are scheduled to arrive, check Trip Planner at Metro’s online home page, wmata.com. You can ask for the train schedule only, but it could also plan your bus-transit trips. For example, you could ask it to plan a trip from the “Herndon-Monroe Parking Lot” to Metro Center.

Why are they waiting? If you approach the fare gates shortly before 9:30 a.m., you probably will notice a bunch of people staring at the digital clock over the stationmaster’s kiosk. They will move when the clock displays “9:30,” because that’s when the fares slide from peak to off-peak.

Fare gates. Put a paper Farecard in the slot on the front of the brown fare gate, then remember to pull it out when it pops up on top. You’ll need to perform the same operation when you exit. Touch a SmarTrip card to the raised disk on top of the fare gate. Just touch it. It doesn’t help to rub it around for a couple of minutes. That just annoys the card reader and the person in line behind you.

Stand to the right on escalators. Nothing screams “newbie” like standing on the left side of the escalator. In fact, there may be some screaming coming your way if you plant yourself there. And don’t stop at the end of the escalator to admire the view. Keep moving.

Next-train sign. The platform sign with the changing display is called a PID, for Passenger Information Display. It will estimate the arrival time for the next three trains and the number of cars in each train. It’s usually right. Sometimes not, especially when the line is disrupted or when you’re waiting at an end-of-the-line station.

Where to stand. One reason PIDs are important is that they help you decide where to stand. If the PID accurately displays an approaching eight-car train, you may want to move toward the rear of the platform, because the last two cars are likely to be less crowded than the first six.

Trains always stop in the same place, with the operator’s cab pulling to the front end of the platform. You can pick a door that lines up with the escalator you will use when exiting the train.

Don’t hold doors. This is worse than standing left on an escalator. If you try to hold the Metro doors open when they want to close, you could break the train. Everyone will have to get off, and there is nothing riders hate more than the dreaded “Train off-loading” announcement. Another note on doors: Once you board a train, move away from the doors and toward the center of the train. This allows easier boarding and exits for other passengers.

Most parts are old. The Silver Line has five new stations. But most of your trip will be through older — sometimes much older — stations. New rail cars are on order, but none will be in service as the Silver Line starts operating. So even if you confine your travels to the Silver Line, expect to become part of a schedule disruption very soon.

Sign up for alerts. To receive an early warning about a Metrorail service disruption, sign up at www.metroalerts.info to receive Metro’s e-mail or text alerts. (As you enter a station, look at the electronic sign at the station manager’s kiosk. It should display notices of disruptions.)

Cellphones. They’re not labeled “quiet cars,” but they might as well be. Many riders use their mobile phones, but not as phones. We barely even talk to each other. On Metro, we like to be alone with our thoughts and don’t want to hear your phone conversations or music.

Personal space. Respect it. Yes, the trains are crowded, but if you’re one of those people who feels compelled to commute with your life’s possessions, you are responsible for keeping them out of the way of other riders. That means make sure your backpacks, wheeled suitcases and other items don’t hit other passengers or block the aisles. The same goes for strollers.

What’s that smell? If you’re wondering about the odd odor that’s occasionally in underground stations, it has been around for years, and we’re still not sure what it is. Some say fish guts. Others think dead rodents. Another contingent backs sewer gas. In 2006, Metro said it was the brake pads on trains, but it doesn’t use that type any more. It may not be the same thing everywhere.

No eating or drinking. You can carry food and drink into a Metro station. Just don’t consume it, because if you do, you’re doing another of those things most likely to be condemned by your fellow riders. Plus, it’s illegal.

It gets more crowded. You ain’t seen nothing yet. The Silver Line is opening while many commuters are on vacation. Wait till September to more accurately gauge how crowded your platforms and trains will be during most of the year.

Crowd-avoidance. You can seek out the last two cars of an eight-car train. But also watch for the spacing between train arrivals. If there’s a big gap between trains, the next-arriving train is likely to be extra-crowded. If the next two are close together, the second one will be much less crowded.

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