The doors on Metro’s rail cars are one of the most frustrating problems for riders and train operators alike.
Passengers complain that they are too quick to close. Someone jams an arm, a foot, a briefcase or a stroller into the space and it gets stuck as the doors snap shut. Worst of all, a door malfunctions, and, unable to fix the problem, the operator offloads the train.
The delays add up. Door problems were the leading cause of Metro weekday delays last year, followed by brake and power issues. But 18 percent of the time — a total of 455 hours — doors were the reason, according to statistics from Metro.
One source of confusion, especially for tourists, is that Metro’s doors don’t bounce back when they hit something. The doors are open between 25 to 35 seconds, officials said, depending on the station and the time of day. Any longer and it would delay trains, with impacts that could ripple along the lines, Metro said.
Operators have to push a button in the cab to open the doors after they stop at a platform. They are then required to look down the platform to make sure people move out of the way before they close the doors. That’s where their judgment comes into play.
Kids have been left on a platform, separated from their parents. Commuters have frantically pulled stuck coats and purses from the doors. And the dreaded offload is the ultimate headache.
“Metro needs to get their act in gear,” said Betsy Conway, who regularly rides the Red Line. “It’s one thing to have to walk up broken escalators or sit in a stuffy train, but when their negligence becomes a safety issue, that is when they have gone too far.”
Marc Shandler, a real estate broker who was aboard a Red Line train headed to downtown D.C. that was offloaded recently because of door problems, was sympathetic. Metro seems to be “doing their best to keep things running. Or at least with duct tape and spit,” he said.
But Chris Jewell, systems development director at Georgetown Law, blames the train operators, saying they “sow chaos and incivility.”
“I’m convinced train operators are driving to wherever it is they clock in, and their only experience riding the Metro is from the driver’s seat.”
It creates an air of uncertainty that just adds to the frustrations riders already have about Metro, Jewell said.
“You don’t know if the chime means it is going to close in one second or 10 seconds,” he said. “It creates a sense of you have to rush on the train. Civility goes out the door.”
Train operators aren’t fans of the doors either. For them, doors are like dogs to mail carriers.
“It comes with the territory,” said train operator Wilbert Ferguson, 59, who has worked for Metro since 1976 and has been a train operator since 1986. “You try not to close anybody up. You try to gauge it the best you can so that everyone is clear.”
Danielle Glass, 33, who is a train operator and has been with Metro for almost seven years, said operating train doors depends in part on the “mentality of the operator.”
“If I see someone busting their tail to get down the stairs and across the platform, I’ll wait for you,” she said.
Few riders understand that the train’s mechanical system won’t allow it to move unless all the doors are properly closed, some operators said. For them, the busiest stations are also some of the most problematic places where riders try to hold or race for the doors.
“You’re waiting for people so you can get an all-clear view of the platform and close the doors, and then you’ll see something come out like a body part and you have to open it,” said Frederick Williams, 43, who joined Metro in 2005 and has been a train operator for five years.
Operators say they try to allow extra time for people with strollers or those in wheelchairs, but they still have schedules to meet.
“We’re dealing with meeting our headways [the time between trains],” said Andres Acosta, 37, who has worked for Metro for seven years. “When you hit the button for the doors to close, it doesn’t mean things will go nice and pretty. You have to say over and over, ‘Please don’t form a line at the door. The doors are closing.’
“There are only so many times you can say that and meet your headways.”
Operators said they are able to troubleshoot door problems most of the time without offloading the train. Outside of rush hour, they can walk through the train and manually close the doors. Offloading the train is the worst case — something Williams calls a “total inconvenience” for all.
“My job is to get people as pleasantly as I can to their destinations,” Williams said. “I don’t want to have to offload a train any more than riders.”
Metro officials point out that the doors on its fleet of roughly 1,100 rail cars face a lot of wear and tear, noting that at any peak period there are more than 5,160 door sets in operation. They have an average of 30 offloads a month because of door problems.
“If anything happens with any of them, it can lead to a delay,” Metro chief spokesman Dan Stessel said.
The door problems can be caused by a variety of factors, Metro said. Door sensors may not give a signal that doors are properly closed when a train is packed, something can get stuck in them or motors may malfunction.
The most problematic doors for Metro are on the 2000 and 3000 series. Those cars were responsible for 58 percent of the door-related delays. The problem is an electrical switch that controls the door’s ability to open and close, Metro officials said. Metro is working to install a new switch on those cars. It is also working to install new parts in those rail cars — and on the 6000 rail car series as a preventive measure — by this summer.
Metro’s 4000 rail car series had a problem with their door motors, but Dave Kubicek, deputy general manager of operations, said that’s been fixed by removing the motors and rebuilding them.
Metro is working over the next two years to upgrade software, replace spindles and do other work on the doors in its fleet, with the exception of the 1000 series rail cars, which will be replaced with new rail cars.
The 7000 series, scheduled for delivery beginning next year, will have more advanced technology that Kubicek hopes will mean better reliability. But they still won’t bounce back like elevator doors, Metro said.
Other transit agencies have door problems as well.
At San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which opened a few years before Metrorail in the early ’70s, top managers said they have about two delays per week related to equipment failure of doors. They note that their number doesn’t include passengers propping doors open or other problems caused by riders.
Top managers at BART said one trick to keeping trains running on time and the doors closing safely is to not make train doors easy to reopen.
“We’ve had people get stuck in the doors; they’ll push it back and kick it, knock it back into the pocket where it can get stuck,” said Henry Kolesar, group manager for engineering at BART. “There’s only so much torque that motor will put out. If it is jammed back into the pocket, the motor doesn’t have enough strength to close it back.”
After a while, Kolesar said, “It’s the wear and tear. Stuff just wears out. Doors are a headache.”