Metro is relentless on weekend work, despite riders’ complaints about disruption

Robert Thomson
Columnist May 29, 2013

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

On the night of May 10, more than 37,000 fans attended the Nationals-Cubs game, and 20,000 attended the Capitals playoff game. With nearly 60,000 sports fans attending these two events, both ending between 9:30 and 10 p.m., why didn’t Metro consider delaying the start of their weekend track work until maybe midnight so these folks could get home?

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

My brother had been more or less forced to park at the West Falls Church Metro station because of the unmoving inbound traffic on Interstate 66. When he took the Orange Line to get back to his car, the trip was terminated at Ballston because it was a few minutes after 10 p.m.

So here there was a trainload of mostly Nationals fans fighting to get onto the three shuttle buses available; in a few minutes, they were joined by Caps fans and the added enjoyment of a sudden cloudburst. Eventually, he managed to share a taxi to West Falls Church.

A large percentage of the fans who ride Metro to sporting events are not regular Metro users, as evidenced by the huge lines for the Farecard machines before and after the games.


WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Metro closes service between orange line stations to make track repairs on March, 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. Pictured, crews work on the track on an elevated section of the line by RFK stadium. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post) (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

It seems to me that if Metro is trying to lure more commuters out of their cars and into the transit system, treating them like this can only turn them completely off and kill any chance of their becoming regular users.

Mike Kelley, Alexandria

DG: Ever since Metro started to shut stations for weekend maintenance programs, the Friday night schedule has been utterly confusing for many riders. They head to an evening event by train, then find they need to board a shuttle bus to complete the trip home.

Expect those discomforts and dislocations to continue for at least a few more years. Metro managers are greedy about grabbing every hour they can for the weekend projects and rarely yield time because of events.

How did this become so deeply woven into the weekend experience?

The debate, such as it was, over Metro’s weekend track work program occurred in 2011. In the first half of the year, Metro managers outlined their plans for an increasingly aggressive approach to rehabilitating a deteriorating system.

They described plans to make station closings a more frequent part of the weekend rebuilding activities. They did not want to shut down entire lines, but they did consider ending the night-owl service Fridays and Saturdays to speed up the rebuilding.

That was rejected, although other basic elements of the plan remain in place, including the weekend combinations of station shutdowns on some lines and track-sharing around other work zones. Extended disruptions on long holiday weekends became a regular part of the program, as they were over Memorial Day weekend.

The blackout dates with no service disruptions were to be very limited: for the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving weekend, demonstrations and “select events,” and the December holidays.

Although there wasn’t a great deal of public discussion in 2011, riders have been howling ever since. But Metro has stuck with the program, rarely altering its track work schedule because of events likely to draw big crowds. In the nation’s capital, Metro managers say, there’s always a big crowd for something — sometimes for several somethings at once.

It’s unlikely this relentless schedule will be revisited. Metro management and the Metro board have shown no inclination to delay repairs by restricting the work hours or to speed them up by shutting down entire sections of lines for many months.

For better or worse, this rebuilding program, including the schedule, will be the legacy of Metro General Manager Richard Sarles.

On the weekend Kelly writes about, Metro was working on four of the five lines. Most of that involved trains sharing tracks around work zones. On the west side of the Orange Line, however, shuttle buses replaced trains between Vienna and Ballston as crews tested switches and signals for the Silver Line and worked on other parts of Metrorail infrastructure.

Metro plans most of these major shutdowns months in advance, and transit managers do know about the Nationals’ schedule well ahead of time. By the end of September, the team will have played 13 Friday night games at Nationals Park. (The Capitals game, on the other hand, was an uncertain event in a playoff schedule evolving until just a few days before that Friday night.)

But if we’re going to live with this sort of transit service two days out of every seven, adjustments should be made both by Metro and the riders.

A common theme in the complaints I got about that Friday night was the confusion among riders and transit staff members at Ballston and the insufficient number of buses to handle the demand. With more than two years of experience with such station shutdowns, Metro has no excuse for this poor customer service. This wasn’t an emergency. This was planned.

But riders can do some things to help themselves. In 2013, Metro is much better at conveying information about these disruptions than it was in 2011. There are posters in the stations each week previewing the single-tracking and station closings, the platform signs display warnings, and transit officials issue public advisories. The maintenance schedule is now part of the Trip Planner on Metro’s Web site, at www.
wmata.com
.

An occasional rider — someone just bound for a Friday-night Nats game, for example — is going to miss many of the warning signs in the stations. But after several years of this, word has gotten around that the Metro schedule can hurt us. Weekend travelers can at least reduce the possibility of that with a little preparation before taking the train.

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