Metro still years from more 8-car trains

Robert Thomson
Columnist January 30, 2013

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

With all of Metro’s apparent difficulty figuring out how to run more trains through Rosslyn, why don’t they simply run longer trains?

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

As a relatively new Orange Line rider and husband of a former longtime rider, I’ve found that eight-car trains in rush hour on the system’s busiest line are disturbingly rare.

Metro’s greatest long-term failure has been the insufficiency of rolling stock and Metro’s late start on planning for the eight-car trains that the system was designed to handle.

The flattening-out of Metrorail ridership is clearly a function of how crowded the trains have become and how poor customer service is. (These issues could, by the way, wreck the potential surge in ridership when the Silver Line opens. This is suggested strongly by the relative ease with which one now finds parking at the Vienna station, compared to when the new garage first opened.)

These problems would be solved eventually with one fundamental change. The officials from both political parties who make appointments to the Metro board appoint other politicians. That won’t change, of course. If they would appoint politicians who rode the Metro daily, however, Metro staff members might stop thinking that riders should be grateful for late and crowded trains. They might start thinking of riders as customers to whom they must account. (The Riders’ Advisory Council is too easily ignored by the board and hasn’t really led to any change that I can see.)

Frankly, I’ve been disappointed that you and The Post have been so forgiving of Metro management over the years. The Post is the one institution in greater Washington that is well-positioned to force these needed improvements. I hope you and The Post can lead more productive change on this nonpartisan, bread-and-butter urban issue.

Roger Cryan, Fairfax

DG: The Red Line is Metro’s busiest, but that’s little comfort to riders who participate in the morning crush at the stations on the west side of the Orange Line or try to jam their way into an outbound train at Foggy Bottom in the late afternoon.

Metro staff members have a plan for an all-eight-car train system, and if we’ve got $2 billion, they would be more than happy to accommodate us. What’s holding up the addition of more eight-car trains isn’t simply the supply of rail cars, although that’s certainly a factor. The power system still needs upgrades to propel longer trains, and more room must be created to store the cars.

But no one has made a credible proposal about where the Washington region can get the money to significantly increase the number of eight-car trains in the near future. Instead the lengthening of trains is likely to come gradually. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles estimated it would be the end of the decade before we will see a substantial increase in train length.

Those new rail cars on order now are enough to accommodate the Silver Line and replace the oldest cars in the fleet.

Even when Metro’s finances allow for purchases beyond the initial order, our problems with train crowding won’t go away. The ridership will start to increase again — possibly as soon as people once again start taking advantage of the increased federal transit-riding tax benefit — and that will start to overwhelm the larger capacity provided by more eight-car trains.

The things I just described are independent of the riding habits of Metro board members. They can share our pain as riders, but unless they can persuade local governments and their taxpayers to spend a lot more on Metro, it won’t make the trains any longer.

The issues of train reliability and customer service are separate issues. Board members and senior managers need to push to get the most out of the equipment we do have and to keep the riders updated about what isn’t working and when it’s going to be fixed.

Running debate on lights

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Regarding your reply to Lee Harrington on Jan. 17, I totally agree with him about the lack of driver awareness that daytime running lights do not turn on their rear lights.

You might not see how that is possible, but if that is so, then you need to drive around the area any night, and you will see hundreds of such cars. In fact, you will see at least a dozen cars with no lights on at all. It does not do any good to flash bright lights at them, because then they only look to see that their brights are not on and do nothing.

The real solution is to have the rear lights on at all times. With the advent of LED lights, doing so would not put any significant drain on car batteries. Manufacturers are using the LEDs for all manners of accent lighting.

Ed Conley, Fairfax

DG: I do think Harrington was right that some drivers get confused about whether their full headlights and taillights are on at night. My question is about how long they can possibly stay confused.

Daytime running lights come in different styles, but they basically use only enough juice to increase the visibility of the vehicle to other drivers and pedestrians. They aren’t powerful enough to significantly reduce the life of the lights or the gas mileage.

If drivers have even average powers of observation, won’t a light go on in their brains during the course of a night’s travels? Won’t they recognize that objects in the road ahead are looking pretty dim and start to wonder why?

I’m old enough to know that driving without headlights at dusk and beyond predates the advent of daytime running lights. I think vehicle makers eventually could solve the problem by having lights adjust themselves to current conditions. But then, some drivers probably would figure out ways to override the wiring.

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