Metrorail comes up short when comparing the world’s transit systems

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

After reading your column “Metrorail’s goal of an easy-to-use, self-service system is far from reality,” I couldn’t help but think of a recent trip I took to another city, far away. My wife is from Taiwan, so in October we spent 10 days there, mostly in the capital city of Taipei. We are not regular users of Metrorail but use it enough to be reminded of its annoying aspects, most of which are mentioned in your column.

The Taipei subway system is as easy to use as Metrorail is not. I estimate it to be slightly larger than Metrorail. We used the system every day we were there and, after watching my wife use it once or twice, I was confident I could easily navigate anywhere in the system.

No Chinese-language knowledge was required. English was an easy option to choose [at the fare machine]. From then on, there was an automated voice tutorial walking me through the process, which involved few steps: insert my credit card, choose how much to put on my pass, and out spits the plastic pass card. There were no rush-hour or weekend fares. It’s the same rate all day while the system runs.

There is no paper fare card option, so there are no slots in which to insert cards at the gates. All gates read the cards in the same way as the Metro SmarTrip card does. Your card connects seamlessly with the bus system, as there are card terminals as you get on the bus.

To be fair, the Taipei system was built in the late ’90s, but I don’t see any reason our system can’t adapt and operate as theirs does. On a side note, the overhead announcements in Taipei were loud and clear, as opposed to mumbling that is overridden with background noise, as on Metrorail.

Why does Metrorail have to be so complicated? If I, an American in a foreign land, can pick up on Taipei’s system so easily, why can’t we emulate that and make it easy for everyone, no matter where they’re from?

We have a nice-looking system that has a well-planned route structure. But for all the irritants of Metrorail, the Taipei system (a true self-service system) puts it to shame.

— Allan F. Cobb, Rockville

DG: I often benefit from the perspective of well-traveled Washingtonians who can compare our transportation network with others. Services that Cobb praised in the Taipei system were areas of concern among Metrorail riders commenting on my column.

They focused on the fare machines that gave letter writer Warren Emerson of Arlington County such a hard time. Many of them see Metrorail as a system designed by engineers for use by other engineers.

I get that feeling sometimes when trying to add value to my SmarTrip card. I figure if I can follow the steps in adding one $20 bill to the card, I probably can qualify to pilot a moon rocket. But don’t ask me to add a pass to the card. That would qualify me for the Mars run.

The most common complaint I heard was about forcing the rider to do the math when calculating the cost of a trip to a particular station — and perhaps back, if that doesn’t prove too much of a mathematical ad­ven­ture.

The rider needs to find the station-to-station fare on the chart. Oh, but is it rush hour or off-peak? Am I going to have to pay extra because I’m using a paper Farecard? Do I get the seniors’ discount? (I wasn’t a senior when I started making these calculations, but what about now?)

One person who responded to the online version of my column also had some international experience: “In Paris, Madrid and London, I’ve never had a problem buying a Metro ticket simply because they are touch screen and ask what stations you’re entering and exiting,” wrote the commenter, who uses the handle tardislass.

Metro provides a great deal of fare information on its Web site, www.wmata.com, so you can know before you go. But I’m constantly surveying travelers about what information they gather before leaving home. Their policy: Go now, know later.

Some riders once again raised the issue of going to a flat fare, for simplicity’s sake. Riders who support that idea for Metrorail tend to be the ones who take longer trips. Their fares would come down. People who take shorter trips often would pay more. When the issue comes up in discussions of fare policy, it tends to become a city vs. suburbs debate, which rarely gets us anywhere.

Another big theme among riders — in fact, a constant refrain over the years — is the frustration with the announcements inside the rail system. Metro has improved many forms of written communication — among them, electronic text alerts, the recent upgrade to Metro’s mobile Web site and the new information displays over the station kiosks — but the voice announcements have defied upgrades.

Sometimes it’s the speaker, sometimes it’s the equipment. Again, Metro has some solutions that tend to work around the problems. The new rail cars will automate station announcements, and riders will be able to see line maps along the interior of the cars highlighting upcoming stations. That’s all good, but it will be a generation before such improvements work their way through the entire rail fleet.

 
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