Metro’s hot cars: What to look for, and avoid

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 21, 2012

Metro’s hot cars: What to look for, and avoid

What was true in transit for the past few summers still holds: When the temperature goes up, many Metrorail air conditioners go down. But the seasonal pattern of failures is one of the few consistencies. On any given trip, a rider has no idea what to expect.

In two afternoons of riding Metro during last week’s ghastly heat, I found the temperatures inside train cars varied by 18 degrees. While the temperature on the platform at Reagan National Airport was 99 degrees at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday, passengers on the Blue Line’s Car 2069 enjoyed their air at 77.5 degrees. “Good choice,” a man told a companion as they boarded.

An hour later, I shared the voyage of the damned with the silent, sullen riders aboard the Orange Line’s Car 5160. Approaching Vienna, the reading on my digital air thermometer reached 95 degrees.

That was my top temp for last week, but not my all-time record for a Metro ride. That honor goes to Car 5121, where the thermometer hit 100 degrees in July 2010, also near Vienna station.

Suspect series

Riders waiting on platforms should be especially wary when they see one of those cars in the 5000 series roll up. It took me a while to find one not in the upper 80s or low 90s, but I finally did: Car 5008 on the Red Line approaching Woodley Park was 81.3 degrees at 3:07 p.m. Wednesday.

That was as good as it got for the 5000s. Car 5019 on the southbound Yellow Line felt warm as I stepped aboard at Mount Vernon Square at 4:19 p.m. Tuesday. I couldn’t feel any air coming from the overhead air conditioning unit at the end of the car. The vents felt lukewarm.

“Every car I get on today feels like this,” a rider said as she stepped aboard. When I told her it was 87 degrees, she wisely replied, “I’m getting off” and changed cars at the next station.

Air conditioner failures are among the reasons Metro will seal off cars. As a Red Line train pulled into Union Station at 2:16 p.m. Wednesday, the first two cars, 5034 and 5035 remained shut. There was no announcement, but passengers figured out what was going on. Murmuring “hot cars,” they fled in the direction of open doors farther down the platform.

But there are nearly 200 of these decade-old cars in the Metrorail fleet, so chances for sharing the warmth are good. Boarding downtown-bound Car 5077 at Woodley Park on Wednesday afternoon, you would have noticed the heat right away. The air flow through the overhead vents was good, but it was warm. The window rims and side paneling felt like a pot recently pulled from the stove. Temperature: 87.3 degrees at 3:02 p.m.

The 5000 series cars are Metro’s problem children. Of the 371 instances during June in which cars were reported hot, 146 involved cars in the 5000 series. The next closest was the 1000 series, the oldest cars in the fleet, with 93 reports.

Maintenance crews continue to work on the components of the 5000 series air-conditioning units, but this has yielded mixed results.

Best of the rest

While you should be suspicious of the 5000 series cars, with temperatures typically in the upper 80s on very hot days, it’s more difficult to predict conditions on the rest of the fleet.

When it was 93 degrees on the Silver Spring platform at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Car 6093 — one of the fleet’s newest — felt comfortable at 85 degrees.

At 3:35 p.m., Car 4012 temporarily reached 92 degrees while it held on the same platform with its doors open. That dropped two degrees by the time we were two stations south, at Fort Totten, but there’s not much relief to look forward to on such days when the doors keep opening at above­ground platforms.

The temperature plunged to 77.5 degrees aboard Car 6050 — a tie for the record low in my observations — on an outbound Green Line train at Prince George's Plaza. The equipment might have gotten an assist from a mostly underground trip through downtown D.C.

Car 3119, heading back downtown on the Green Line at 4:06 p.m., was 88 degrees by the time we reached Fort Totten. Its neighbor, Car 3118, felt much cooler. It was 83 degrees at 4:11 p.m., when we pulled into Columbia Heights.

A properly functioning air conditioning system should cool the car by about 25 degrees. During very hot days, such as the ones I chose for the test, cars with constantly opening doors and crowds of passengers aren’t going to keep up with that. A car that leaves the yard with an acceptable temperature but with equipment that isn’t performing well is likely to be a hot car by the afternoon commute.

What to do

You shouldn’t have to do anything. The transit authority should have air conditioners that work when it gets hot out. After several summers of complaints from riders, the maintenance program should have gained more ground on the problem.

But given what we’ve got, there are things you can do to make commuting easier for yourself and your fellow riders.

Move. I saw one rider in a dark suit, with one hand pressing a cellphone to his ear and the other pulling a roller bag. As he walked through the rail car door, the businessman looked more like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat as he pivoted back through the door and bolted for the next car. On a very hot day, you can be very sure of your instincts when you board a hot car. You won’t need a thermometer to tell you something’s wrong.

Report the car. You can use the intercom to report the number of the hot car. The numbers are in black letters near the intercoms. The operator can report the car to controllers. It can be closed off so others won’t suffer, and a Metro mechanic may be able to fix the problem and get the car back in service while it’s still on the line.

Don’t just sit there. I was impressed with how many riders recognized the symptoms of hot cars and moved. But many riders are docile. The longer you stay in a hot car, the worse you’ll feel. Your brains will fry, and your legs will melt into the seat. The time for action is when you first step aboard.

Don’t be like the crowd on Car 5033. It began to fill up at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday on the Tenleytown platform, and people were still standing in the aisles through downtown D.C. and out to Silver Spring. Temperature for the entire commute: 90 degrees. Moving just one car often provides relief. And the fare stays the same.

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