New Metrorail cars fix some problems with doors, aisles, seats and signs

Robert Thomson
Columnist May 24

On a test drive Tuesday morning aboard the new Metrorail cars, I found four things inside that riders should like — at least in theory. Most people aboard this train were there to check the brakes and other systems.

The riding public was represented by big, brick-colored blocks designed to simulate the weight of some passengers in the four-car train. The blocks didn’t move, unlike the riders who someday will be cramming their way on and off, reaching for a grip and trying to figure out where they are.

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

On Tuesday, the real riders were outside looking in as the train reached platforms on the upper west side of the Red Line. Many showed no interest in the distinctive, silvery appearance of Metro’s 7000 series rail cars. They just wanted to know whether the doors were going to open.

So I’m mindful that a true test of the new car features awaits their first rush hour. But here are some things to look for when that happens.

Doors. A common experience for veteran riders: Watching the eyes of tourists get really big as they realize that the closing doors aren’t going to reopen just because they’ve pushed their arms between them. Another common experience is getting off a train being taken out of service for a door problem.

On the new cars, the doors will neither crush tourists nor bounce back all the way. And the operator shouldn’t have to fiddle with all the doors to solve a problem with one of them.

Metro project manager Debo Ogunrinde volunteered his arm for a demonstration Tuesday. The doors closed on it but then reopened a little bit. It was enough for him to extract the arm, but not enough to allow him or anybody else to get on or off the train.

Seats. The worst seat on a Metrorail car is the interior one on the bench right next to the two seats facing into the car. (It’s the one to the right of the guy who’s stretching his legs out across the interior-facing seats in front of him.) On a crowded car, there’s no place I feel more trapped. You’ve got to say “excuse me” to two people just to stand up.

The new design keeps that same seating arrangement, but the spacing and the placement of the railings gives the person in the interior seat a fighting chance of getting out — without actually fighting. Plus, the new railing makes it a lot more difficult for that guy to put his feet up on the seat ahead.

Aisles. My least favorite place to stand is in the center of the aisle equidistant from the end doors and the middle doors, especially if I have to grab an overhead railing or, worse yet, one of those plastic straps that hang from the railing. That’s the spot Metro wants you to move to, but when you’re standing there, arriving and departing riders will come at you from all directions — often at the same time.

In the new cars, the aisles are wider, and there’s a vertical rail at each seat, so you can get a grip on something at shoulder level and allow passengers to move past you, maybe even the ones with the backpacks.

Signs. The Metro map is a model for designers, but a rider on a crowded car can’t always get near one. Even a regular commuter who doesn’t need a map may lose count of the stations, then have trouble hearing the station announcement or seeing outside the car to find the station name.

In the new car, Metro will give you several chances to figure out the name of the upcoming station, and you’re almost certain to catch one of them. The easiest one probably will be the display panel that just below the car’s ceiling that faces down the aisle. You have seen this in the current rail fleet’s newer models, but the new ones are brighter and much easier to read from a distance.

To the sides of the doors, you will see a new style of display screen that shows the next station and some stations after that. Plus, it will show information about the upcoming station, including any rail transfer opportunities, and guidance for connecting to buses, parking, biking or car-sharing.

There also will be two new panels toward the front and back of each car showing the upcoming stations, plus the end of the line station. This one takes getting used to, something the regular riders will achieve quickly.

Depending on the train’s direction of travel, newcomers and visitors might misread the sequence of station names and think that they’ve just passed the stations that actually remain ahead. I would have asked the big brick-colored blocks for their opinion, but they weren’t in a talkative mood.

However, with the car’s three visual clues for upcoming stations, riders should have a better chance of exiting at the right stop.

We’ll review my prediction after that first rush hour.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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