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Slow Service On Red Line Angers Riders

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2004; Page B01

Service on Washington's most heavily traveled subway line remains hobbled eight days after an electronic control room at the Silver Spring Station flooded, and Red Line riders are angry about stop-and-go trains, cheek-to-jowl crowds and commutes that in some cases have doubled in duration.

"I'm flabbergasted by how they're running the railroad," said Ian DeWaal, 54, a government lawyer whose commute between Glenmont and Metro Center is taking up to 45 minutes longer each day.

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"I don't understand how they told everyone they would fix this problem in 24 hours and since then we've heard nothing," DeWaal said. "The problem has persisted, and we have no idea how long this is going to go on."

Adding insult to injury, riders say, is the message scrolling on electronic boards inside stations and across Metro's Web site: "10-minute delays on the Red Line in both directions."

Tell that to Saul Schniderman, whose Tuesday night ride from Union Station to Takoma took 45 minutes instead of the usual 12 minutes. "It was a total crawl," he said. "Move and stop, move and stop, stop at a station and open the doors. It couldn't move forward."

Metro officials said last night they believe they have repaired most of the damaged equipment but could not say when regular operation would resume.

"We had a catastrophic failure," said Steven Feil, Metro's chief operating officer for rail. "We got automatic train operation back, but the reliability testing has to go on until we feel we have a good sense of comfort that operation is sound and safe. . . . We've been working around the clock to fix this."

Flooding in a subbasement at the Silver Spring Station on July 27 destroyed electronics crucial to computerized operation of trains between Forest Glen and Takoma. Without the equipment, that stretch of the Red Line is considered "dark territory," which means operators must run the trains manually, instead of relying on computers.

The electronic blackout along a relatively short stretch of the railroad -- less than a half-mile -- has created several problems that have reverberated across the Red Line, which has an average daily ridership of 257,800.

Trains running through the area have been slowed to 15 miles per hour, instead of the usual 55 miles per hour. That has forced other trains to slow as they approach the affected stretch, requiring some to wait at Forest Glen and Takoma. And the Red Line's usual pattern of turning around every other train at Silver Spring, to provide more frequent service along the line's most heavily used downtown portion, was suspended after the flooding. Trains instead have turned back at Rhode Island Avenue, a maneuver that takes considerably longer than at Silver Spring.

All that has made for a miserable, undependable commute, said Joshua Weinge, 32, a lawyer who rides between Tenleytown-AU and Dupont Circle. "I feel like I'm playing a form of Russian roulette every time I go down there, as to whether there's going to be a train coming shortly or if I'm going to be waiting," he said. In five years of commuting on Metro, he said, this is the worst service he has seen.

A train traveling the length of the Red Line from Shady Grove to Glenmont is supposed to make the trip in 61 minutes under normal conditions. Asked how long it has taken the slowest trains to complete that trip since the flooding, Metro officials were unable to answer.

Some regular Red Line riders say the worst conditions are in the morning; others report that the evenings are most difficult.

At Farragut North at 6:05 p.m. Tuesday, Judith Sudholt watched three mobbed trains to Shady Grove pass through the station before a fourth arrived with enough room for her to board. "I just didn't want to ride like a sardine," she said.

For Schniderman, the mornings are the worst. Even though he lives and works on the Red Line, he has cobbled together a roundabout commute to avoid the jam-packed Red Line in the mornings since the flooding. Instead of riding from Takoma to Union Station, the Library of Congress employee takes the Red Line from Takoma to Fort Totten, switches to the Green Line, gets off at L'Enfant Plaza and rides the Orange or Blue Line to Capitol South.

The Red Line woes were punctuated earlier this week by an incident in which a train operator abandoned her idling train at the Van Ness-UDC Station during the middle of Monday's evening rush. Passengers reported that the operator left the door to the cab wide open, stepped off the train, crossed the platform and caught another train headed in the opposite direction.

Train controllers at Metro's downtown headquarters apparently were unaware that the train was idling in the station until passengers alerted a station manager. Senior managers at the transit system said yesterday they were still investigating the incident.


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