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Welcome to Washington, And Now You're on Your Own

Sure, you can pay with a credit card, but how do you know what you're buying? Metro's machines and distance-based fares can confound visitors.
Sure, you can pay with a credit card, but how do you know what you're buying? Metro's machines and distance-based fares can confound visitors. (Susan Biddle/twp - Twp)

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

They are easy to spot -- wearing backpacks and sneakers, traveling in teams with strollers and small children, leaning into the left lane on the escalator or looking around hesitantly when train doors open and a rush-hour crowd stampedes past .

These tourists are the rookies of the rail system, and during the summer, 5 million to 6 million of them share the trains with commuting professionals.

For visitors to Washington who come from freeway-reliant reaches of Middle America, riding the Metro can be an attraction in itself. But a few trips riding the rails in their comfortable shoes show that the experience can be more than a little bewildering, too.

"We come from a little town, so this is pretty neat," said Teri George, 51, of Mount Vernon, Mo., while her two young grandsons raced up and down the platform at the Smithsonian Station. They were headed to the National Museum of Natural History to see the hissing cockroaches.

But since getting into town three days earlier, they'd had plenty of mishaps. With no public transportation experience, George said, "we didn't know what we were supposed to do."

The first challenge was simply buying a Farecard.

"That ticket machine is awful," she said. "We finally figured it out by just pushing all the buttons."

Many visitors have echoed that complaint after spending several minutes in front of a machine with a SmarTrip pass option, a credit card reader and a Farecard value window staring back at them. They were also perplexed by the menu of prices per station, rather than a fixed price, like on the New York subway system.

The next challenge was getting onto the right train.

"We knew we had to be on Blue," George said. But for their first trip, she did not know which side of the platform they needed, and they ended up on the wrong train. She found the narrow signs listing station names confusing, she said, and the often muffled announcements did little to help her feel confident about the direction she was going.

Donna Beneteau, 59, who traveled to Washington from Cary, N.C., with a friend, said the signs weren't always helpful when she was leaving the stations. Rather than listing street names she had never heard of, she said, it would be better if there were more arrows pointing to nearby attractions.

After a while, she gave up on the signs altogether and just started asking people for help.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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