Helping Riders Pick Up the Pace

Metro wants you to follow the arrows at train stops.
Metro wants you to follow the arrows at train stops. (Washington Area Metro Transit Authority Via Associated Press)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 2, 2005

She has been part of our lives for nearly a decade -- her soft melodic voice that says "Doors closing" on the Metro trains. One day soon, those doors will slide shut on her final ride.

Coming in her place will be the voice of a man telling people to get ready to exit -- and fast.

Losing Sandy Carroll's mellow voice is the first step of several Metro decided yesterday that it will try to smooth the flow of humanity through the country's second-busiest subway system, behind New York's. In a transit system bulging with a record 707,885 riders a day, the movement of people in downtown stations is not orderly. It is not calm. It is not pretty.

Crowds are gumming up the works. Clashing armies of commuters block each other from reaching trains or escalators. Passengers waiting to board rail cars smash into those trying to leave. Most horrifying to Metro officials, these chaotic dances delay the trains.

After pondering the problems for five years, the Metro board of directors approved several pilot projects that will start in February, aiming to move people on and off trains and escalators with speed, grace and, maybe, civility.

"We're trying to move as many trains through the system as we can," said Jim Hughes, Metro's acting assistant general manager for operations. "Part of that is cutting the amount of time in the stations and getting people on and off as quickly as we can."

Many train delays are caused by riders dashing into cars at the last second. "The message and the door chime have become a little like the yellow signal on a traffic light," Hughes said. "The purpose of the chime is to tell people to step back, that doors are closing. But our customers hear that, and they run to get on a train. . . . It's got to be a different voice, something that sounds different, because right now it's background noise."

The engineers who designed Metro counted on trains spending about 15 seconds in each station to let riders get on and off before moving on. That worked when Metro opened in 1976, and ridership was low.

But now, trains are spending 30 seconds to 35 seconds in the busiest downtown stations, Hughes said. Any longer, and Metro's ability to run the maximum number of trains during the peak hour will start to be hampered, he said. Several months ago, Hughes dispatched an internal team of architects, engineers, station managers, train supervisors and escalator experts to videotape the way people move around stations and find low-cost improvements.

To help smooth the emptying and loading of trains, Metro will test platform markers at Union Station, Gallery Place-Chinatown and Metro Center. The markers will indicate where to line up with rail-car doors once a train pulls into a station. The idea is to get people ready to board before the train arrives and out of the way of exiting passengers. Although most riders wait at the sides of the doors to give passengers room to exit, plenty of people plant themselves directly in front of the doors. A brazen few try to muscle their way on while people are getting off.

Nearly every other major U.S. subway -- including systems in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York -- uses platform markers. Metro officials studied them and debated possible styles: Arrows with circles? Arrows spaced far apart? Colored panels instead of arrows?

They settled on six options to present to the board yesterday. Board members narrowed the choices to two. One option has arrows with circles; the other has arrows without circles. They opted for the widely spaced arrows.

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