Brighter Lights Beneath the City
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
So many light bulbs, so little light. Metrorail stations have 73,836 lights designed to produce a soft glow, the better to show off the stations' vaulted arches. But riders grumble that stations are too dark to read newspapers or even make out an escalator step.
Metro says it is listening: Poor lighting is its top maintenance concern. It is also a pet peeve of Metro's interim general manager, Dan Tangherlini.
"It looks like we're not really on top of our ballgame when you walk into a station and see light bulbs out," he said.
Thus illuminated, Metro officials plan to announce today steps to brighten the stations, 47 of which are underground.
Some steps are short-term: Metro will promise to replace burned-out bulbs within 10 days instead of three months. Brighter bulbs will top the platform pylons, the tall rectangular columns that display the station name and stops. And crews will do a total replacement and inspection of station lights every 10 months instead of annually.
Longer term, Tangherlini said, Metro needs to ask the bigger questions: "What kind of lighting do we want in the station, and how can we improve lighting while maintaining the architectural integrity and beauty?"
In July, the transit agency plans to begin a six-month study of those questions. The $200,000 study will seek input from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and Metro's recently formed Riders' Advisory Council.
The lighting is complicated. When Metro opened 30 years ago, designers wanted to highlight the cathedral-like arches of the underground stations with soft, indirect light. Eight-foot-long fluorescent tubes run down the track bed, illuminating the concrete walls. Each track bed has 150 tubes, or 300 per small station, with one set of tracks.
Embedded in the granite platform edges are the 40-watt incandescent bulbs that blink as trains approach. Each edge has 144 bulbs, a total 288 for small stations.
But changing a light bulb is not easy. Many of the lights are impossible to reach from the platform. In fact, Metro has to stop the trains to screw in a bulb.
"Somebody can't just come out here during the day to do this," said Hector Ramirez, 42, supervisor of the light crews, whose members are all electricians known as relampers. Ramirez estimated that he has personally changed at least 3,000 bulbs.
As a result, most relamping has to be done when trains aren't running, typically between 1:30 and 4 a.m. weekdays. It might sound easy, but it takes 13 workers -- and this is no joke -- working two shifts to change all the lights in a small station. It can take them seven shifts to finish screwing in all the bulbs and tubes at larger stations, such as Metro Center, that have more than one level.