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Ambiance Of Metro Might Take Sharp Turn

Dim stations need brighter, energy-efficient lighting, says Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., who calls his proposals for changes cosmetic.
Dim stations need brighter, energy-efficient lighting, says Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., who calls his proposals for changes cosmetic. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007

Metro's new general manager wants to get rid of the carpet in trains, brighten the lighting in stations and increase advertising in stations, trains and buses.

In many places, such mundane changes would be met with a shrug.

But this is the Washington area Metro, which has long prided itself on a dignified ambiance that is supposed to make it better than the average commuter system.

The changes are intended to help make the nation's second-busiest subway more modern and functional. As the system struggles to keep pace with growing demand, Metro's new top executive, John B. Catoe Jr., wants to focus the agency's limited resources toward moving people to and from work and away from some costly features that gave the subway a distinctive, first-class feel when it opened 31 years ago.

With ridership continuing to swell, the debate over those trade-offs is sharpening.

"We need to be open to change and willing to do some things differently while at the same time being mindful of the coherence that results from the original concept," said Chris Zimmerman, a Metro vice chairman who has served on the board for nine years.

"When the system opened, the idea was, 'How do we get people in suits and ties to get out of their nice cars and get on a train?' " he said. "Now we have 800,000 passengers showing up on a weekday."

Record numbers are taking the train. Four of Metro's all-time top 10 ridership days took place in June. On June 22, the night of a Washington Nationals baseball game, evening ridership between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m. was the largest in agency history.

Change, Catoe says, is inevitable, and he describes these as cosmetic. Dim stations need brighter, energy-efficient lighting. More advertising could generate much-needed revenue. Eliminating carpet would save money and allow mechanics to fix train wheels and brakes. High-quality art at station entrances and on walls would give passengers an experience beyond the ride itself. Dan Tangherlini, formerly Metro's interim general manager, started the push for brighter lights and no carpet last year.

No one is planning to alter the most distinctive feature of the system: the vaulted arches in the underground stations.

"We won't take away any of the majesty," Catoe said in an interview, calling the design of the stations "timeless and brilliant."

Still, change comes slowly to Metro, which several years ago hired a consultant and debated at length before deciding to alter the color scheme inside the rail cars.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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