By Katherine Shaver
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Next time you ride Metro, consider this: Some of your fellow passengers are trying desperately not to lose their lunch. Or breakfast.
The sufferers cite a queasy combination of hot, crowded rail cars and a more herky-jerky ride since the June 22 Red Line crash. Most of those affected blame the more-sudden stops and starts from trains operating in manual mode since then. However, Metro officials said some of the problem also stems from the post-crash reconfiguration of trains, which are made up of different models of cars whose braking systems can be slightly out of sync.
Woozy passengers are far from the most serious problem Metro is facing as investigators scrutinize the deadliest crash in the transit agency's history. Still, for those riders, it has been a long, rough and sometimes unbearable four months.
The length of the trip doesn't seem to matter. Todd Usher, 28, rides Metrorail regularly between the Pentagon and Farragut West stations, a 10-minute trip on the Blue Line according to Metro's schedules. But he has suffered such bad motion sickness from the "full-throttle and slam-to-a-stop" train rides that he has had to hop off early for fresh air or risk getting sick on a train and causing more delays.
Readjusting to Metro after a recent trip felt "like getting your sea legs back," said Usher, who works in public relations.
Ahuva Battams, 30, said she got so tired of feeling nauseated from the "more jolted" ride that, after six years of commuting by Metro, she switched last month to Virginia Railway Express. She said she pays $4.40 more a day to ride VRE between Springfield and her paralegal job near Union Station.
"I start off feeling nauseous and then overheated and faint," Battams said of riding Metro, which she still uses for short trips. "I break out into a sweat. Once I get off the train, it goes away."
Since switching to the VRE, she said, "I haven't felt sick at all."
Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said any suffering comes from attempts to make Metro safer. Since the crash, trains have been controlled by operators, rather than onboard computers, which will continue until the investigation and any necessary fixes are completed, Farbstein said. That could take well more than a year, she said. The National Transportation Safety Board has not released the cause of the crash, but investigators have said the probe is focusing on a track circuit that failed to detect one of the trains.
"The whole idea is to improve safety," Farbstein said. Train operators "are taught to brake properly and as smoothly as they can."
Most of the jerking depends on how abruptly operators move the lever that controls the train's acceleration and braking, Farbstein said. Some also stems from the different model cars. Trains used to be composed primarily of the same make of cars. However, one week after the Fort Totten crash, which killed nine people and injured 80, Metro sandwiched its older 1000 series cars, like one that crumpled in the accident, between newer models.
Metro officials said at the time that doing so would make the older cars less vulnerable. However, documents obtained by The Washington Post have shown that the decision was aimed at raising public confidence in the system and that Metro conducted no formal engineering analysis to support the move.
One Metro train operator said colleagues refer to a train "hucking 'n' bucking" when the circuitry in different model cars causes their braking mechanisms to vary by two to three seconds. The cars braking out of sync leads to the herky-jerky motion, said the operator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Metro had not provided authorization to talk publicly.
Some operators smooth the ride by keeping the train in "coast" longer before applying the brakes. However, doing so increases the chances that the train will overshoot a platform, which typically results in disciplinary action, the operator said.
"Operators are fearful of that, so they just want to brake the train," the operator said.
Farbstein said the number of passengers who have complained about feeling ill because of the ride is relatively minuscule. Of the average 300 complaints that Metro has received daily since the June crash, Farbstein said, a total of 11 pertained to motion sickness.
She said she couldn't determine how many such complaints Metro received before June because there is no computerized category for "motion sickness" or "nausea." The complaints made since June 22 were tallied by hand, she said.
"We move an estimated 750,000 people per day, and we've had 11 complaints" in four months, Farbstein said. "Please put that in perspective. It's a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of people."
The blogger behind Unsuck DC Metro, which reports problems on Metro, says he has received "a few" complaints about motion sickness, but he hasn't heard "any sort of outcry about it." The rider advocacy group Metroriders.org said it hasn't received any.
But several of those who suffer said they have plenty of queasy company among friends and spouses. They said they haven't officially complained because they have been hoping the problem is temporary.
It's not just sick stomachs. The daily Red Line ride that Ryan Holman used to relish for 45 minutes of uninterrupted pleasure-reading now produces headaches, which she attributes to her eyes becoming fatigued from the jerking motion. She now passes the time listening to music or, at the most, scanning a newspaper.
"I used to go through a huge number of books," said Holman, 25, who rides the Red Line from Wheaton to Metro Center for her job at a directory publishing firm. "Now I've lost that time. I miss it."
Even so, Holman and others say they're willing to hang in there if a jerky ride means a potentially safer one.
"I'd much rather not be able to read on Metro than have something unsafe happen," Holman said. "It'd be nice if it got better, but I know there are other concerns besides whether the lady in the fifth car back is able to read."