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What options did Metro have during snowstorm?

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, December 27, 2009; C02

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I was one of the Metro passengers stranded Dec. 19 by the agency's sudden decision to stop all service. I left Silver Spring via Metro around 10 in the morning and attempted to return via Metrorail around 2 p.m. when I discovered that aboveground rail service was stopped.

To my astonishment, Metro's Web site also said that there would be no bus service. There were simply no other options.

It seems to me that Metro officials must have known on Friday that there was a 50-50 chance that they would cut all service and make no other options available at some point during the storm. They lured people like me out in the morning, confident that the system was working or at least that contingency plans were available, and then abandoned us. I've never seen it handled this way in Chicago, where I'm from.

-- Carlean Ponder, Silver Spring

Metro's old snowstorm policy: If we take you there, we'll take you home.

Metro's new storm policy: Save the train system.

It sounds harsh, especially in light of our letter writer's plight, but it's not simply an issue of people vs. machines.

What I call the new policy dates to 2003, but this was the first storm since then that was huge enough to test the plan.

The turning point in Metro planning came during the Presidents' Day weekend blizzard of 2003. As the snow deepened, Metro officials kept the train system running above and below ground. They had carried hundreds of people downtown to an ice show at what is now Verizon Center and wanted to give them a fighting chance at getting home.

But that noble goal had a devastating impact on transit service when the storm passed and people returned to work. About 300 rail cars, damaged by snow and ice, needed to be repaired. Crowding on the remaining cars was epic. It wasn't until the following Saturday that the rail fleet was back to normal.

The transit authority decided that couldn't happen again, and in November 2003 it adopted the new policy: Harden the train equipment against ice and snow before the snow arrives, store as many cars as possible on side tracks underground, then shut the aboveground stations when the snow reaches the point at which equipment starts to break down. That tends to happen when the snow depth reaches about eight inches.

Many of the managers who developed that policy have left the transit authority, so it was largely up to a new generation to execute the plan. But they accomplished the goal: Most of the fleet was ready for service during Monday morning's rush hour.

But what about Ponder and hundreds of others who had taken transit Saturday morning and then found they couldn't return home the same way?

Metro officials had put out the word on Friday that if the storm delivered more than eight inches, the trains would run underground only. Metrobus service depends on road conditions, the transit authority noted, so passengers should expect detours and delays.

But we're not Chicago or some other city that confronts severe winter weather on a regular basis. To many people, the implications of ending aboveground train service -- and, as it turned out, halting Metrobus -- were unclear when they began their journeys Saturday.

At 11:45 Saturday morning, the transit authority announced that as of 1 p.m., Metrobus would stop and only below-ground train service would continue.

Of Metro's 86 stations and 106 miles of track, 39 stations and 55.5 miles of track are aboveground. Many people couldn't react in time to the announcement.

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said calls came in from transit police saying there were still several hundred people in the system complaining that they had no other way to reach the outer stations. Metro officials decided to send trains through to pick up those passengers, even though the snow had now deepened to the point where train performance was questionable.

Tough call: If they took a chance on getting the passengers home, the trains might get stuck, forcing an immediate rescue mission and knocking out equipment needed in coming days. One train did get stranded and had to be pulled back into Dunn Loring Station, where Metro staffers drove passengers home.

Would you change the plan for the next storm? It could be long after the memory of this December's experience has dimmed, and it could be on a weekday.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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