A tough road ahead

Sunday, February 21, 2010; C02

Unplug Gallery Place. The crowding where the Red Line platform meets the mezzanine is scary. The station's design doesn't fit the safety policy of stopping all trains at the front of the platforms. A wave of passengers from the Red Line train meets a wave of transferring passengers from the Yellow and Green lines at rush hour. People can't move.

Personnel on platforms. Put more Metro staffers on crowded platforms -- like Gallery Place -- to assist with loading and unloading. Fewer doors would jam, because staff would be able to keep passengers from trying to prop them open, and fewer trains would go out of service.

Return to automatic controls. Our trains weren't built to run on manual for a long time. It slows the whole system and creates more wear and tear on the trains -- and the passengers.

More eight-car trains. One of the ways that the transit authority sold the region on financing its capital plan, known as Metro Matters, was to promise that half the trains at rush hour would be eight cars long, if only we'd pay for enough rail cars. As riders and taxpayers, we did our part. Not only is the transit authority not running enough eight-car trains, it's considering their complete elimination at rush hour.

Communicate better. Metro did take steps to improve communications with riders, but it can do much better. It's something that should involve the Metro board, the senior staff, front-line supervisors, station managers, bus drivers and train operators. And it's not as much a question of money as it is of attitude. Tell us in a timely manner whether there's a problem affecting our trip and what we might do about it. Example: During the snow days, Metro often waited too long to tell us about a major change in service.

Fix the escalators: Find long-term remedies for the escalators that are most often busted and are most heavily used, including those at Dupont Circle and Bethesda. Create another set of escalators and stairs so riders exiting trains at Shady Grove can safely leave the station platform.

"Stand right" signs: Place "Stand on the right" signs by the escalators. That doesn't encourage walking, but people who want to can have a clear path on the left.

Fix Next Bus: The bus services of the future require a dependable way for passengers to monitor arrival times. The future isn't quite here. The Next Bus real-time arrival alerts don't work as well as they should. Riders complain about ghost buses. Next Bus tells riders that buses will be at their stop in a minute, but they never appear.

Upgrade the PIDS. We need the train arrivals, as well as the bus arrivals, to be predictable under any circumstances, including those created by service disruptions. Like Next Bus, the Passenger Information Display System in the rail stations was a big improvement, but it isn't always reliable.

Ease parking problems. Transit users just hate getting stuck at the parking exit behind someone who doesn't have a SmarTrip card to pay. By now, we should have a system that allows people to use the cards at all exits, not just a few scattered across the region. Also, because the parking areas fill up so quickly in the morning, Metro needs a Next Space system that can alert transit users to the availability of parking at their lots and garages.

More express buses. Improve performance of Metrobus by spreading out bus stops and creating more express routes. Give buses priority at traffic signals.

Add Potomac Yard station. The section of Alexandria between the Reagan National Airport and Braddock Road stations is perfect for an infill station that would help commuters and community development.

Eliminate paper fare cards. Make disposable SmarTrip cards for visitors and occasional riders who don't want to buy the regular plastic cards. They will be easier to use and get riders through the fare gates more quickly.

More pocket tracks. As the rail system ages and more trains break down, we need more escape routes for the in-service trains to ease rush hour congestion.

Upgrade the train map. Our map is a splendid design, an icon. But it could be made more helpful in orienting tourists or occasional riders trying to figure out which station is closest to their destination.

Light up stations. It's dark down there. Lighting experiments have been tried at a few stations. It works. Expand the program.

More benches. Better lighting would let us read during the lengthening wait for trains. More benches would keep us off the platform floors.

-- Robert Thomson

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