Marathon ride captures Metro's ebb and flow

See a day spent traversing every Metro line, ranging from rush hour to the quiet of night.
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

A day in the life of Metro begins without fanfare. In the predawn darkness, the manager of Takoma Station pulls up, turns on the escalators and opens the gates. The nation's second largest rail transit system is open for business.

At 4:47 a.m., I walk in, the station's first rider of the day. I won't walk out again until 12:43 the next morning, the last one off the final train.

With only quick breaks for station-side meals -- breakfast in Dupont Circle, lunch in Ballston, dinner in Wheaton -- I will ride every inch of every line, some several times. I will pass through all 86 stations and cover more than 150 miles. At nearly 20 hours, this is the subway equivalent of a flight from Washington to Sydney, but with someone chiming "Step back, doors closing" every three minutes.

My marathon ride comes as Metro tries to weather an unprecedented season of danger and dismay. The 34-year-old rail system these days feels older than its age, as almost 750,000 people a day ebb and flow through increasingly creaky infrastructure, riding with emotions that swing from tranquillity to jaw-clenching tension. Anxiety is up, but so is ridership. Even as people nervously register the signs of deferred maintenance and questionable management, they stream in, a massive daily intermingling of humanity and machinery.

"Early early, like this, I like it," says Dana Segamo, a veteran first-train-catcher on the way to his job as a security guard at the Home Depot in Capitol Heights. "Sometimes it is late, and that can worry me. But I find when I don't take it, I miss it."

Morning darkness is Metro's most serene phase. That first Red Line train is clean and nearly empty. Many of the earliest riders are construction workers, wearing dirty boots and clean jeans and carrying little plastic coolers. An older woman with a Brink's security badge reads a zip-up Bible. No one wears earphones; no one talks on a cellphone. Most doze in the white noise of the train, their heads bobbing in sync.

Three stops later, at Rhode Island Avenue, the calm is temporarily shattered when a young woman in a brown cap comes on. "Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!" she shouts. "God has brought us here today! Good morning, ma'am! I am praying for you!"

On the inbound cars of the Red Line's opposite leg, men in suits -- GS-12s and lawyers -- outnumber tradesmen. A lunch cooler is made of fabric from Target, not plastic by Igloo. The rush builds; the platforms at Metro Center and Gallery Place grow crowded. By 7:30, many trains arriving from the suburbs are standing room only. A group of preteens in blue-and-white school uniforms waits for a Green Line train. On the Yellow Line at Pentagon, I watch a crowd of olive drab and crisp khaki drain away. On the Green Line from Branch Avenue, Felice Hernandez struggles with a sleeping toddler and too many bags on her way to day care and then a job at a restaurant in Arlington County.

Even in the crush, there are pockets of calm. Koki Nagata delights in his reverse commute from Van Ness to College Park, where he teaches. At 8 a.m., he is nearly alone on an outbound Red Line train.

"For me, it is a time to relax and to read," says Nagata, who grew up using Tokyo's crowded subway and praises Metro's relative calm. "This helps me maintain my peace of mind."

By now, the rush is crushing for anyone who hasn't gotten on early enough to snag a seat. At Rockville, an earlier train breakdown still has some passengers spooked. "The radio said there was smoke," a woman tells her friend as they wait for a Glenmont train.

"I heard that," the other replies. "The Red Line is cursed. I mean, what next?"

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