There are a few ways Metro can improve Gallery Place

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, March 21, 2010; C02

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

On Wednesday, around 5:45 p.m., I transferred from the Yellow Line to the Red Line at Gallery Place on the way to Van Ness. The station platform has always been really crowded at rush hour, especially now that the trains go all the way to the front to stop, leaving no train cars where most passengers enter the platform. This time it was insufferable -- pure backlog, and no one could walk anywhere.

Folks could fall. Plus, the trains were running normally, yet even with [manual operation] the doors closed almost as soon as passengers disembarked, leaving no time for passengers to get on and creating more incentive to crowd. It's poor design for the number of passengers and a real safety risk.

-- Marsha Gold,

The District

Although we've discussed the worrisome situation at Gallery Place several times in the column, I'm particularly concerned now as the tourist season is resuming. When the Cherry Blossom Festival begins this coming Saturday, Washington will once again throw open its gates -- and the gates of its transit system -- to visitors from around the world.

The visitors generally add to the excitement of using the transit system. They don't know our local customs. They stand anywhere they want on the escalators. When they pass through the train doors ahead of a rush-hour horde, they stop to admire the view.

They won't be so serene on, let's say, opening day at Nationals Park, when they get off the Green Line from the stadium and make their way toward the Red Line platform on the Shady Grove side. The regulars, at least, know what they're in for: They're going to face a wave of humanity heading straight for them with a wall on one side and a platform edge on the other.

The visitors will have the same looks on their faces they get when they realize the rail car doors aren't going to bounce back when they try to hold them open.

This crowding isn't so much a problem when the train is eight cars long and fills up the platform. But how many eight-car trains do you see?

If it's a six, then the situation is exactly as Gold described it: The train pulls to the head of the platform, leaving a big gap between the train and where the approaching passengers are. The gap is pretty quickly filled by people getting off the train.

Train operators can be too hasty closing the doors. They also can't see that well down to the rear doors of the train on a crowded platform.

Metro needs more workers deployed to control that platform, not just during the rush periods or for special events but for off-hours, too, especially during the peak tourist season.

What's the alternative? For Gallery Place, the transit authority could make an exception to the safety rule requiring all train operators to pull to the head of the platform. But Metro officials worry about allowing any variation in the pattern. They haven't been able to account for human nature.

It has happened only occasionally that an operator forgot how many cars the train had and stopped too soon, opening some doors in the tunnel if the train was eight cars long. But any time it happened, a passenger could have landed on the tracks. An exception for Gallery Place would re-create the original concern.

The ultimate solution is to return train control to the computers. But even though Metro officials realize that some safety issues arise under manual control, they are adamant that automatic control not be restored until they are sure that system is safe.

What about the proposal to eliminate eight-car trains at rush hour as a money-saving measure? Wouldn't that at least have the upside of allowing the six-car trains to stop at mid-platform?

No, Metro would still need the flexibility of having eight-car trains to and from big events.

Perhaps the ultimate ultimate solution to crowding at Gallery Place is to build the long-discussed pedestrian tunnel linking it with Metro Center, easing the need for train transfers. But many more cherry blossoms will fall before we tackle that expensive project.

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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