Tempers rise with temperatures on Metro rail cars

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010; B01

Sweat streamed down Michael Demasi's face and arms and dripped onto the floor as he and some friends stood in a packed Orange Line Metro train headed to a Nationals game at rush hour Thursday evening.

"I'd rather be in a sauna," he said, hanging onto an overhead handle in the car's crowded doorway.

Demasi commutes on the Orange Line between Ballston and Court House Station every day to his job at a finance firm. Lately, the ride has left him drenched, he said. "Pretty much I have to shower when I get to work."

With temperatures on some rail cars hitting 100 degrees amid the recent heat wave, Metro officials say the system's air-conditioning equipment is reaching its limits. Metro warned riders this week to expect "overly warm" rail cars and asked them to report the ID numbers of cars with failed air conditioning.

One difficulty in keeping rail cars cool arises when doors open and intense heat rushes in. That, coupled with the body heat of passengers on crowded cars, can make the ride uncomfortable, said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. The problem is exacerbated at end-of-the-line stations, where trains wait with their doors open, he said.

"Trying to cool an underground subway system in heat like this is like trying to cool your house with the windows open," Taubenkibel said. He said his own commutes have been sweltering at times.

"Every train I've had this week has had air conditioning . . . but when I get to the heaviest points in the system, like Metro Center, I don't feel it because the doors are open and people are getting on."

Several days of 90- and 100-degree temperatures also force air conditioning and auxiliary power units to work harder, making breakdowns more likely, he said. "Excessive heat can provide an added strain to the passenger equipment." Electricity fluctuations because of the heat can also affect the fully electric rail cars and their equipment, he said.

Metro said that on average, six to 10 percent of its active fleet of 1,140 rail cars have been out of service each day this week because of heat-related issues. Bus riders, however, seem to be faring slightly better in the heat wave. Metro statistics for this week show that almost 98 percent of the active fleet of 1,450 buses have functioning air conditioning.

Once rail cars grow too hot, Metro often closes them off to passengers while keeping the rest of the train in service and later takes the cars with broken units out of service for repairs.

Still, Demasi and other passengers said steamy cars are far too common.

"Now it's a rarity to get on a train with air conditioning, at least on the Orange Line," Demasi said, wiping his forehead.

On another overheated car, some women sat fanning themselves.

"A day like today is unacceptable," Lisa Smith of the District said while fanning her face with sheets of folded paper. "There have been problems since the beginning of this week," she said while going from her job as a dental assistant in Vienna to L'Enfant Plaza in Southwest Washington.

As the ride wore on with no relief, though, nerves grew raw.

"They increase the fare, but they don't turn on the air conditioning!" one exasperated woman said.

"You shouldn't have fare increases and have reduced cars in 100-degree weather!" she said, speaking to no one in particular. She declined to give her name because she was worried about how publicity might affect her employment.

Metro had to pull all 100 of its 4000 series rail cars out of service on the eve of the July 4 holiday after it discovered a potential hazard with door motors that might have caused car doors to open while trains were in motion. More than a dozen of those cars had been returned to operation Friday, Metro officials said.

Metro began the first phase of a multi-step fare hike -- the biggest increase in the transit system's history -- on June 27.

"I think we should all call and complain!" the woman who declined to give her name said.

Sitting nearby, Kelly Cosgrove of Falls Church took a more stoic approach. "You have to deal with mechanical failure from time to time," she said, her face streaked with perspiration. "These things happen."

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