Metrorail riders lose their cool over broken air conditioners, escalators

By Robert Thomson
Thursday, July 22, 2010; VA24

This Metrorail rider expresses the themes of summer transit 2010: Too many air conditioners and escalators don't work.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I read your advice [Dr. Gridlock, July 11] about escaping a rail car without air conditioning, and I had to chuckle. On July 7, I got on a Red Line train at Judiciary Square between 5 and 5:10 p.m. I quickly realized there was no air conditioning in my rail car, so I dragged my 34-weeks-pregnant belly and my large rolling litigation bag down the platform at the next station and sought refuge in a different car.

The second car was no better. I lasted in it until the Van Ness Station, where I dragged myself out onto the platform, hoping to try a third car. Of course, the doors shut before I could get in. So I waited for the next train and recuperated on the air-conditioned platform. I was hopeful that the next train would have air conditioning.

No such luck. I got into the next train, and it was at least as hot as the cars on the previous train had been. At this point, I started sending e-mails to my husband containing language that cannot be repeated here. I was determined to make it to the Bethesda Station without passing out, but the hot, stagnant air was really getting to me.

So, at Friendship Heights -- one stop short of Bethesda -- I got off the train at about 5:25 p.m. Again, I was unable to make it into another car before the doors closed. Surely, the next train, my third of the evening, would have air conditioning.

Again, no such luck. Fortunately, I only had one stop to go. Then, to add insult to injury, as often happens at the Bethesda Station, where the escalator from the platform to the station has been under repair for an inordinate amount of time, perfectly able-bodied patrons crowded into the elevator in front of me and left me standing on the platform with my huge bag and belly, feeling nearly faint from the ride, to await the next elevator.

Shame on Metro. There is no excuse for anyone to have to endure such a commute.

Ellen Epstein


DG: The burden on Metro to fix the equipment problems is quite clear. So I want to address the things we can do to help ourselves and each other.

First, we shouldn't let the equipment problems become an excuse for bad behavior. In the winter, we discussed Metro platform etiquette. Only the season has changed. We still have too many people competing for too little space on the platforms. We need to form lines when the escalators are broken and, yes, even yield the right of way on occasion.

With the heat in the cars, there are two problems. One is that it's just plain hot: It's difficult to adequately cool an interior space with six doors opening every couple of minutes. We have to deal with that by dressing appropriately for the season. Temperatures in cars with working air conditioning are likely to be in the 80s on hot days.

But the really hot cars, the ones I've been saying you should abandon as quickly as possible and report to Metro, have broken equipment. You'll know them as soon as you board. Metro should be checking for such cars during a walk-through at the ends of the lines. But there's no reason we can't be part of the solution by reporting those hot cars to the Metrorail staff and getting out of them is search of cooler cars.

Now, that said, one rider who read that advice when I offered it on the Dr. Gridlock blog had this comeback: The claustrophobic rider moved from a crowded but cool car into the next one, which was almost empty. Turned out there was a reason for that: The car was miserably hot. But the rider was wearing a cool bandana just taken out of a refrigerator and now had a seat.

Then along came a Metro staff member who told everyone to leave the car, turned off the lights and closed the doors so that no one else could board. The rider wound up waiting on the platform for two more trains before boarding a car that didn't feel like a sardine can. So, the rider asks, why not let people who are willing to ride in hot cars do so?

I have to agree with Metro policy on this one. Some of those cars are 100 degrees. It's not responsible to knowingly allow people to board them. Many riders have told me that it's galling to see one darkened, empty car on a train that's otherwise packed. But we warn each other every summer about the dangers of leaving people or pets inside parked cars with the windows rolled up. What's the difference? Probably not the temperature.

Airing grievances

This reader titled her letter: "I have to vent since Metro trains apparently don't."

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Okay, seriously, $5 one-way (for now!) and the service is beyond awful. On July 8, when the switch was out at Vienna -- why is everything always broken? -- and it took an hour to travel from Metro Center to Vienna, I was on three, yes, three train cars with no air conditioning.

How, you ask, was I on three train cars for a single trip? Well, I was forced to exit the first one after the constant jerking stops and starts coupled with the stifling heat caused me to become truly sick.

I fled the train at Clarendon and got onto the next train, only to find myself on yet another completely packed, impossibly hot train. I thought there was no way I was going to make it all the way home like that, so at the next prolonged stop, I got off that car and went to my third car of the night, which was also without A/C.

This one was less packed, and I was able to sit, albeit in my own sweat.

So packed trains have no A/C because, as Metro explains it, there are too many mammals producing too much heat. Except, as my experience with the third car would suggest, having fewer people in a car doesn't seem to improve the air conditioning.

Barbara J. Hamill


DG: Crowding makes a hot car worse, but crowding doesn't cause the air conditioner to break down.

Some of the body heat is generated by rider anger at the junction of a fare increase, service problems with escalators and air conditioners, and a heat wave.

At least Metro officials never told us the fare increases would make service better.

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