Why rush hour Metro trains are empty

Saturday, September 25, 2010; 9:56 PM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Why does Metro send empty trains through during rush hour? On Wednesday about 5:30 p.m. at Metro Center, I waited for the Red Line train to Glenmont for about 10 minutes.

During that time an eight-car empty train went toward Glenmont while the platform got more and more crowded. Meanwhile several trains proceeded toward the other end of the line. Is Metro simply moving the empty train to the yard and then sending it back toward Shady Grove?

While some of us were trying to get on a train, finally, the driver angrily told us to let passengers get off first. Once we were aboard, he angrily told us to stand clear of the doors, etc. He should have been yelling at his bosses.

- John Fay, Wheaton

From the timing, that empty train could have been the one Metro had to take out of service at Woodley Park because of a brake problem. All the passengers had to get off before the train was sent through to the repair yard.

Losing one train at rush hour isn't just a discouraging sight to the people lining the platforms at rush hour. But it also means that all the passengers who had to get off the broken train will be crowding onto the next few trains heading into downtown Washington, where the doors also will open onto jammed platforms.

Door and brake problems are leading causes of train failures. Passengers stress the doors by leaning against them or trying to hold them open. The brakes are under more stress because the operators are driving trains that were designed to be slowed automatically.

I've been on crowded trains where the operators yelled at us over the loudspeakers because a few passengers were misbehaving. So I can state that as a behavior-modification tactic, this is completely ineffective. Seems like everyone is in a bad mood at rush hour.

Speaking of crowding on the Red Line, have you noticed that there are fewer trains at rush hour?

At the end of June, the transit authority did what it has been discussing, although I wish Metro had pointed out the change to its customers at the time: The number of trains in service was cut back and cars were added to other trains on the line.

In the new service schedule, rush hour trains are 30 seconds farther apart between Grosvenor and Silver Spring - the busiest part of the line - than they were before June 27.

There are 41 trains on the line, rather than 44. But there are a total of 284 cars, rather than 278.

This is supposed to make the schedule more reliable while easing the crowding.

I'm not asking whether you've looked up at the arrival time boards on your platform and seen "3, 6, 9" under the column indicating how many minutes away the next three trains are. That would be asking a lot, given how easy it is to throw off the rush hour schedule with loadings and unloadings on crowded platforms.

But do you feel that you have more breathing room aboard the trains?

Combating distractions

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Here's another twist on distracted driving: A man driving a luxury car through a crosswalk full of pedestrians while reading his Kindle. (Spotted on Washington Boulevard in Clarendon.)

- Kathy Seddon, Arlington

Just this past week, transportation safety experts met in the District for a conference on distracted driving convened by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Earlier this month, at an event highlighting the continuing crackdown on aggressive driving known as the Smooth Operator program, I noted that police are linking aggressive driving and distracted driving.

The consequences for the victims are the same, they said.

"We have to stigmatize this type of behavior," said Capt. Susan Culin of the Fairfax County police.

Education certainly helps, but enforcement - and awareness of enforcement - through such efforts as Smooth Operator are essential components of a safety program.

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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