Metro: Roads and Rails

Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 23, 2006; 11:00 AM

Do you think Metro has grown unreliable and become downright unpleasant? Or are you happy with your commutes on rail and bus? Does the thought of the intercounty connector (ICC) keep you up at night or does it seem like it's long overdue? And what of the moves by Maryland and Virginia to encourage the private sector to build road projects, such as widening the Capital Beltway?

Washington Post staff writer Lyndsey Layton was online Monday, Jan. 23, at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, feel your pain and share the drama of getting from Point A to Point B. Washington Post staff writer Steven Ginsberg was unable to join this week's discussion.

A transcript follows.

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Lyndsey Layton: Good morning straphangers, sluggers, SUVers of all types! Steve is at a transportation conference where he is soaking in talk about asphalt and congestion pricing and all that road stuff. But I'm present and accounted for, and I welcome your thoughts.

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Dupont Circle, DC: Two questions about the Metro entrance "canopies":

(1) Since several of the panes of glass in the Dupont Circle south entrance canopy have already cracked or broken, what kind of confidence do we have that these canopies are worth the money it costs to install them?

(2) How can the existing canopy design possibly fit over an entrance like the wide, round Dupont Circle north entrance?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Dupont Circle,

1.) Yikes, I hadn't even seen that! I'll have to take a look today. Ok, so hearing that, my confidence is a little frayed.

2.) For the station entrances that are unique, Metro plans specialized canopies that would fit the wide, round entrance at Dupont north.

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Baltimore City, Md.: Although I live in Baltimore City, I take the MARC from BWI to DC during the morning rush and return in the evening. (I could get a seat from the West Baltimore station is closer, but really an embarrassment for the MTA with an unshltered platform the size of 2 bus shelters and no message board) I can count on one hand in the 2 months the number of times I have gotten a seat -- this while I watch empty trains traveling north. My question/suggestion is, why do all trains have to travel the entire Balt-DC distance? Why not have some of the north bound trains turn at BWI? This would allow for more frequent service from BWI and the Baltimore south trains, while fewer in number, could all be express from BWI during the rush. People traveling north from intermediary points could change trains at BWI. Of course, I don't completely understand the intricacies of where people board, where they go, tracks and platforms , but it does seem like this might be a way of getting more use out of existing trains, happier passengers and a seat for my tired behind.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Hon,

What a good question. On the face of it, it seems like a good idea, since most of the DC to Baltimore ridership in the p.m. tapers off by the time the train reaches Baltimore.

Turning trains at BWI (and I'm not sure that's physically possible) to add additional trips adds traffic to the line, which is also used (and I believe is owned) by Amtrak. Amtrak would have to agree because any changes could interfere with its own timetables. And it would likely result in some increase in MARC's operating costs, so Maryland would have to sign off on this as well.

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Brookland, Washington, D.C.: Metro always says its operators can't override its doors closings, but that's simply not true. Case in point: last Wed., about 5 p.m. at DuPont Circle, I was riding the escalator down to the train at the south end of the platform (head of the train). A group of teengers pushed past me and, when the doors closed before they could get on, they banged on the doors. The operaor obligingly opened them for the teens to get on.

I left the train at Union Station and started walking forward, past the front car. A heavy-set woman with a cane and a large wheeled suitcase was trying to hurry to get train. The operator said, "take your time, lady, we're not going anywhere until you're safely aboard." Which he then followed through on.

That's twice on one trip an operator either reopened or delayed closing the doors. So why do they say this is impossible? How dumb do they think we are?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Brookland,

Maybe I was out of the room, but I've never heard Metro managers say that operators can't open the train doors once they've closed. And it's certainly up to the operator to decide when to close the doors once passengers have loaded onto a train.

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question for the group: I live right by the E. Falls Church Metro. Walking distance. I had been taking the metro all the way to friendship heights (much faster than driving). But I am about to start a new job right by the farragut north metro. My question is this: both in terms of time commuting and in terms of cost (either metro or parking downtown) what is the best way to get into the city? Metro costs me about $6 a day and would take about 30 minutes door to door.

Lyndsey Layton: Sounds to me that Metro is the faster, cheaper alternative for you since you don't have to pay to park at the Metro station and you could get off at Farragut West and walk over to new job (Congratulations, by the way!) without having to transfer to the Red Line. Anybody else?

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Fairfax, Va.: I had a thought about Metro station entrances recently with our wet weather. What was the rationale in choosing that smooth tile for all the Metro station entrances? When it gets wet, it's as slick as ice. Without some kind of grooves or something, there is no traction on those tiles. I presume they've been there for 30 years, so is the choice based solely on esthetics? I mean, the tiles do match the carpet on the trains themselves...

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Fairfax,

Yes, those tiles were the original choice way back in '76 and because Metro has been obsessive about maintaining its look, no one has made an effort to install tiles that would be safer when wet.

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Does Metro actually have plans to cover the north Dupont entrance? That would be horrible. If they must cover it, at least build a cafe or pizza place or something useful over it - otherwise we like that big space (but please take care of the trees!).

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Dupont, do we really think a pizza place would look good over that space?

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Ballston, Va.: I ask this because I'm sick to death of hearing my husband complain endlessly about it: why does Metro HQ keep their lights on at all hours of the day and night? Couldn't they save quite a bit of money if everyone turned off their office lights when they left for the evening?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Ballston,

Does your husband work in the fire station across the street? How does he know the lights are on all night? I've been to Metro HQ plenty of times after hours and many offices are dark.

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Washington, D.C.: The 42 bus service continues to deteriorate. Service at 9:00 a.m. is very spotty. Sometimes (packed) buses arrive 15 minutes apart, instead of 5 minutes, and of course there is the ever-present problem of bus clusters. I applaud your recent efforts to discover the reason for the bus clusters and to point out that it is not infrequently caused by drivers wishing to cut down on their route time. Could you publish a telephone number where riders can call and talk to a real live person to complain?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Washington. I ride the 42, so this is near and dear to my heart. You can register your complaint to a human being at 202-637-1328, weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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Alexandria, Va.: Any idea how Metro calculates next train arrival times? Is it based on real-time information or some sort of idealised schedule?

It seems to work well enough on all lines, save the Yellow. I can alost understand why no information is presented for southbound trains at Gallery Place, since there's only one station "upstream," but I don't understand why the information is so misleading in the other direction.

This morning provides me with the most egregious example yet: I arrived at Braddock Road, a Blue line in 2, Yellow in 4. I opt to wait for the Yellow for the more direct route. After the Blue comes and goes and another two-three minutes pass, the Yellow line is still coming in 3. Suddenly the Yellow is again coming in 4 (as if the train engineer forgot something int he station and went back). In the next minute the Yellow line disappears from the board entirely. When it finally resurfaces, it's again at 3 minutes.

In all, the expected 2 minute wait became 8-9 minutes. I'm not complaining about the wait (granted I would have sooner spent that time in a warm Blue line train), and I can understand how a train stalls and extends the waiting time, but the erratic nature of the information presented this morning boggled my mind.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Alexandria,

That's very interesting and reminds me of the early days of those information display signs when they were inaccurate on all lines. The signs are not based on real-time information - they rely on an algorithm that uses the departure time of the train as it leaves a terminal station and estimates arrival at the rest of the stations along the line.

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Alexandria, VA: When will Metro allow all cellular providers to offer coverage within the subway system? A recent chat with the Metro director on their site seemed to indicate they were working on opening it up to other carriers besides Verizon.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Alexandria,

They've been talking to a consortium of other cell phone providers for months and months and I haven't heard of progress. Meanwhile, NYC has just struck a deal to wire its stations for cell phones so that all types of phones will be able to work.

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Washington, D.C.: Can someone speed up the slllllooow escalators? Compare the Metro escalators to the private ones rights after them in Pentagon City and Chevy Chase Pavillion - they are noticably faster. I'm sure Metro thinks they're just being safe, but certainly the private malls care too - but unlike Metro they also care about serving their customers.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Washington,

You're right, the Metro escalators are much slower than those you find in malls and other commercial spaces. And you're also right that it's intentional - Metro officials say that it's safer.

But I've always harbored the thought that fewer people would walk up and down the escalators (an even greater safety threat) if they moved a little faster.

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Alexandria, Va.: Now that the DC/VA/MD taxpayers have funded Richard White and his family for the rest of their lives, I think it's high time that the metro riding public demand that metro stop crying poverty and make real changes. Regardless of the fact that Mr. White's salary was the going rate for top executives, the Metro board is responsible for gross mismanagement. Do they get paid? What is their salary? I think we are riders funding possible lavish lifestyles while dealing with shoddy performance need to step up and demand answers. If Representative Tom Davis is too busy holding steroid hearings instead of calling metro board members up to Capitol Hill for a hearing then we need to elect someone capable of responding to the needs of the ridership. It is time for actual action. Let's do something!

Lyndsey Layton: OK, Alexandria, before you take to the streets with a torch, lemme tell you that Metro doesn't pay its board members - any compensation is up to the jurisdictions they represent and varies wildy from $100,000 (Prince George's County's payment to its representative, Marcell Solomon) to $0 (District of Columbia to its representatives).

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Alexandria, Va.: I seem to remember a few years ago a post regarding the man who sings hymns on the Orange/Blue line who was told by Metro to kindly cease and desist. Well he seems to be back and was wondering the best way to handle this. I have no issue with singing Hymns in proper settings and belt them out myself at church. But singing on the metro, esp off-key, seems...well wrong. Am I remembering this right?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Alexandria,

Your memory is correct. I'd suggest contacting the new Orange/Blue line manager, who has been charged with overseeing all aspects of travel on those lines. Charles Dziduch at blue-orangeline@wmata.com or 301/562-4606.

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Farragut North:

why in the evening rush hour are there four, sometimes five, occasionally three, metro employees with clipboards sitting there writing down the time the train arrives? They joke and laugh, once i heard them ridiculing a blind woman and her dog. Why does Metro need this many people to note something? I have seen three in the Shady grove station, sometimes three at Bethesda or Friendship Hgts. WHy the need for so many to do one small thing? it's not like the trains are on some rigid and enforced schedule.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Farragut North,

You're referring to the traffic checkers and we've all seen them if you've spent any time in a Metro station. They are supposed to be counting the numbers of riders in the rail cars, which Metro planners say helps them identify both overcrowded and empty trains at specific points in the line at specific times of day.

A lot of that can also be assessed from the fare gates, which can tell Metro how many people enter and leave a station at a particular point in time. I guess the drawback there would be stations that host more than one line, because you wouldn't be able to tell from the fare gate at Metro Center whether a passenger was boarding a Red Line train or an Orange or Blue.

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning...enjoy the chats! Wife is pushing for a move to Ashburn (we currently live in Alexandria) and while I like the Ashburn area, I am concerned about my commute. How bad is the Ashburn to DC commute? Any options ideas that I may not have thought of since public transit is not available at this time or in the forseeable future?? Would enjoy some feedback, many thanks and keep up the good work!!

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Washington,

I'm all about public transit, so I confess I'm useless on this question but I'm throwing it out the chatters. Anyone want to weigh in?

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Baltimore, Md.: Re the poster with the MARC service question: Lyndsey is right. MARC trains run on the AMTRAK right of way, so they have to schedule all their runs around AMTRAK's. I guess turning around at BWI would be possible, but the rescheduling would be a nightmare. I ride the train that leaves Baltimore at 6:20 a.m. every day and there are always still seats at BWI, so the poster might want to consider a schedule change. On the other hand, I completely agree with the critique of the W. Baltimore station. It's nothing but an exposed platform with two very steep flights of stairs for entering and exiting. (Interesting that the handicapped parking spaces are always filled at a station that is 100% unaccessible to the truly handicapped.)

Lyndsey Layton: Thanks for writing.

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Rockville, Md.: Have to agree on the tiles. They can be like ice. Most of the time they are wet whent he weather is bad.

There ought to be a better material.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Rockville,

I'm certain that there is better material. The trouble at this point would be the cost to retile all the stations.

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Alexandria, Va.: I want to echo the earlier comment about Gallery Place and Yellow Line trains. The other night I needed a southbound yellow train. the sign said only green line trains in 8 and 19 minutes. That's a Hobson's choice -- assume that there's a yellow line train coming soon, or fear that one might not show up for 20 minutes? So I went up and asked the station manager, and 4 other people were there too, all Yellow riders. The manager is saying "I don't know, I don't know" when all of a sudden he says "Oh! There's a Yellow Line train, it just popped up on the grid, it'll be here in 60 seconds! Hurry! Hurry!

So we had to rush down 2 escalators to make the train, when if they had put the status up AS IT TURNED AROUND at Mt. Vernon, everyone could have just relaxed.

Lyndsey Layton: What, you don't like the thrill of trying to catch the train, not to mention the aerobic benefits?

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re. MARC: I believe CSX is the "owner of the rails".

Lyndsey Layton: Hi. I thought CSX owned the other two MARC lines but the Penn line is owned by Amtrak. Someone correct me if I'm off.

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Arlington, Va.: So if I understand your answer to Alexabdria correctly those signs don't post post any actual time but a theoretically possible time that a train will arrive. If so, then what's the point? I don't think an actual system of sensors would be all that expensive.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Arlington,

Here's the backstory. Metro was among the first subways in the country to plan for information display signs but the project took so long that by the time the signs were installed, technology had passed Metro by. Transit systems elsewhere have better designed systems and better information. But Metro invested heavily in its now-antiquated system and Richard White has said the agency is stuck with what it has.

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Re: lights on: We have season tickets to hockey games at the MCI Center and on our way to/from the game, always see the lights on at Metro HQ. The endless complaints are annoying, but it's also annoying to see the misuse of energy.

Lyndsey Layton: OK, I yield to the season ticket holders. Turn off the lights when you're not using them, Metro.

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Washington, D.C.: I've been told by several metro station managers that when there is no 'down' escalator working it is not considered an emergency (as it is when there is no 'up' escalator). While I certainly think that if there is only one working escalator it should ferry people up, for many with physical limitations walking down is very hard (especially of the high steps on escalators). Can you find out if it is true that no down escalator is not an emergency? thanks

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Washington,

This is true, in the sense that if there is a two-escalator station and one of the escalators misbehaves, it can be taken out of service and used as a "walker" or staircase while the other is switched to the 'up' direction. But if both escalators are broken and turned off, Metro is supposed to make it a priority to get one up and running on the theory that it is more physically taxing for most people to trudge up than to walk down.

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Ashburn to Washington, D.C.: Two words: Good luck. Your options are limited, especially depending where in Ashburn you are living. Unless you want to park at the Park and Ride and then bus into West Falls Church Metro, your drive will be a long one.

Lyndsey Layton: Thanks for weighing in.

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Springfield, Va.: Hi Lyndsey,

I hope you are having a wonderful wet Monday morning! I wanted to touch upon a subject that was mentioned by these postings, and I believe an article you and/or Steve wrote a couple of months ago. It pertained to metro wanting to place directional signs on the platforms of the stations as to where the train doors will be and where to stand to wait for people to get off the trains. According to the article and metro this will speed up the time the trains are at the stations.

Riding the metro on a daily basis, I don't feel this is as big of a problem as another related problem. People who need to get off the metro ususally can't because people who are planted near/in front of the doors don't step off the metro to let others out. It then takes more time for those wanting to get off the train to manuver around others. Another part of this problem is when people get on the train they plant their butt just inside the doors when there's people trying to get on the train behind them.

There's one very simple solution to this: have the train operators make announcements more often to help with this problem. Some operators do make annoucements but it is not nearly enough. Two possible announcements could be: "When boarding the train please move to the center of the train so you do not block the doors for others to get on."

"If you are in front of a door, and this is not your stop, please step onto the platform and to the side of the train doors to allow others getting off to do so quickly."

This will dramatically speed up loading and unloading of the trains at the stations.

It would be great if you could post these suggestions as I know metro reads this message board frequently. Thanks!

Lyndsey Layton: Thanks, Springfield. How about "Don't plant yourself in the doorway, thinking you're the only person who wants to get on this train because there are another 20 people behind you and the world wasn't created just for you, Mister Big Butt."

A little harsh, I know, but we're back at the work week and I'm in my urban warrior mode.

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Washington, D.C.: Have any studies ever been done on the air quality in the platform area of Union Station? It seems to be better of late, but not sure if that is just a function of the season.

Lyndsey Layton: Hmmm. You mean brake dust or body odor or what?

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Washington, D.C.: re Metro tiles: what about a lower cost alternative to replacing the tiles--putting those business entrance rugs at the ends of escalators. This would at least help within the stations. The tiles are dangerous. I hope whoever in the system approved them is no longer employed by Metro.

Lyndsey Layton: What a sensible, low-cost solution, Washington! Metro, if you're listening, please write that one down.

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Vienna, Va.: We are thinking of moving out to Lovettsville, Va (Loudoun County). We'd commute to DC and New Carrolton, MD, to work via MARC trains in Brunswick. The problem has been to find one knowledgeable source that can help us plan our commutes. MARC train representatives didn't seem to know which train station has a convenient transfer to metrorail, for example. We would like to explore all posible options for our commute but don't know where to turn to. Is there a place with all the info we may need? Thx.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Vienna, try the Commuter Connection (http://www.mwcog.org/commuter/ccindex.html). It's a cornuccopia of commuting. Did I spell cornuccopia correctly? How about algorithm?

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Re. lights on at Metro HQ: Maybe it's the cleaning crew? They can't clean in the dark...

Lyndsey Layton: Yes, I thought of that, too

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Lyndsey Layton: Maybe they could wear energy efficient headlamps.

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Nix on More Canopies: I would give a total nix to the canopy at the Dupont Station, exit south. What was once a visually pleasing somewhat open but at the same time intimate space, has become a jumbled chaotic-looking space. During the rain, most people have their own personal canopies, called umbrellas.

Lyndsey Layton: Ah yes, but the canopies are not for the people, my friend, they're for the machinery. Electrical components plus water equals malfunction.

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Washington, D.C.: Success with Metro thanks to you. Several weeks (perhaps months) ago someone wrote in complaining that Metro promoted smoking in the enclosed rotunda at Friendship Heights, by having ashtrays there and no no smoking signs. I have complained to Metro about this for YEARS with no success changing things. I was there this weekend and the ashtrays have been removed. It can only be because this issue was raised in your forum. I am hopeful that this is the start of Metro having a real no smoking policy, with no smoking signs and the removal of ashtrays in covered areas (which is in most metro stations). Thanks!

Lyndsey Layton: I'd love to take credit but maybe Metro just woke up to the problem. But I'm sure glad those ashtrays are gone.

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Falls Church, Va.: I wanted to share this during the last chat but got distracted. My mother hasn't been to DC in about 8 years and she visited me during the holidays. Since there were a number of things she wanted to do downtown we spent a bunch of time on Metro. I wanted to share some of her more colorful (and publishable) comments regarding the experience. I hope Metro is reading today.

"Didn't this used to be the cleanest system in the country?"

"You told me food wasn't allowed on the train." (again, rules don't apply to people wearing the blue Metro baseball caps)

"If they'd run the heater there wouldn't be mold."

"Let's take a cab."

Lyndsey Layton: Wow. Mom said it all. Thanks for sharing that.

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Orange Li, NE: Hi guys! Had to share a GOOD metro story for once. Upon entering the East Falls Church metro a couple Fridays ago I could not find my Smartrip card anywhere in the wreck I call a purse. Thinking it must have fallen out at home I spent the weekend turning the house upsidedown looking for it with no success. I was totally freaking out because the card had about $200 on it and I could not remember if I ever registered the thing! I know you are thinking "what kind of a moron keeps that much $$ on a metro card and doesn't register it!" Well, that would be me.

Anyway, turns out I dropped the card outside the metro the night before. Someone turned it into the station manager who sent it to Smartrip lost and found. So a huge THANK YOU to the kind soul that turned in the card, the East Falls Church station manager the night of the 16th who was incredibly helpful and the woman at the Smartrip lost and found who was great and returned my card to me the next day.

Oh, and I have registered the card now!

Lyndsey Layton: All right! A good Metro story! Thanks.

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Lyndsey Layton: Oh folks, the hour is history. Thanks so much for spending the time with me and for your many good questions. I'm sorry if I didn't get to yours today, please visit again in two weeks.

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