Dr. Gridlock on 8-Car vs 6-Car Metro Trains, U-Turns, Speed Cameras and More

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 6, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, April 6 at noon ET to diagnose all your traffic and transit issues. The discussion follows.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers, and welcome to our chat, at its new time of noon. I welcome all questions and comments on our local transportation issues. If I don't have an answer for you, at least I can share it with the group, because some pretty smart travelers join us each week.


Arlington, Va.: Good doctor, I have the solution to gridlock on the 14th Street Bridge. I left N. Arlington via Spout Run to the GW Parkway shortly before 9:00 this morning as rain was starting. Rain usually makes my commute up to 30 minutes or more (to go 7 miles to SE, DC). But with Congress in recess this week, total drive time was less than 10 minutes.

So who do I contact to ask Congress be relocated?

Robert Thomson: But they'd probably want to take the big white building with them.

It's rare lately that anyone has told me about an easy trip on the roads or rails. Is this a spring break week for some schools? Perhaps the rain has kept down the tourist traffic? I thought getting around anywhere this weekend, by whatever means, was just ghastly.


SWDC: On Thursday, the NCAA Frozen Four (college hockey) will be at the Verizon Center -- the late game doesn't start until 8:30 p.m. I know a lot of people who want to take Metro, but are worried that the game won't end until the last hour of scheduled service -- or even afterwards, if there's overtime. Has Metro made any plans, like extra trains or late service if necessary? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel tells me that Metrorail is preparing to stay open an hour later on Thursday if the game runs past midnight. Metro normally does have extra trains on standby if there's crowding on the platform after games at Verizon Center, although I do hear complaints from time to time about the difficulty of finding room on trains after games.

Metro did a lot of extra service on Saturday evening, because of that triple header of sports events.


Washington D.C.: Speaking of gridlock, has Metro noticed any less gridlock boarding buses since it did away with paper transfers and encouraged smart card usage? It seems to me that near universal smart card usage, as opposed to digging through purses and pockets for change, would decrease travel time, and perhaps even bunching of buses.

Robert Thomson: I have not heard of a regionwide survey on that. Would any of you bus riders like to comment?

Along the routes I've taken, it seems about as usual. There still seem to be plenty of people using cash. Last week, a bus driver was telling me he still sees a lot of people using expired day passes, holding their fingers over the dates.

I have yet to see anyone try to add value to a SmarTrip card at the bus fare box, something I think would slow things down. Others say riders just get used to doing it after the first time.

The place I've seen crowding is in the Metrorail stations around the fare vending machines that can handle SmarTrip transactions. There aren't enough of those blue machines at some stations. But some of the federal stimulus money that Metro is getting is supposed to go to upgrading the fare machines to handle such transactions.


South Riding, Va.: Wow, Metro was crowded on Saturday. I was glad that I got there before 7:00 a.m. and that I had plenty of money on my card. There must be a better way. I know that there are limited times of the year when Metro sees a large population of non-regulars who need to buy fare cards, but have they thought of making it easier? Let the hotels sell them, set up a kiosk outside the stations in the parking lots, anything to get the lines down. The cars were packed too, but I noticed a strange thing, the trains seemed to be pulling all of the way to the end of the station as if they were an 8-car train. This made the very first car empty, and last car overfull. Was this intentional?

Robert Thomson: I like that idea about expanding places where tourists can buy their cards, or day passes. Seems like setting up places outside some stations would work best. Perhaps the end of the line stations and Smithsonian, and Union Station.

Metro does a fair amount now to encourage tourists to buy their fares in advance at the Metro sales offices, some supermarkets and some pharmacies, as well as online.

Cherry blossom season is one of the most challenging times of the year for Metro. The crowding is tremendous, and of course, it makes it extra difficult when you're dealing with people who aren't familiar with our quaint ways of standing to the right on escalators and not pausing at the top of the escalators to admire the scenery.

Metro does use more eight-car trains during this peak period. The phenomenon you describe of a six-car train pullling up to the front of the platform sounds like the procedure Metro sometimes uses when it puts more eight-car trains into service. It has all the trains -- no matter how long -- pull to the front of the platform, so there's no question about leaving any cars with their doors opening in the tunnel.

But I didn't know Metro planned to follow that procedure in this case, or I would have noted it on my Get There blog, where I try to post helpful tips for transit users and drivers.


Baltimore, Md.: I have seen #77 advertised as the non-emergency number to call the State Police. This morning, on the Baltimore Beltway, there was a large box in the middle of the fast lane. I saw a truck swerve onto the shoulder to avoid it. I called #77 and was connected to the College Park barracks! Something is wrong with this.

Robert Thomson: This is just a guess: That your call was routed to a dispatcher who was available to handle a call, and the dispatcher would have been able to use the police communications system to report the problem.

You probably can't tell if there was a prompt response to the problem, since you would have been driving on. But did the dispatcher give you a hard time, say you were calling the wrong place, or take the information?

In a situation such as you describe, with the big box creating an immediate hazard, I might have been tempted to call 911, treating it as an emergency.


Eastern Market, D.C.: Have you had a chance to use the new Circulator route that replaced the N22? While, overall, the new service seems fine, I'm really disappointed in the placement of the stops around Union Station. Going from Navy Yard to Union Station, there is a stop on Columbus circle across the street from Union Station. While not an awful location, it does require the majority of riders who are heading to Union Station to make the difficult crossing of Mass Ave. Much worse, for riders going from Union Station to Navy Yard, the stop is located in the garage behind the station. The garage is loud and the idling buses create very stale air. Plus, the stop isn't convenient to either the street or the metro. Is this the permanent location of this stop?

Robert Thomson: I think the stops are where they are pending the reconstruction of Columbus Circle. The circle is intimidating for some pedestrians, while others are way too bold crossing that traffic. But surprisingly, it's not one of the more dangerous ped crossings in D.C.. In fact, in that area, it's more dangerous to get across over by Mass Ave and North Cap.

The crossings at the circle are due for an upgrade, but I'm not sure what the schedule is on that. One more silver lining: The District Department of Transportation and other agencies are studying ways of improving the overall transit set up at Union Station.

On your question: No, I haven't had a chance to ride the Circulator replacement for the N22 yet. I've been on the other new Circulator, the Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights-McPherson Square Station route. That one's great.

And I often take the east-west Circulator from downtown to Union Station, getting off on Mass Ave and crossing -- safely, so far -- to the station.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Here's an odd right of way question that I've been wondering about for a while: Car is on a 2-lane highway, and is in a left-turn lane to make a u-turn to the other direction. Another car is coming into the highway from a stop-sign intersection -- so both cars will be turning onto the same roadway. Who has the right of way? The car u-turning from one direction on the highway to the other, or the car entering the highway from a side street?

Robert Thomson: Which ever vehicle is bigger has the right of way. (That was my Dad's instruction to me when he taught me to drive.)

I'll take a stab at it, though I don't recall seeing this covered in any of our regional driver manuals: If you're talking two lanes in each direction, the vehicle at the stop sign should be making a right turn into the right-most lane and would have the right of way in that lane. If the U turning vehicle could swing into the left-most lane, all would be well, but that doesn't happen. Usually, both wind up vying for the right lane, so I would think the U turner should yield.

I could argue this another way. The U turner might constitute the vehicle already in the intersection, with the right of way over the driver at the stop sign.

(Maybe I should just fall back on Dad's rule?)


Washington, D.C.: RE: Eight-car trains: Hi, Doc. A comment and a question.

I give Metro points for running regular announcements this weekend that all trains, whether 6-car or 8, would go all the way to the end of the platform.

But they forfeit most of that good will by only doing so over the squawky PA system, NOT on the signs (?!). So unless you already knew the drill, which obviously most tourists don't, you risked getting trampled as panic-stricken crowds raced down platforms en masse. REALLY stupid move on Metro's part!

My question is a simple one: What earthly purpose does it serve to have short trains stop where longer ones do, especially at peak hours? All it does is to cause more confusion and frustration for passengers -- and we already have plenty, thank you very much...

Robert Thomson: Thanks for pointing out that there were announcements. Metro's public address system has annoyed travelers for years -- and it recently got an upgrade! You can see the new speaker boxes along the sides of underground platforms.

What information to put on the electronic signs has also been a topic among my readers. Many don't want those signs used for anything but the arrival times and train lengths.

Within a few years, Metro hopes to wind up with a system of video panels along the platforms that would be able to give out a lot more useful information.

On your six vs. eight car question: Metro doesn't have enough cars -- or electric power -- to run all eights yet. I feel sure most riders would rather have the trains coming as frequently as possible, whether they're sixes or eights, rather than wait longer times between trains just so the arriving train would be eight cars long.


Washington, D.C.: Why did DDOT not make any changes to their lane switching schedule on DC295? There is absolutely no reason 3 lanes should have been maintained southbound through the construction zone all weekend. With a hugely popular tourist weekend, there should have been an adjustment to the switching schedule. The same goes for days when there are soccer and baseball games downtown. It literally takes about 20 minutes to switch that lane, but traffic was backed up from before Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday, because the configuration was still set from Friday night, just lazy and ABSURD!!

Robert Thomson: This isn't the only comment in the mailbag about congestion and lane directions. Now, as always, travelers feel that the transportation agencies don't respond quickly enough to what's happening on the highways.


Springfield, Va.: I-95 between Springfield and Quantico was an absolute MESS this weekend. The HOV lanes were closed through the area and BOTH directions were backed up through that stretch. VDOT has got to do a better job of managing these HOV lanes!!! There is absolutely no reason it should take 2-3 hours to switch lane direction, and they certainly should not be switched during daytime hours on the weekend unless conditions warrant. I can only image what a (disaster) these lanes will be when they become HOT lanes.

Robert Thomson: I've visited VDOT's traffic center where they monitor the traffic flow on the Northern Virginia highways, and I can tell you what they say about this type of thing: The HOV lane directions on weekends are set up based on traffic studies about the dominant patterns of flow.

I got the impression that changing directions at other than the scheduled hours would require something like an order from the governor. What they're worried about is causing a crash if they don't make absolutely, positively certain that there are no cars still traveling in the direction that's about to be changed.


Washington, D.C.: More on 8-car trains: Sorry I wasn't clear. I understand that there aren't nearly enough cars to have eight on every train. I was hoping you, or someone, could explain the benefit of having shorter trains go all the way to the front end of the platform just as though they have 8 cars instead of 6 (or 4). Thanks!

Robert Thomson: I get you. Do you remember when Metro was having troubles last year with eight car trains stopping where the sixes should stop, so you'd have the end of the train opening doors while still in the tunnel? We're lucky no passengers absent-mindedly stepped out into the tunnel, or just popped out cause the train was jammed full.

One way to make sure an operator doesn't forget where to stop: Have all the trains stop at the very front of the platform, guaranteeing that no matter what the train length, all the doors will open onto the platform.


Arlington, Va.: I think Metro buys its speakers from the same company that McDonald's and the other fast food companies get their drive-thru speakers.

Robert Thomson: They were on sale.


DC: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

I think you missed the gist of the 8-car train question, which was "why do the 6-car trains stop at the same place as the 8-car trains?" The answer, as I understand it, is because if a driver has to alternate between driving trains of two different lengths on the same day, there's less likelihood of an error if they always stop at the same place than if they have to remember different stopping points. Stopping an 8-car train at the 6-car train point would, of course, mean the doors open in the tunnel.

Robert Thomson: You're right. But this isn't an ideal solution. People are often caught standing in the wrong place and run forward as they see the last car on the six car train pull past where they were waiting.

Better there should be a way to help the operators remember how long their trains are.


Olney, Md.: Re: School speed cameras. My husband and I have both been "flashed" by school cameras. He got his at 5 a.m. on Rt. 108 by Sherwood Elementary, and I got mine at 6:30 a.m. on Seven Locks Road by Seven Locks Elementary. At those times, the regular road speed limit, not the special school hours limits, applied. I do not believe either of us were going 12 mph over the normal speed limit. Sunday we saw three cars in a row "flashed" on Rt. 108, and I'm sure none of them were going 12 mph over the regular limit. Why are these cameras working when school isn't in session? And do they take into account the two different speed limits (school and non-school hours)? I really don't think so. I think that this is just a ploy to get more revenue for MoCo.

Robert Thomson: If you think the ticket was issued in error then you should fight it in court. As I said in my Sunday column, I know camera errors do happen, though I'm impressed with what Montgomery County does to eliminate them.

I don't believe it's best to just pay the $40 even if you think something was wrong.


Arlington, Va.: Metro announced their ridership for this past weekend: 713,148 on Saturday; 469,751 on Sunday. The Saturday number, at least, is in the same ballpark of a normal weekday. But I'll bet service was nowhere near weekday service. Why not? Why long waits for trains? 8-car trains are great, but they need to come more frequently during events like cherry blossom season.

Robert Thomson: Metro did significantly boost the service this weekend because it knew there would be big tourist crowds. That cost us taxpayers money. So while I'm glad to see Metro respond to a need, I think it can't be the transit authority's only consideration in allocating service.


Arlington, Va.: Re one of your earlier comments, I actually saw someone add to their farecard on a bus (I was standing right behind him). But I wonder what he was thinking, because this happened at Rosslyn Metro station.

Robert Thomson: Given the choice, I'd always pick the in-station transaction, rather than attempting to add value at a but fare box. You're still got people waiting behind you at the station, but that's different from standing in the front of a line boarding a bus.


Burke, Va.: What century do we live in??? Can't VDOT just flip a switch from the "Command Center" and switch the HOV lane direction? It's just pathetic to think that they have to pay some guy to drive from DC all the way to Quantico and all the way back up just to switch the lanes. There has to be a better, faster, and more efficient way. When/if the lanes get extended to Fredericksburg, does that mean it's going to take 2-3 times as long to switch the lanes?

Robert Thomson: Do you really want them just flipping a switch to do this? I'd much rather have a fail-safe system that would ensure I don't get on those lanes to find another car coming at me at 65 mph.


Metrobus across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge??: Prior to the bridge being built, Metro ran buses during rush hour. Now no buses are running. Is VA or MD looking into bus transportation across the bridge? Otherwise, I have to take the bus to the subway in MD then travel thru DC to get to VA and then take another bus!!

Thanks so much!!

Robert Thomson: The bridge was built with room for a transit lane in each direction, MD and VA just haven't figured out what type of transit they should put in those lanes.


Rockville, Maryland: The person said they were flashed -- not ticketed. It is possible that the flash will operate and the operator will see the time and not send a ticket. But this is not clear as you presented the question and answer.

Robert Thomson: Yes. Many tickets are thrown out during the review process. The cameras have a way of telling the reviewers that there was a problem with the camera. Also, if there's any ambiguity about the situation, the ticket is supposed to be thrown out by the reviewer.


Woodley Park circulator: Wow, according to the PDF map posted on the circulator website, the new Woodley Park route makes very few stops. I've seen it cruising around a lot, but looks like I'll be walking quite a ways to be able to get on it!

Robert Thomson: There are big gaps between stops. It's more likely to keep the buses on schedule along that congested route. You see that on the new S9 limited stop service on 16th Street, too.


Rockville, Md.: Regarding U-turns, I was taught that a U-turner NEVER has the right-of-way. For example, the U-turner has a green arrow but many times, the traffic coming from the left but wanting to make a right turn will have a green arrow to go right. Green arrow means both have the right-of-way for a right turn. The U-turner has no right-of-way.

Also, what's up with drivers inability to understand lane shifts? There's a shift on northbound 17th Street NW between H and I Streets. When walk past this, 90% of the vehicles ignore the shift and stay straight. I'm surprised there haven't been any (or more) accidents.

Robert Thomson: I wish we didn't need those lane shifts, or shoulder use on some highways. None of that is very safe, but the congestion forces us into it.


Bethesda, Md.: I took the Metro downtown on Saturday via Red Line and was pleasantly surprised. I think Metro did a great job running trains more frequently to handle the large crowds. It was the best experience I have had on Metro on a weekend in a long time.

Robert Thomson: Good to hear that. Wonder if riders on the Blue and Orange would feel the same way, though.


Washington, D.C.: Is there some D.C. rule I don't know about that says you can turn right on red without stopping? As a pedestrian, I have almost gotten hit several times by cars who turn right on red without stopping (and the cars then honk at me, despite the fact that I have a "walk" sign). It is especially bad at Mass and North Capitol. Why doesn't the MPD do more to address this? I see them sitting out there all the time.

Robert Thomson: Some encouragement: I watched MPD nailing drivers at 14th and U streets NW last week. The drivers -- funny, it was almost always taxis -- were making right turns into oncoming pedestrians in the crosswalk.


Vienna, Va.: Do you have any info on eight-car trains? I ride rush hours from Vienna to downtown D.C. everyday.

When eight-car trains first started, they were frequent on the orange line. Their numbers grew after introduction.

For the past few months, perhaps as far back as late 2008, eight-car trains have been scarce. I have seen only one eight-car train in the past two months.

What is up?

Robert Thomson: Orange Line riders, please let me know if you're observing the same thing.

But Steven Taubenkibel at Metro, who I asked about this, says he doesn't know of any curtailment in eight-car service on the Orange Line. There haven't been a lot of cars out of service lately. Metro schedules nine eight-car trains for the Orange Line.


Washington, D.C.: The other evening I was pulled over for not having my lights on. It was an honest mistake, the street lights were so bright in the area, I just did not realize my highlights were not on. But when the officer pulled me over I had just completed a call on my cell phone and he commented to me that I should watch me cell phone use because in D.C. you can only be on the cell phone if you have a blue tooth device. Well I was using my cell phone via the speaker phone and it was clipped to my jacket which then makes it hands free. At no point did he see me holding the phone. He probably did not realize I was on the phone until he arrived at my car to see it clipped on my jacket. I was wondering if you would clarify if the law states that the phone should be hands free or blue tooth enabled. I would like to know for my own information, I generally am not a big cell phone user but I certainly would like to know what is acceptable in the District. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: I can share two things from the DC driver's manual:

-- You must be hands-free while driving with a cellular phone in the District of Columbia.

-- A person may not wear earplugs, a headset, or earphones attached to a radio, tape player, CD player or other audio device while driving a motor vehicle. Use of earphones or earplugs for cellular phones are acceptable. Hearing aid devices are acceptable.


Orange Line: Every train on the Orange Line should be 8-car trains during rush hours.

And after the new line is built, those of us living between Ballston and Courthouse should just give up completely because we won't be able to board the trains in the mornings anymore.

Robert Thomson: Many new cars will be ordered for that line. Don't give up yet.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, I've got to stop now, even though I can still see many more comments on topics like the eight-car trains. I'll post some of them this afternoon on my Get There blog, and we can pick up our conversation again next Monday. Stay safe.


The Dr. Gridlock column receives hundreds of letters each month from motorists and transit riders throughout the Washington region. They ask questions and make complaints about getting around a region plagued with some of the worst traffic in the nation. The doctor diagnoses problems and tries to bring relief.

Dr. Gridlock appears in The Post's Metro section on Sunday and in the Extra section on Thursday. His comments also appear on the Web site's Get There blog. You can send e-mails for the newspaper column to drgridlock@washpost.com or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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