Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 23, 2009 11:00 AM
Dr. Gridlock was online Tuesday, June 23, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest updated information concerning yesterday's Red Line train crash and its effect on today's commute for thousands of Washingtonians.
Bob Thomson: Monday was the worst day in the history of our Washington transit system. The subway belongs to us, and whenever a tragedy occurs, that belongs to us, too.
Durham, N.C.: An early quote from a Metro spokesperson yesterday said that she had no idea how two trains could have ended up on the same track. Aren't two Metro trains going the same direction ALWAYS on the same track?
Bob Thomson: Yes. The quote reflected the rapidly changing perceptions of what occurred on the Red Line tracks between Takoma and Fort Totten at about 5 o'clock last night.
Metro officials, and us here at The Post, went through several phases as we tried to get information out to the public as quickly as possible. I think we'll spend a lot of time today discussing communications and how we can improve them. I notice that a posting on my Get There blog about rider frustrations with lack of information already has drawn more than 50 reader comments.
In the minutes after the crash, Metro's public information people were unsure what had happened. (Of course, we're all still unsure what exactly happened.) At first, it appeared it might have been a derailment. Then a derailment followed by a crash involving a second train. Then for a few moments, it looked like it might have been a head-on collision. Hence, the early quote reflecting amazement that two trains could have been on the same track heading toward each other.
As you note, there's nothing unusual about having two trains heading in the same direction on the same track. But the fact that it was a rear-end collision didn't become plain for a while.
Arlington, Va.: I submitted a question during yesterday's chat, asking how on Earth John Catoe had been named the APTA Public Transportation Manager of the Year for 2009. In light of the accident yesterday, I would imagine Mr. Catoe will refrain from accepting the award.
Bob Thomson: I think Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., whose philosophy is "safety first," doesn't need any help feeling devastated about the loss of passengers and personnel in this tragedy.
We don't know what caused the accident. It seems plain that several things must have gone wrong for this crash to occur. Several things that should never have gone wrong. It's likely that someone somewhere failed to put safety first. Catoe's main job now will be to work with the NTSB to figure it out, openly and completely, and make sure it can never happen again.
Washington, D.C.: First off, kudos to the Post staff for their EXCELLENT coverage of this tragedy. With little to no communication from WMATA in the hours following the crash, the Post was the best source for up-to-date information. This event highlights the need for strong local news organizations and reminds me why you are an invaluable resource in this area.
I am appalled at just how poor Metro's communication skills seem to be. Hours after the crash the only announcements were regarding "a train with mechanical difficulties", even after the severity of the crash was well known. The stories of commuters on the Get There blog this morning highlight numerous examples of station managers or metro operators not passing along information to commuters. How hard can this be?
Additionally, John Catoe's performance during the numerous press conferences has been abysmal. He seems totally unprepared to deal with the situation and is projecting an image of an agency totally resistant to questions and criticism.
These complaints have been raised time and time again over the years (often pointed out in these chats). The truth is that improving communication by WMATA (whether the employees, the web site, text messages, etc) would seem to be a no-brainer that would cost MUCH less than other potential system improvements. In the past, these issues have been avoided because the only consequences were inconvenienced or annoyed tourists. Now we have seven people tragically killed along with dozens injured. It's time for real change.
Do you think this incident will be a catalyst for a system-wide shakeup of WMATA policies and procedures?
Bob Thomson: Thanks for your generous comments. There are many sleepless people in The Post's print and online newsrooms who also will want to thank you. I guess nothing rewards us more than being able to think that we're relevant to you.
I was just telling my colleague, transit reporter Lena Sun, that as I was riding home on the S4 bus late last night, the passenger sitting next to me was intently reading Lena's first-edition story about the crash.
I don't have a fully formed answer on the many good issues you raise about communications. Just some early thoughts:
We've seen big communications problems like this before. What's really got our attention today is that those problems occurred in the context of such a tragedy.
I hope that as Metro does its after-action reviews, the communications issues don't fall by the wayside as officials focus on what could have happened to bring two trains together.
As you note, the basic communications problems are very familiar to riders: In the time immediately after an emergency, Metro staff tends to focus on addressing the cause of the emergency, rather than on the riders who need to know what they can do. Metro's communications systems are under-powered.
I found yesterday's alerts to be vague, and at times contradictory. In the early going, a rider couldn't have told the different between the alerts for a relatively routine problem at Tenleytown and a horrendous crash between Takoma and Fort Totten.
Meanwhile, Metro still isn't getting the word to its front line people. So sometimes, they respond in unfortunate ways, either by being defensive or by trying to be helpful and telling us stuff that's flat out wrong.
This is probably a catalyst for a system-wide shakeup concerning safety. As it should be. But I hope that the communications issues don't get overwhelmed in that process.
Washington, D.C.: I have always felt very safe on the metro but yesterday's crash makes me think twice about those strange noises you sometimes here or those days when the metro train seems to be going a little too fast. Is there anything we can do, as Metro riders, to make ourselves safer? Unlike with bus drivers, where mistakes are noticeable to and rider with driving experience, metro riders are less likely to be able to report poor train conductors. Are there any monitoring mechanisms in place for train conductors?
Bob Thomson: Considering how many trains move on how much track in the nation's second biggest subway system, we're pretty safe. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't have been on the Yellow and Red Line trains this morning.
I think I know what you mean: I often ponder the proper crash position when I'm bouncing along the Red Line between Takoma and Fort Totten. That's a long and pretty straight stretch of track, where trains can get going at a relatively high speed. The cars bounce more than in many other sectors. But again, that hasn't stopped me from riding and it won't.
Arlington, Va.: 6,7 or 9? Why is it hard for authorities to provide the number of fatalities more then 18 hours after the accident?
Bob Thomson: After 30 years in the news business in New York and Washington, I find confusion and contradiction to be routine in the early hours after a disaster. News organizations often don't put death tolls in their headlines because the headline riders know that they can be eclipsed all too quickly. Nothing about yesterday's changes surprised me.
Rockville, Md.: I decided to work from home today rather than take the red line from Grosvenor because the news reports indicated that it was going to be a slow slog in and out today. How bad have the delays really been today? And kudos on your reporting, my husband woke me up with your reports this morning and said "Dr. Gridlock is up EARLY today!"
Bob Thomson: Lena Sun and I were just comparing notes. She said she got home at 12:18 this morning and still had to do some work on the story. She had to get up in time for this morning's press conference. But as I said before, this is what we live for. It's when we feel most useful to readers.
Very good idea to work from home today. I think this may be an underrated change in our response to emergencies over the past few years. Many people now have the inclination and the technology to telecommute.
In fact, I think that may have diminished the problems today. My personal experience involved wandering around downtown Silver Spring, then taking the Metrobus shuttle to Fort Totten, then boarding a Yellow Line train to Gallery Place and a Red Line train to Farragut North, so I could join you for this chat. What I saw was much better than what I expected to see, as of last night.
Washington, D.C.: I heart goes out to everyone involved. Do you know there is a fund accepting donations for survivors and the families of victims or if this is unnecessary because Metro is liable?
Bob Thomson: I don't know about a fund, and that's a very good question. Almost certainly, that's going to be done and will be well-supported by generous Washingtonians. Soon as have information, I'll post something on the Get There blog.
Washington, D.C.: Everything I read said red line trains end a Rhode Island Avenue; however, I boarded the train at the Brookland Station to Shady Grove this morning at 5:30 a.m. What gives? Is the station open or not? At the end of my work day will the train end at the Brookland Station? Thanks
Bob Thomson: You know, that's been very confusing since last night and is an example of the communications problems. I have absolutely no information about Brookland Metrorail station being open this morning. In fact, I was told by Metro officials that they had thought about it, but decided not to do it, because they had more confidence they could operate the bus shuttles out of a Rhode Island Avenue terminus.
By the end of the day, however, it's possible that trains will be operating as far north as Fort Totten, which would be great because Ft. T is a transfer station. Metro officials told me we should look for updates throughout the afternoon on this possibility.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Dr. Gridlock: I am a huge fan of your online chats, blog, and columns. Allegedly, today's chat is about the latest commuter information in light of yesterday's accident. Yet the first two questions you answered are little more than snarky cheap-shots aimed at at the easiest of targets. We already know that people love to find fault with WMATA, and I don't think you ought to give another platform to these folks who find some kind of twisted vindication in this tragedy. Thanks for all the good work that you do. (FWIW, I am a long time rider of Metrorail and Metrobus. It's not perfect but it gets me where I need to go.)
Bob Thomson: I think people appreciate the nature of this tragedy. They want all the information they can get about it, they want to know what to do next, and they want to know what steps might be taken to improve the system. Seems fair to me.
Gaithersburg, Md.: How does Metro's safety record compare with comparable systems in the US? I don't recall hearing about similar accidents in other systems, but I wouldn't have been paying as much attention to them as I have to this story.
Bob Thomson: It's hard to compare transit systems on just about any issue. But our system is very safe. That's not just a feeling. The stats back that up. I was just looking over some of the stats that the Metro board is scheduled to look at during its Thursday meeting. (Scheduled before the crash.)
Yesterday's incident shows that pretty safe isn't good enough.
D.C.: With respect to Metro's poor record on communication issues, it is quite striking that there seems to be so little improvement on this front given the emphasis that issue received following 9/11. Wasn't there a major push to ensure coordination among first responders? How does Metro fit into that equation, if at all? As horrible as yesterday was, I shudder to imagine how Metro would communicate to passengers in the event of a region-wide emergency.
Bob Thomson: There would clearly be problems in communications in the early hours of a regional emergency. Yesterday demonstrated that, but we've had plenty of other examples. Metro is our only regionwide transportation agency, so it has more jurisdictions and departments to deal with than anyone else. That's a constant source of problems, so it needs constant attention.
Post Coverage: I actually have a comment about the Post's leading story today. I think it's pretty unfortunate that the headline implies operator error, when in fact there is no proof of that at all at this point. In addition, the quote comes from an unnamed person. I think it's really disgraceful that the Post would splash that all over the front of their home page less than 12 hours after this woman died.
Bob Thomson: The headline I'm looking at says: "THE PROBE: Experts Suspect Failure of Signal System, Operator Error." I think that's an accurate reflection of what's being looked into. There would be no point in withholding that information from readers.
It's a very well-reported story by Lyndsey Layton, who covered Metro transit for many years before she became a National staff reporter. Lyndsey jumped into this story yesterday as soon as she heard what had happened and her expertise is very important to us -- and to readers.
more buses today?: Hi Bob, why weren't there more buses added today? Three went by me and wouldn't stop because they were too full already. Is there a system to deal with something like this to continue to get people where they need to go?
Bob Thomson: I had the same experience on 16th Street last night when a jammed S4 went rolling by as more than a dozen of us waited at the stop in front of the Capital Hilton.
This is stressing Metrobus, but transit managers are putting more buses on where they can. This whole shuttle service, for example, between Silver Spring and Rhode Island Avenue. (By the way, Red Line riders, don't be like me and think, Oh, I've got to make the entire trip by bus. It was only when smarter people got off the bus at Fort Totten that it dawned on my I could get on a Green or Yellow Line train there rather than keep on the bus -- which is rather slow on the congested streets -- all the way to Rhode Island Ave.)
Jim Hamre, one of the Metro managers I met this morning at Silver Spring, pointed out to me that the S9 express on 16th Street is running all day today, rather than just at rush hours. And extra buses are running on the Metro Extra express along Georgia Avenue.
Silver Spring, Md.: Comment: Full buses are not stopping. I crossed the MCC Takoma Park pedestrian bridge over the Metro tracks to catch the S9 Express(south) at Eastern & Alaska. Very convenient - if the S9 Express(south) had stopped. It went past full leaving a crowd of 15+ waiting. We finally caught a S9 Express (north)and looped around. Last night at 7:00 PM at 16th & M - Five S buses went past full or partially full, until the last S9 Express of the evening stopped for a crowd of 20+. If the buses fill up within 2 stops of their start point then what are later passengers supposed to do?
Bob Thomson: The Red Line disruption is definitely having ripple effects on demand and on service along alternative routes.
Frederick, Md.: I'm curious as to why the MARC Brunswick Line was totally suspended today. I can understand that for obvious reasons, trains wouldn't be running to Union Station, but why not run them to Rockville?
Bob Thomson: I talked to MARC information officers late last night. Not only were the tracks blocked between Fort Totten and Takoma, but most of the train equipment for the Brunswick Line was still at Union Station. There was no way to get it out to western Maryland.
Definitely no service today. I'm optimistic about tomorrow, but haven't heard anything definite yet. Soon as I do know something for real, I'll post it on the Get There blog.
Silver Spring, Md.: Did you take the shuttle from Silver Spring to Fort Totten to "experience" what others were experiencing? You do know about the S buses heading south on 16th street, right? That would have gotten you to Farragut Square quicker I think.
The S2/4/9 buses north were the easier route many of us took to avoid the long shuttle lines at Fort Totten yesterday. It was a cramped bus, but not having to wait for a shuttle saved a lot of time.
Bob Thomson: I took the shuttle purely to experience what others were going through, so I could share that on the blog and here in the chat. My first choice for the trip would have been to walk over to the S9 stop near the corner of Colesville and East-West Highway and take that down 16th Street. It's scheduled to depart every 10 minutes today and usually gets me to 16th and M streets in about a half hour.
Olney, Md.: Is the red line fully opened now? On the MetroOpensDoors site, when you click real time departures at Glenmont, it states that the next train is leaving in 11 minutes for Shady Grove. Please verify. I need to get home this evening, and I plan on leaving early.
Bob Thomson: No, and it's highly unlikely that the Red Line will be fully operational by the end of the day, though it's possible trains may run as far north as Fort Totten.
Red Line trains have been running all morning from Glenmont "in the direction" of Shady Grove. But they discharge all their passengers at Silver Spring then turn around. Silver Spring is where the bus bridge starts to the stations between there and Rhode Island Avenue.
This evening, I'd avoid the Red Line if you have any decent alternative. Or if you can leave early, leave real early.
Silver Spring, Md.: I just had one question. I work in Silver Spring, and am at the office right now. In the morning I took the S2 from McPherson Square. I didn't have any problem. My question is: This evening I'm thinking about taking the shuttle from Silver Spring to the next Metro Station. Where exactly can I get one? I asked a driver on my way to work this morning, and he didn't know. Thanks.
Bob Thomson: The shuttle buses are leaving from Dixon Avenue, the "M" bus bay. The nearest big intersection is Dixon and Wayne. Take the shuttle to Fort Totten and pick up the Green Line, then switch to the Blue or Orange at L'Enfant Plaza to get back to McPherson Square.
But consider taking the S9 limited stop service back down 16th Street. It normally runs only at rush periods, but today it's going all day because of the emergency. Catch near the corner of East-West Hway and Colesville. Regular bus fare.
Hyattsville, Md.: Here's a question I have not seen addressed anywhere:
Will the Red Line be running tomorrow, fully?
Bob Thomson: That's not clear yet. We'll update the Get There blog immediately when we know the answer, one way or another.
Washington, D.C.: The trains were southbound -- is that correct? I'm assuming that the devastation could have been even greater if they'd been coming the other way, carrying even more passengers from downtown DC.
Bob Thomson: I see your point. At that hour, southbound trains would be much less crowded. Northbound trains would have been packed.
washingtonpost.com: Peter Goelz, former managing director at NTSB, takes your questions about the investigation into the crash. Live Now
Bob Thomson: Here's another chat I'm sure you'll be interested in, so I want to alert you write now, even though I'll take a few more questions here.
South Riding, Va.: What a tragic accident yesterday. My prayers go out to all of the families. I am glad it was not one of the outbound trains packed with hundreds of people returning home as it would have been much worse.
I heard that as a precaution, Metro will operate the trains manually today. Isn't that a bigger risk? I doubt the drivers have as much experience driving manually, and you always hear reports of the trains stopping too early in the station leaving the back car still in the tunnel. I must say that I would trust the computers to do the job they normally perform.
Bob Thomson: Any of us riding Metrorail with any frequency has been on many a train under manual control. It's not rare at all. If you're aboard any eight-car train, you can be sure it's under manual control, because the automated system is not yet precise enough to stop the trains in exactly the right spot.
Washington, D.C.: I read in today's Post that Metro had thought about adding some safety equipment to the line, but found it too expensive, and that the trains involved included some 30 year old cars. I know that people will be quick to blame the operator (I see the headline on the online edition now says "operator error" as one of the causes, and the article highlights that the operator was inexperienced), but isn't this partially caused by the fact that Metro has no dedicated funding streams, and has to beg for the money needed to make necessary upgrades?
Bob Thomson: Investigators are doing what investigators should do and investigating all the possible causes of the crash. I haven't heard anyone tilting toward a particular conclusion.
You are absolutely right that Metro needs a lot more money to upgrade the trains, the tracks and the entire operating system. But it's way to early to relate that to whatever caused the crash.
Washington, D.C.: Please tell Rockville and other MetroRail riders that the "next train arrival" function on the WMATA website, and on the displays in the stations, is NOT working, especially on the Red line to Shady Grove/Grosvenor. Trains are running more frequently than is shown.
Bob Thomson: You're right. I could see that for myself when I was transferring from the Yellow Line to the Red at Gallery Place. At first the electronic display had no information at all. Then it told us the next train would arrive in 20 minutes. Seconds later it said 13 minutes. No more than two minutes later the train arrived. The disruption has thrown off the arrival calculations. (And don't trust Trip Planner on Metro's Web site right now.) The only way to tell a train is coming is when the platform lights start flashing.
Arlington: My friend from Boston called me and told me they had a crash up there a few months ago involving a T operator that was texting on the phone instead of fully operating the train. Now operators up there are fired on the spot if they are found to have a phone on them while working. Is there any indication that the "operator error" being reported is a case of operator failing to operate because of a cell phone being involved? It would seem to me that when one subway system finds a problem that is not unique to their system, like the T did in Boston, that they would be adopted around the country. Has Metro adopted this police?
Bob Thomson: Neither train nor bus operators are supposed to be using mobile phones of any sort.
Thanks for reminding me about the Boston crash. I was trying to recall that when another commenter was asking how safe Metro is compared to other transit systems.
But to your basic point: We have no idea what caused yesterday's accident. Very little information has been released so far, and the investigators are being cautious -- as well they should. We'll have plenty of time for discussions about policies once we know what actually happened.
Silver Spring: One of your reporters noted (in one of the articles) that all of the families have been notified. Any news on when they are going to release the fatalities list?
I'm one of those SS locations that would have had colleagues riding those trains and while we seem to be getting positive news, we don't have 100% confirmation yet. And quite frankly, if we've lost someone, I want to do what I can to help the family.
Bob Thomson: Other than the identity of the train operator killed in the crash, authorities have not released any names of people who died. We'll certainly be posting the names as soon as we can confirm them.
Takoma Park, MD: I get on and off at Takoma. Today I drove. What can I expect the rest of the week? Will there be shuttle service to Ft. Totten from Takoma?
Bob Thomson: As long as there is a break in the line, there will be a shuttle linking Fort Totten and Takoma.
We have no word yet on when full service will be restored to the Red Line.
Bob Thomson: Thank you for sticking with me during the chat. I think I'll go over with Lena Sun to the Metro board meeting this afternoon, and if I do, I'll blog to "Get There" about it. Also, if we get any updates that will help you get where you're going today and tomorrow, we'll post them right away.
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 email@example.com or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
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