Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 29, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, June 29 at Noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

The transcript follows.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. I see plenty of questions already that have to do with the Red Line crash and its aftermath, and also with other topics, such as getting around during the holiday weekend. Keep 'em coming.


Bethesda, Md.: Any indication when Metro will lift the 35 mph restriction on the red line? It also seems as if there are fewer red line trains running during rush hour--trains are mobbed during morning and evening rush hours.

Robert Thomson: A week after the tragedy on the Red Line that left nine dead, we're still feeling the after effects all along the line.

No, there's no word on when things will get back to normal. All Metro trains are under the control of their operators in the front cab, rather than the automated train controls. That's slowing down the system. On the Red Line specifically, there's a 35 mph speed limit, and the trains are even slower between Takoma and Fort Totten.

The impact is quite evident all along the Red Line, especially during rush hours. Trains have been crowded and delays are common. Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel was telling me this morning that it normally takes a train 61 minutes to get from Shady Grove to Glenmont. With the restrictions, it's now taking that much time to get from Shady Grove to Fort Totten.

Train controllers are making adjustments in the line to reduce congestion. Some trains hold at stations for a couple of minutes. Some others are turned back before the end of their normal runs. This has happened at Rhode Island Avenue, Brookland and Fort Totten. People have to get off the trains and catch the next through train.


Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Any thoughts on VDOT's decision to close most of the rest stops along interstates after the July 4 holiday? I understand VDOT has to trim costs, but aren't rest stops a safety feature of the interstate highways? Is it possible to close the buildings but keep the parking lots open? Is there any hope that these will ever be re-opened? Seems like a big inconvenience to drivers to save a small amount of money.

Robert Thomson: VDOT has cut billions of dollars from its transportation budget during the past year. It may well have to cut more. The transportation department may finally have gotten people's attention by ordering many of the rest areas to close this summer.

Faced with a choice, VDOT is going to pick maintenance of roads and bridges above other things, and that's what it's doing.


DC - the territory (see Constitution): Mr. Thomson,

I'd like to acknowledge not simply the considered daily postings of Dr. Gridlock, but especially the extraordinary clarity, insight, and balance with which you have reported on the most recent Metro tragedy. Certainly your colleagues at the Post have been contributing the same level of sincere and well thought analysis and it has been greatly appreciated.

As I recall, the moving train was traveling at 59 MPH and rounding a (gentle?) curve: assuming an operator was paying complete attention and saw the stationary train at the first instant possible: would the break have stopped the train before impact? (of course it would have some effect).

Second, ignoring history and refusing to learn from the past we do at our peril. To me the most astonishing fact is that Metro wouldn't even equip the old trains with data recorders. As good as the investigation may be, that data recorder would eliminate much guesswork, and perhaps help us avoid the next calamity.

Finally, can you comment on the conclusion of the 2004 investigation? A recent Post article reported that metro only discovered as a consequence of the 2004 investigation that those trains did not have roll-back protection, inferring that they ran them assuming those cars did have such roll-back protection: is that correct?



Robert Thomson: Ken, Thanks for your comments. Many, many reporters here at The Post will appreciate them. In a moment, I'll post a link for anyone who wants to look back at what those reporters have written. We're very fortunate to have people like Lena H. Sun and Lyndsey Layton on this story. Also, there was a gripping story in Sunday's Post about the last three minutes aboard the train before it crashed.

Lena, Lyndsey and Maria Glod have been doing a lot of reporting about the cause and consequences of the crash. I've been mostly trying to help people get where they're going in the aftermath.

While trains can go up to 59 mph along that stretch of track, it's unclear how fast the train was going at the time of the crash. I've been riding Red Line trains up that way for 20 years, so my first reaction was puzzlement: I think of that as a long, flat, wide open stretch of relatively straight track, and it was a clear day.

Last Friday, I got on the first car of an inbound Red Line train and sat as far forward as I could, looking out the front window. For the first time, I noticed the curve, the fencing and the trees along the right side of the inbound track and tried to imagine what the operator would have seen ahead in a train moving at normal speed. I don't know what caused the crash and won't play amateur NTSB investigator. But the crash scenario was a lot less puzzling to me than it was last Monday.


Houston, Texas: Why are traffic lights are positioned past an intersection while stop signs are before?

Robert Thomson: Houston, I'm not sure that's correct -- not around here anyway. I'm visualizing intersections with traffic lights on my side of the intersection, as well as past the intersection.

But here's a thing: Traffic lights are placed higher than stop signs. If you're the first person stopped at the intersection, it's a lot easier to see a traffic signal on the far side of the intersection than one right above you. Don't you agree?


washingtonpost.com: Red Line Crash- Transportation - washingtonpost.com

Robert Thomson: Here's a link to our Full Coverage page for the Red Line crash. I'll keep posting items on my Get There blog to keep you informed about the latest with Metrorail. Please also share your observations there. Many of the comments have been very helpful to other travelers.


Queen Anne's County: Is State Senator Pipkin forcing the state of Maryland to overinspect the Bay Bridge thus lengthening my commutes?

Robert Thomson: I'm not familiar with the senator's role on the Bay Bridge. But I've seen no evidence that the bridge is being "over-inspected." Permanent repairs are getting started to correct the weak barriers on the eastbound span that were a factor in the crash that sent a truck plunging off the side of the bridge. That will be causing overnight delays, but it won't affect travel on the July 4 weekend.


Washington, D.C.: When metro operators press the mushroom, does that reverse the traction motors on each axle, or does it just apply the brake shoes?

Robert Thomson: The mushroom is strictly a friction brake. Hitting it does not reverse the traction motors.


Maryland EZPass: Don't forget, if you don't want to be charged $1.50/month for EZPass, cancel by Wednesday!!

Robert Thomson: I know a lot of drivers who have E-ZPass accounts with Maryland are seething about this new charge, starting in July. The decision by the Maryland Transportation Authority was made back in January, but people are seeing it on their account statements now.

The authority said it had to compensate for the toll revenue decline. People are driving less. It chose not to impose a general increase in tolls, but targeted certain areas, including the E-ZPass accounts.


Rockville, Md.: Has Metro started to move the 1000-series trains to the center of train sets? There has been some reporting about it, but is there more information from the NTSB about the incident on the T in Boston that can help determine the route cause for this incident?

Robert Thomson: Many riders are wondering about whether the 1000 Series cars, oldest in the system and the ones that made up the striking train last Monday, could be placed in the center of trains for safety.

Metro has not made a decision on this. It's unclear to me whether that would make the trains safer, or whether it could be done. One of every four Metrorail cars is a 1000 Series. Requiring them in the middle of trains would decrease Metro's flexibility in adjusting to the demands of the different lines.

Have not heard anything about investigators linking the T crash with our situation.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock,

One lane of Chain Bridge has now been closed for about 4 weeks yet nothing has been done to the Bridge. There was no need for the lane to be closed for no reason yet it has snarled traffic.

Who is responsible for this lack of planning & what are they going to do to the Bridge? And how long will the lane be closed?

Robert Thomson: Many drivers who use Chain Bridge have been asking about why they can't see any work, even though one of the three lanes has been closed off round-the-clock.

John Lisle, a spokesman for the District Department of Transportation tells me this:

Right now, most of the work is underneath the bridge, and out of sight of motorists. The workers are relocating the tow path on park land to accommodate the steel repairs. They also are setting up for re-pointing the pier stone facing.

The situation reminds me of Maryland's setup for the repainting of the Legion Bridge, which shut off a lane for months. The Chain Bridge contractor needs the lane on the bridge for the delivery of materials, bridge lighting work and the painting of the superstructure steel beams.

DDOT and the contractor have tried to figure out if there's any way to avoid the lane closure and still give workers room to do the rehab, but they finally decided there's no way.

But the traffic lights on either side of the river have been retime and synchronized in an effort to reduce congestion.


Annapolis, Md.: "The authority said it had to compensate for the toll revenue decline. People are driving less. It chose not to impose a general increase in tolls, but targeted certain areas, including the E-ZPass accounts"

The real question is, do you think this was a good idea?

A lot of my friends and family are all trying to sign up for Virginia's system, so will Maryland actually make any money off this deal?

Robert Thomson: Yes, compared to a general toll increase for all drivers, I think that was a good idea. I think a charge of $1.50 a month for the convenience of E-ZPass is not a heavy burden.

Drivers who rarely use the transponders are the most upset by this. My opinion is that one long-distance trip on the Northeast corridor fully justifies the annual expense. (I hate those toll plazas. Especially Delaware.)


Baltimore, Md.: To follow up on the first chatters' question, to your knowledge it's not that there are fewer trains in service, it's just the speed limit that is causing the slowness, over-crowding and large gaps between red line trains?

Robert Thomson: Normally, there would be 41 trains on the Red Line. I think under current conditions, Metro simply can't get that many trains onto the line at peak periods.

This just in: What you experienced today, that will continue at least through Wednesday. Manual control, speed limit of 35 mph. The line will close each night at 10 p.m. between Silver Spring and Fort Totten. The shuttle buses will be in operation.


Annapolis: In case some people didn't know, you don't have to get your EZ Pass from your home state. Mine is from Delaware, and while they are saving money by not postal-mailing statements (e-mail only) they haven't instituted a fee.

Robert Thomson: Thank you. I think there are about a dozen states issuing E-ZPasses, and to some extent, you can shop around for the deal you like.


Springfield, Va.: On my evening trip home from Bethesda, the trains are not running as often and so we are faced with commuters shoving into the trains until you don't even need to hold on to anything to stay upright. How long will this go on? My commute is almost unbearable.

Robert Thomson: I've seen lots of Metro employees out at the stations on the eastern side of the Red Line, but I wish there was more of a presence on the rest of the line, especially during peak periods. The trains are crowded and it's hot. Not everyone will behave properly under difficult circumstances. We could use more help managing the flow of passengers in and out of the cars.


Trains stopping at ends of platforms: First, a big thank you for your coverage this past week. In fact, without the Get There blog, I would not have known when I got back on Metro this morning after taking most of last week off that the trains were going to be pulling up to the front of every station.

But I do need to comment on this. First off, Metro made no announcements about this. Maybe they did last week when I wasn't riding, but if they are going to do this, there should be announcements both over the loudspeakers and on the signs.

Second, I'd like to say why I do not like this practice. My commute involves switching from yellow/green at Gallery Place to the red line towards Shady Grove. In this instance, and I'm sure there are plenty of others like this, the escalators between platforms bring you right to the back end of the shady grove trains. Now that trains are pulling to the front of the tracks, people will be running to get to the last car, and I'm sure that the rude behavior we see sometimes will only get worse, in terms of people running and shoving to make their train.

Third, it's a bad idea because most of the trains are 6 car trains, and most people congregate towards the middle of platforms. So trains not being centered will leave some cars relatively empty and others dangerously overcrowded, which will mean that those cars will take longer to unload and re-load at stops.

Yes, there are safety concerns about train doors being opened in the tunnels, and that is of course far worse than being on a crowded car. But I still think that if a train operator doesn't know the length of train they are running, then they should not be operating a train.

Finally, RIP Jeanice McMillan. By all accounts, she was a true credit to WMATA.

Robert Thomson: All of us at The Post appreciate your comments. We've been trying to push out as much information as possible to help you understand what happened last Monday, how you need to deal with the immediate consequences, and what we need to do to make sure this never happens again. Clearly, there's a lot more to say on all those things, so please stick with us.

Front of the platform: I completely support Metro on this. I've written repeatedly that if Metro can't figure out how to get every single one of its trains to open the doors on the platform, then it needs to do the one obvious thing that will keep doors out of the tunnels: Pull all trains to the front of the platform.

We can't take a chance on doors opening in the tunnels because an operator -- even occasionally -- forgets how long the train is.

There are not enough announcements. There are some, but not enough. The message also is going out to riders in Metro's eAlert system.

Every day, I see people scrambling toward the front car of six car trains -- or the rear cars -- because they can't break their old habit about where to stand on the platform. Also, there are plenty of tourists in town who have no idea what's happening.


Bethesda, Md.: If Metro is turning trains back at Fort Totten why can't they reinstitute Grosvenor trains? Wouldn't that help overcrowding, too? The trains are so overcrowded by the time they get to Dupont Circle they are breaking down because the doors won't close.

Robert Thomson: This is not the normally turnback pattern. The turnbacks this week are not occurring at Grosvenor or at Silver Spring. Metro is doing turnbacks when it has to, where it has to, in an effort to deal with a very unusual situation on the Red Line.


Oakton, Va.: I received the following email from Metro SIX TIMES today between 9:35 am and 11 am: (ID 55960) Disruption at All Stations. Until further notice, all trains are stopping when the front of the train reaches the end of the platform. I read your report about people complaining that Metro did not communicate this particular new practice last week, but now they are overcompensating. Also, because the Emails were sent right after the end of the morning rush hour, I question the effectiveness - by the end of the day, people will have forgotten about it and the confusion starts all over again. On a related subject - has there ever been the suggestion to announce whether a 6 or 8 car train is approaching the station via the PA system? It would help to know where to spread out in station where the signs cannot be seen from the very ends of the platform. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Metro has been trying to improve it's communications with riders. And I also saw that burst of messages this morning.

But I'm afraid I find many of those eAlert messages absolutely baffling. Often it starts with that first sentence. In this case, it was, "Disruption at All Stations." That sounds like something brand new, when in fact, Metro is describing a situation that has existed for the past week.

I like your idea about the platform announcements, but I think some people also are forgetting they can look at the electronic message boards for the number of cars in an approaching train.


Fairfax, Va.: In the Sunday paper, a letter-writer mentioned a train driver announcing a "black bag" incident at Ft Totten shortly after the collision last Monday.

It's possible he mis-heard the announcement: the internal Metro emergency radio color code calls a collision a "black, black".

If you look at a train driver's dashboard through the tinted glass from the front of a train car, there's a sticker explaining the various emergency radio codes that you might be able to make out.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I think it's very likely that the letter described a typical example of passengers puzzling to figure out what the operator was saying. I think it's highly unlikely the operator was referring to a "black bag" incident.


Chevy Chase, Md.: I would like to go the Rehoboth Beach this weekend and am wondering when would be the best time to drive there, given that the federal government is off on Friday and July 4 is Saturday. What are your predictions for peak times?

Robert Thomson: The July 4 weekend getaway is far from the worst holiday getaway we experience around here. That honor is reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas, in that order.

At this time of year, many people already have gotten away. And those left aren't rushing to reach Grandma's house in time for dinner.

But beach traffic is likely to be heavy throughout Thursday afternoon and evening, especially since -- as I'm sure you know, there are so few options for reaching the Eastern Shore.

If you're leaving Thursday, go very early or very late. But also, check BayBridge.com, where you can get updates and see live traffic camera images of the toll plaza. (E-ZPass, anyone?)

And there's a phone number for bridge traffic updates: 877-BAYSPAN.


Alexandria, Va.: "My opinion is that one long-distance trip on the Northeast corridor fully justifies the annual expense. (I hate those toll plazas. Especially Delaware.)"

TOTALLY. I drive up to CT and NY a few times a year to visit family and really can't understand why the cash lines are still so long. I'd gladly pay a small fee for the convenience of not needing cash. (Especially when I cross the Verrazano--I think it was $9 last time.)

Robert Thomson: Watch out for Delaware this time. There's been some construction around the toll plaza recently. The problem with holiday congestion is that at many toll plazas it puts the E-ZPass drivers in the same congested lanes as other drivers until they get very close to the plazas. New Jersey does it right: With highway speed E-ZPass lanes to the left.


Washington: Why doesn't Metro run the yellow line to Fort Totten during rush hour? It would relieve congestion on the red line if people going south of gallery place could make the transition earlier up the line.

Robert Thomson: I think that would cause further congestion on the line at peak periods. Sending the Yellow Line up to Fort Totten works at off peak periods, when there are fewer trains on the line. But turning around trains with the track setup at Fort Totten would backup the following trains. Hence, the rush hour Yellow Line turnback occurs at Mount Vernon Square, where the switches can accommodate that.


Open Letter to Express Readers: When people are packed into a metro car like beans in a burrito, it might be appropriate to put down your paper. That extra square foot of space makes a big difference. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Our trains are so crowded, I've noticed an uptick in complaints about riders with backpacks and luggage, too.


Doors that won't close: Instead of yelling at the passengers to attempt to close doors that are stuck open (those doors are scary! I am not sure I would want to attempt this, even if I was near one.), why don't they have a metro employee on the platform at certain crowded stations where the doors do become a problem. This person could check the doors, make sure everyone is out of the way and close the doors if they are stuck open. This would make more sense to me than offloading a train in the middle of rush hour.

Robert Thomson: Offloading trains because of door problems is a huge problem for Metro -- and for us riders. It's way too easy to bust the train doors.

But about your particular scenario, consider the number of Metro workers it would take to staff even just the busiest stations during the peak periods each day, as well as the time it would take to check all the doors before allowing the trains to leave the stations. We think trains are slow this week!


Washington, D.C.: This last week saw terrible tragedy compounded by poor communication and unfortunate prior equipment decisions. As a steady Red-Line commuter, I must now comment on the following:

1) At MetroCenter, the intercom system is so poor that it was impossible to understand the announcements related to the Fort Totten accident.

2) MetroAlerts sent via email were inconsistent and misleading, including this morning's "Until further notice, all Metrorail trains will service each station from the end of the platform." What, pray tell, does this mean?

3) I am 5'4" tall. When crammed into a crowded Metrorail car, I was barely able to reach the overhead bars - my shoulders still ache. Anyone shorter than I was completely out of luck. Did Metro, when ordering these cars, not realize that not everyone is six feet tall?

4) Why is it not possible for the trains to stop in the same place on the platform - that is, have the doors open at the same (marked) place on the platform? In both Munich, Germany and Tokyo, Japan, it is possible to line up at a certain marker and be sure that a door would open at that place (regardless of whether the train was a six-, eight, or three car train - there are markers where the train will stop). Here people have to scramble every time a train pulls in to get to where a door is opening. Even a few feet left or right can make a big difference to the chaos quotient.

This horrible accident did serve the purpose of revealing, in one week, all the weaknesses of the Metrorail system. Now it is time to start improvements. I hope some members of the U.S. Congress have been forced to ride Metro this last week...

Robert Thomson: You're making many good points here. I'll just comment on a couple.

2) Seems like the confusing language of the eAlerts would not be that hard to fix. Many riders have commented on this. It seems like Metro uses some standard language to begin the eAlerts. That language may mean more to Metro than it does to us riders. Just say it plain.

3) I like the newer 6000 Series cars because they handle crowds better than the older cars, but I'm 5'11" and can grab the overhead railings. Shorter people -- including the GridSpouse -- hate 'em, especially the area between the seats and the doors, where they find nothing to hold onto.


Washington, D.C.: I was returning from southern NJ on Sunday afternoon. The ENTIRE Delaware portion of I-95 from the first toll booth after the bridge to the toll booth as you exit the wretched state was moving at an average speed of 10 MPH. How can a state be allowed to completely tie up a major interstate with it's poorly designed toll plaza? Is there any way to avoid Delaware if you are just going to southern New Jersey? I don't want to repeat the situation again. If they can't process the cars at a reasonable pace at the toll plaza, they should be forced to open the gates until the congestion clears. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Delaware is going to use federal stimulus money to add highway-speed E-ZPass lanes, but I think it will take a couple of years to get them operating. Delaware realizes that many of us form a bad impression of The First State just based on those few miles of travel.


Rockville, Md.: Why did "Metro Alerts" send a message saying "Trains are sharing the same track between Takoma and Fort Totten due to the ongoing June 22nd accident investigation." at 3:02 PM on Friday and then another message, one minute later saying "Red Line trains are offloading at Fort Totten & Silver Spring stations until 3 p.m. due to the ongoing June 22nd accident investigation."?

Do they not even bother reading what they're telling us?

Robert Thomson: I hope Metro will see some of these comments about the eAlert system I noticed this on Friday as well. I was getting the warnings about the single tracking right at the moment the single tracking was scheduled to end for the afternoon. That made no sense at all.


Washington, D.C.: Wanted to give some feedback to how metro handled the record crowds from the Nationals/Red Sox games last week. I ventured out to two games, Tuesday and Wednesday, and the "getting there" was smooth as it often is. The "getting back"-not so much. On Tuesday we made our way from Navy Yard having to wait on the platform as one full train pulled away, but we made it on the next one which filled up and left in good time. Waited about 5 minutes for a yellow line train towards Huntington at L'Enfant Plaza, and then crammed on the eight car train. We switched over to blue at Crystal City to get back to Van Dorn and were stuck behind a "malfunctioning car." It took us over 45 minutes to get from Crystal City to Van Dorn. Total commute time from entering the station, roughly 1 hour and 25 minutes.

Thursday's commute was actually shorter in time, but far more frustrating. Easily got out of Navy Yard, but got stuck at L'Enfant Plaza for over 25 minutes waiting for the next yellow line to Huntington. First, a no passenger train came. Then, a green line. Then a yellow line, huzzah!, or not-it only had six cars, not near enough room for everyone. Next train-no passenger. Next train-no passenger. Next train-green line. Finally, it appeared like they adjusted a 6 car blue line train to the yellow track and we all crammed on. Absurdly frustrating.

So, I'd give metro a D+ from my vantage point.

By the way, we stayed to the end of both games.

Robert Thomson: After big games, the big transfer stations are the worst problems for Metro riders. It's much worse to transfer at L'Enfant Plaza or Gallery Place than it is to board at Navy Yard Station after a game.

I went Thursday, to see the Nationals beat the Red Sox. Given all the troubles on the Red Line, I decided to park at Greenbelt Station and come in all the way on the Green Line. That worked very well.

After the game, we walked over to the station entrance at M Street and New Jersey Avenue, away from the big crowd at the station entrance nearest the centerfield exits. That worked well, too. We entered the station quickly and got right onto the rear car of an eight-car train, which never filled up. That Green Line train unloaded most of its passengers at L'Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place before terminating at Mount Vernon Square and heading back toward Navy Yard to ease post-game crowding on that platform. That's a good plan. But riders often complain about their Blue/Orange and Red Line connections.


Alexandria, Va.: I have very much enjoyed running on the new Wilson Bridge Trail, including its connection to National Harbor. I'm very interested to know if there are any plans to construct a new trail, northbound from the Maryland side of the bridge, parallel to the I-295, to Bolling AFB.

Currently, one can connect all the way to Bolling via the GW Parkway Trail, the 14th Street Bridge, through the DC waterfront, and over the South Capitol Street Bridge. Inherent also in this is the connection to D.C., The Mall, Nats Park, etc. As described above, building a new connector trail from the Wilson Bridge north to Bolling would literally unite Virginia, Maryland and DC for cyclists and pedestrians - both for pleasure and as commuters.

Is such a project being planned? Is there a single agency to which I can inquire about this?

Robert Thomson: I had my first chance to bike across the delightful Wilson Bridge Trail on Saturday morning. The biker/walker traffic was very light, though park police officers predicted it would increase in the afternoon.

I saw problems with signs on both sides of the river. But the biggest problem is that on the Maryland side, there really are no connecting trails. (On the VA side, you have the Mount Vernon Trail.) I hope trail users keep the pressure up for a fix.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, I've got to break away now, but look for some more postings on the Get There blog today, tomorrow and Wednesday in which I'll try to address concerns I didn't get to in our chat today.


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