Tempers rise with temperatures on Metro rail cars

Thursday was Day Five of the current heat wave and put the 28th day at or above 90 degrees this year in the books.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sweat streamed down Michael Demasi's face and arms and dripped onto the floor as he and some friends stood in a packed Orange Line Metro train headed to a Nationals game at rush hour Thursday evening.

"I'd rather be in a sauna," he said, hanging onto an overhead handle in the car's crowded doorway.

Demasi commutes on the Orange Line between Ballston and Court House Station every day to his job at a finance firm. Lately, the ride has left him drenched, he said. "Pretty much I have to shower when I get to work."

With temperatures on some rail cars hitting 100 degrees amid the recent heat wave, Metro officials say the system's air-conditioning equipment is reaching its limits. Metro warned riders this week to expect "overly warm" rail cars and asked them to report the ID numbers of cars with failed air conditioning.

One difficulty in keeping rail cars cool arises when doors open and intense heat rushes in. That, coupled with the body heat of passengers on crowded cars, can make the ride uncomfortable, said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. The problem is exacerbated at end-of-the-line stations, where trains wait with their doors open, he said.

"Trying to cool an underground subway system in heat like this is like trying to cool your house with the windows open," Taubenkibel said. He said his own commutes have been sweltering at times.

"Every train I've had this week has had air conditioning . . . but when I get to the heaviest points in the system, like Metro Center, I don't feel it because the doors are open and people are getting on."

Several days of 90- and 100-degree temperatures also force air conditioning and auxiliary power units to work harder, making breakdowns more likely, he said. "Excessive heat can provide an added strain to the passenger equipment." Electricity fluctuations because of the heat can also affect the fully electric rail cars and their equipment, he said.

Metro said that on average, six to 10 percent of its active fleet of 1,140 rail cars have been out of service each day this week because of heat-related issues. Bus riders, however, seem to be faring slightly better in the heat wave. Metro statistics for this week show that almost 98 percent of the active fleet of 1,450 buses have functioning air conditioning.

Once rail cars grow too hot, Metro often closes them off to passengers while keeping the rest of the train in service and later takes the cars with broken units out of service for repairs.

Still, Demasi and other passengers said steamy cars are far too common.

"Now it's a rarity to get on a train with air conditioning, at least on the Orange Line," Demasi said, wiping his forehead.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company