Metro Riders Stage Mutiny
By Alice Reid and Brian Mooar
It took 25 minutes and a visit by transit police for officials to persuade passengers to comply, and the slowdown spread throughout the Orange and Blue lines, delaying many passengers by an hour or more. Metro officials said they had never seen anything like it.
The trains are extremely crowded this week. Buoyed by spring temperatures and a balmy economy, Metro set a ridership record of 600,061 on Tuesday, creating conditions so tight that tourists were wedged into rail cars already crowded with harried commuters, many of whom got home late because of train delays. Two rush-hour trains broke down Tuesday afternoon.
Metro trains have been running slowly for weeks because of a problem with electronic devices that normally regulate the movement of the automated trains. Control of the trains has been turned over to train operators as a safety precaution. But meanwhile, mechanical problems have cropped up on the trains themselves, causing delays and testing the patience of riders.
Yesterday's rebellion began about 5:40 p.m. on a Blue Line train filled with tourists and commuters. The trains were behind schedule because another Blue Line train experiencing mechanical difficulties had been emptied at Metro Center shortly after 5 p.m.
At the Smithsonian Station, used daily by hundreds of tourists coming to and from the Tidal Basin's cherry grove, an Addison Road-bound train was so crowded that its doors would not close properly. The train operator got a signal in the cab that doors were malfunctioning. When that happens, transit officials said, Metro policy is that the train must be taken out of service for a thorough check.
However, when the operator asked passengers to exit the train onto the crowded Smithsonian platform, they refused.
A Metro mechanic at the Smithsonian Station determined that the doors were closed, in spite of an indicator light in the cab to the contrary, and just before 6 p.m., transit officials said, the train moved to L'Enfant Plaza. The platform was reported to be less crowded there.
But William Matheny, the station manager at L'Enfant Plaza, estimated that there were hundreds of people inside the station. Again, dozens of riders refused to exit.
"I've been down here for 10 years, and I've never seen anything like it," Matheny said. "Most of the time, people are cooperative."
Meanwhile, passengers on the platform, thinking the train was in service, tried to board.
"They mistook a train that was broken down for a [regular passenger] train," he said. "The people coming down from topside [upstairs] did not know."
Matheny went car to car, shouting, "You've boarded a train that's broken down."
"It took a while for them to figure out what I was telling them," he said. "It's hard to tell [how long]. But it was the best part of 15 to 20 minutes.
"The platform was crowded. It was standing room only."
Dozens of people shouted questions at transit officials about what was happening, how long it would take the crippled car to get off the tracks, and when a new train would come along to pick them up.
Officials were ready to move the train and bring in another but had to wait because passengers would not get off.
Among those in the crowd were parents concerned that they would not be at home in time to pick up their children.
"We had a stampede on the phones," Matheny said. "I got some pleasant words said to me. One lady accused me of being responsible. "
Transit police were called. They encouraged passengers to exit, and virtually all did. One woman refused and "became loud and boisterous," according to Metro spokeswoman Leona Agouridis. "That's when she was arrested."
The woman, District resident Vanessa Johnson, was charged with disorderly conduct.
Matheny said: "Let's face it. We work 365 days a year, and so do the trains. We have a lot of preventive maintenance, but sometimes you can't do anything but get [the train] off the track and fix it."
Metro General Manager Richard A. White said the system has been hit with mechanical problems, 75 percent of them having to do with rail car malfunctions.
"I certainly know how people feel when they're caught in a service delay," he said last night. "It's a very irritating situation, and some folks may have been affected more than once."
But because people refused to get off the affected train, delays got even worse, he said. "When we have service delays, it doesn't just affect the people on that train; it has a rippling effect throughout the system."
When Metro directors meet today, White will tell them specifics about rail car malfunctions and the need to find a way to fund car rehabilitation, possibly by borrowing money upfront to do the job.
"I really understand what they're going through. We are not sitting on our hands saying, 'C'est la vie.' We are trying to be proactive to make sure these things don't continue happening."
The mutiny delayed trains in both directions on the Blue and Orange lines as trains were shunted around the incident.
Carol L. Burnett, 46, of Arlington, was one of those hung up in the mess, which stretched her trip home from Farragut West to two hours.
"I've been a rider for 10 years, and it's gotten so bad in recent days. At least once a week it's a major delay," she said. "I've had it. I'm back in my car. At least in your car, you can go somewhere else. On Metro, you're just stuck there. ... I think the system has broken."
Josh Silver, president of Metrowatch, Washington's ad hoc riders group, said: "I've never seen the Metro system this bad. People mutiny when the situation is so intolerable they're willing to disobey the law.
"That's what's happening here. They've got to fix this now. And they have to account to the public what is going on."
Metro traditionally gets heavy ridership in March and April and again in June and July, according to budget chief Peter Benjamin. Last year, a record was set June 17 – a weekday without a special event – with 597,010 rides. That was exceeded by 68 rides on March 17 this year.
"With numbers like these, what we ought to be seeing is another big peak in June, even bigger," Benjamin said.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company