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  •   Breakdowns Mounting on Metro

    Breakdowns and a flood of tourists have combined to create crowded conditions on Metro trains. (Dudley M. Brooks — The Washington Post)
    By Alice Reid and Alan Sipress
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, April 9, 1999; Page A1

    Metro riders suffered through another day of breakdowns and delays yesterday, as train doors malfunctioned, brakes jammed and irritated passengers were herded off disabled trains onto crowded platforms because of the mechanical failures that are plaguing the system.

    A train broke down at Rosslyn at the height of the morning rush hour; a midafternoon Red Line train had to be emptied at Union Station because its doors malfunctioned.

    Another breakdown near the Eastern Market Station about 5 p.m. backed up eastbound service on the Orange and Blue lines all the way to Foggy Bottom. It took 20 minutes to move that train out of the way. On the Red Line, a disabled train had to be evacuated at Judiciary Square at 5:14 p.m.

    "This is getting really ridiculous," said Schenika McKinley, 23, a staff assistant at the Justice Department whose day-care provider for her two children charges $1 for every minute after 6 p.m., costing her $90 extra Wednesday.

    "Every day!" she said of the delays. "We are paying rush-hour fares for this?"

    Yesterday's difficulties followed a rush-hour mutiny Wednesday evening when hundreds of riders, already slowed by a breakdown at Metro Center, refused to leave a train at the Smithsonian Station and then again at L'Enfant Plaza, when the train was ordered out of service.

    Trains are especially crowded this week as tourists jam Washington at cherry blossom time. The rail system broke records for ridership Tuesday and Wednesday with more than 600,000 trips each day. Yesterday was another crowded day, though exact figures were not available.

    The equipment problems that create the delays have been increasing in recent weeks. Many are caused by brake and door malfunctions. But the trains also have been running slowly because of a problem with electronic devices that regulate the movement of the automated trains. Control has been turned over to train operators as a safety precaution.

    Metro officials, shaken by Wednesday night's mutiny and the cascading number of delays and breakdowns, vowed yesterday to give passengers better information about incidents and pledged to cut delays -- even if it means spending millions of dollars to accelerate repairs on balky train cars.

    "We need to spend a lot more time on incident management after this," said Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D), a Metro director.

    The recurring problems are becoming an embarrassment for Metro, denting its reputation as the U.S. capital's gleaming subway and inconveniencing tourists and regular riders alike.

    "We're only as good as the last rush hour we run," said Lemuel Proctor, chief of rail car maintenance.

    Officials at older big-city subway systems, used to taking criticism for the condition of their trains, took a keen interest in Metro's new problems, particularly the passenger mutiny at the Smithsonian Station.

    "It is hard to fathom an insurrection environment," said a spokesman for Philadelphia's subway. A spokesman for Chicago's transit authority said: "It's kind of hard to believe it could ever happen here. I don't think our people are that unreasonable." And from Boston's "T" system: "There's a certain level of civility with our passengers that would preclude that kind of activity," said Joe Pesaturo, deputy press secretary.

    "This is a clarion call to get our arms around this problem," said Metro board member Cleatus E. Barnett, of Montgomery County, referring to Metro's growing numbers of mechanical failures. "I think passengers are due . . . sympathy for what they went through. Incidents like this can wash out 10 $1 million advertising campaigns."

    Curing Metro's mechanical ills will not be easy or cheap, General Manager Richard A. White said.

    "There is no quick fix," said White, who yesterday laid out a plan to make repairs on hundreds of rail cars at a cost of $47.3 million during the next three years. "The system is under strain now because we've expanded -- to Franconia-Springfield, to Glenmont."

    Later this year, Metro will add 2 1/2 miles and two stations on the downtown Green Line through Columbia Heights and Petworth -- more service that is likely to put even more strain on the system.

    Metro has part of the funding needed for rehabilitation in hand, but could have to borrow some of it to accelerate repairs.

    Much of the work has been needed for years but was deferred earlier in the decade because of a lack of funding. Metro has spent $220 million overhauling its 300 oldest rail cars.

    White's plan calls for overhauling balky brakes on nearly 300 older cars and replacing door control mechanisms on all 764 cars. Metro officials said those two fixes would cut by half the number of breakdowns Metro is suffering these days.

    But for Thelma Spriggs, a secretary who lives in Northeast Washington, the past two days of delays on her Metro trips were the last straw.

    "I'm getting my transmission fixed and driving in like I used to," Spriggs said, as she waited on the Orange Line yesterday.

    On Wednesday, when Metro ridership hit an unprecedented 617,000 trips and broke Tuesday's record of 600,061, passengers aboard an already delayed Blue Line train reached the boiling point and refused to obey orders to exit a train with door problems, first at Smithsonian and then at L'Enfant Plaza. It took transit police to clear the train, which is still being examined by mechanics.

    Some riders involved in the mutiny told officials that they had not understood why they were being asked to get off.

    When the mutiny train pulled into the Smithsonian Station shortly after 5:30 p.m., it was the first eastbound Blue Line train witnesses said they had seen in nearly 45 minutes. The platforms were overflowing with hundreds of commuters and tourists and many elbowed into the cars, but scores more were left on the platform when the doors closed. "They couldn't squeeze another person on," said Susan King, of Annapolis.

    King said the doors on one of the rear cars appeared not to close properly, and after a few moments, the train operator asked the riders to get off. They either did not hear the announcement or didn't care to comply.

    "I couldn't tell what they were saying at all, and I don't think anyone else could," said Craig Jenkins, who boarded the train at Smithsonian.

    The train sat and the announcements continued unheeded. "People were kind of shaking their heads and talking about how ridiculous it was," Jenkins said. But when the train operator began to flash the car lights, first once, then again and again, he said the riders knew that Metro wanted them off. They wouldn't budge.

    It would be a mistake to attribute this behavior simply to anger or frustration, said William F. McDonald, a Georgetown University sociologist. "People haven't been in a situation like this before and don't know what's going on. They are without norms. . . . They just figure they're going to lose out and are not willing to go on the next train."

    The conformity of the group overrides respect for authority, said Erika Peterson, a social psychologist at George Washington University.

    "People in unfamiliar and strange circumstances look to other people for what to do. Once a person provides a signal, everyone goes along with it. . . . It just spirals from there."

    At their meeting yesterday, Metro directors fretted that some Metro workers may have seriously breached safety procedures by allowing a loaded train with door problems to move from Smithsonian to L'Enfant station. Even though doors appeared to be closed, warning lights clearly indicated a mechanical glitch.

    "There was no guarantee that those doors wouldn't have opened in transit," said Metro operations chief Charles Thomas, adding that individuals involved in the decision to move the train face disciplinary measures.

    "We should never violate safety procedures under pressure from passengers," Thomas said.

    Staff writers Stephen C. Fehr and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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