Metro trains rolled through yesterday's storm--just about the only part of normal life in the region that kept running--thanks in part to light ridership and more than $1 million in snow equipment purchased after a 1996 blizzard buried the rail system.
"We're really pleased," said Bea E. Hicks, chief operating officer for rail service, who spent her birthday in Metro's command center, monitoring snow accumulation, ridership figures and breakdown reports. "I think we'll run straight through. We can't control the snow. So we're doing what we can do to keep running."
Eight inches of snowfall is usually the point at which the subway system runs into real trouble. Snow fills the above-ground track beds and can cover the third rail, which powers trains, stopping them short.
By late yesterday afternoon, the snow had reached eight inches or more in some spots, but the trains kept rolling, although by early evening some problems and delays had developed on the Orange Line near Vienna. Ice appeared to be interfering with the connection between trains and the third rail, making for a slow trip home for the few hardy commuters.
But compared with its performance in snowstorms past, Metro ran smoothly.
"I'm really surprised that Metro is running, because my bus wasn't running," said Abdul Jahani, 50, a translator from Springfield who usually rides a bus between Franconia and the District.
Lobbyist Kathy Carlson, 40, at Union Station on her way home to Silver Spring, was pleased and relieved, and a little surprised. "I think it's been great," she said. "They're running, and it's been snowing all day!"
There were three times as many breakdowns as usual, mostly from snow that clogged brakes and electronic equipment under trains, Hicks said. But light ridership made those breakdowns less noticeable, she said.
From 5:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Metro had 189,400 passenger trips. On a normal weekday, ridership for the same period is 455,000, spokesman Ray Feldmann said.
After a series of blizzards nearly paralyzed Metro in January 1996, transit officials spent $1.4 million on equipment to keep outdoor tracks working under as much as a foot of snow. Metro installed filters to shield the sensitive electronic equipment under rail cars from dry, powdery snow, which caused hundreds of short circuits in 1996. And it attached "heat tape"--long, electrically heated strips of material--along the track in the train yards, which were once prone to freezing and would result in marooned trains.
From early yesterday and throughout the night, rails were coated with glycol, a solution that prevents icing. Metro planned to keep trains running overnight to keep tracks warm and clear.
And it dispatched 21 "prime movers," heavy locomotives equipped with snow brushes, to ride the rails all night and keep the tracks and yards open, Hicks said.
Workers were assigned to 12-hour shifts, instead of the usual eight hours, to provide some extra manpower and overlap, she said.
The snow added to the troubles of Metro's notoriously finicky escalators. Spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson said 67 of 557 machines were out of service yesterday. Of those, dead escalators at Van Ness, Gallery Place and Dupont Circle were directly linked to snow, she said.
The Q Street entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro station, one of the busiest on the subway system, was completely shut down just after noon. Of the three escalators at the entrance, one has been closed for months for repairs, another was shut down because of worries it would become icy and the third was kept running in the "up" direction, spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson said.
That left a small elevator as the only way into the station--an option that left passengers waiting in line for 20 minutes in ankle-deep snow. They huddled under umbrellas and layers of wool, their heads dusted with ice and cheeks chilled red. Every three minutes, the small elevator opened to allow a lucky 12 inside.
"This is really abnormal," said Ross Dube, a computer programmer who was trying to ride the Red Line to his job in Tenleytown. "In 12 years, I've never seen anything like this."
The station's down escalator and elevator will remain out of service today, Feldmann said. Starting at 5:30 a.m., Metro will run shuttle buses from the Dupont's station's Q Street entrance to its 19th Street entrance, he said. The service will run as needed.
Amtrak, Virginia Rail Express and Greyhound canceled some service yesterday.
Metrobus service ran into delays early in the morning, and as conditions deteriorated, all buses were detoured onto main roads and off secondary streets, said Jack Requa, chief operating officer for buses.
Ridership was light, but Metrobus experienced its afternoon rush hour at the end of the morning, as federal workers who went to their jobs learned the government was shut down and turned around and went home, Requa said.
No major accidents occurred, he said. "It's been very quiet because ridership is so low," he said. "The streets look desolate. There are more people walking than cars."
CAPTION: Metrobuses were restricted to main roads such as F Street NW, above, after secondary streets became impassable. The buses' afternoon rush hour occurred early as federal workers went home.