Robert Thomson, aka Dr. Gridlock’s, online chat on Monday drew many questions and comments about Metro policies and riders’ experiences. (Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

This is a season when travelers tend to put aside concerns about their local commutes and worry more about planning holiday trips. But my online chat Monday drew many questions and comments about Metro policies and riders’ experiences.

In this posting, I’ll include some of what came up during the chat, and answers from Metro spokesman Dan Stessel to riders’ questions.

Automatic Metro trains anytime soon?

“I know, I know,” this rider said during the chat, “they’re working on the switches. But I may have to stop commuting via Metro if they can’t figure out a way to make the trains smoother at starts and stops, it’s literally making me sick to my stomach. Is there any hope at all for the end of manual trains?”

Metro is working on replacing track switches in accordance with recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board, and those projects are often responsible for the weekend shutdown of stations. But it’s the work to upgrade track circuitry that’s a key part of the effort to restore automatic train control, suspended after the June 2009 crash on the Red Line.

After the chat, Stessel confirmed that there’s no date set for restoration of automatic controls. The circuit replacement is moving along at a good pace, he wrote in an e-mail, but the system “will need rigorous testing before we feel comfortable placing trains back in automatic mode.”

And that will be done only after consultation with all the federal and regional safety agencies monitoring Metro.

I’ve said that the jerky stops that riders complain about reflect the varied skills of train operators, but Stessel added another point.

One of the steps Metro took after the Red Line crash was to place the oldest cars in the fleet, the 1000 series cars, in the middle of the trains. Because there are so many of these old cars — about 300 — most trains will have the old cars in the middle surrounded by some newer models. Stessel points out that each car type has different braking characteristics.

If the cars in front or behind you brakes harder and faster than the car you’re in, you’re likely feel the effect as a jerking motion of the train.

Several riders wrote in about the slowdowns and uncertainties in schedules that occur as a result of the weekend track work.

Silver Spring vs. Metro Week II

“I complained last week about the abominable service times with the Red Line shut down. This week’s single tracking was just as bad. I took the Red Line to Union station in the morning with little problem and rode my bike to Anacostia from there. Coming back, I entered Potomac Ave and rode to Metro Center.

“There were two trains going to Union Station, 7 and 13 minutes respectively. I took the first as the conductor announced at Metro Center the train as going to Takoma, only to halt at NY Ave. My commute from Potomac Ave to Silver Spring was nearly an hour. Sunday, I did the same and had better luck on timing taking only 45 minutes, but we were halted waiting outside Takoma for a good 10 minutes waiting for a Shady Grove bound train on the single tracking.”

The weekend maintenance program is necessary, but it’s disheartening. The train system has deteriorated significantly and needs to be fixed at a rapid pace, which means that work has to be done during hours when the ridership is relatively low.

But there still are several hundred thousand people on the trains. A trip that involves a transfer between lines can be particularly difficult, extending the wait for trains.

The major disruptions, the kind that involve station closings, are over for the year but will resume in January. Metro has one more weekend of maintenance that involves trains sharing tracks before taking a break for the holiday weekends.

A rider noted that the normally helpful Trip Planner calculator on Metro’s home page is inaccurate on weekends. It doesn’t account for the maintenance schedule.

Then another rider followed up with this comment:

“Don’t use the Trip Planner, use the Next Train page (under Rider Tools). It will tell you how much time until the next train is arriving at the station. That has saved me long waits on the Silver Spring platform.”

Another chat comment got at what many riders see as their bottom line about weekend trips: “The reason to take Metro is to avoid paying big parking garage fees and have reliable transportation. But if they’re not careful, these families of 4 or 5, that pay $20 total or more round trip, will just start driving and paying $24 for parking downtown.”

Yet there also was this: “Early this year, I moved from a place in close-in Alexandria where I had to drive to work (and everywhere else) to a smaller place close to Metro. Even with all the Metro problems, it still beats driving everyday. I don’t really get all the whining.”

Not everything was about trains. One commenter wanted to talk about escalators.

Foggy Bottom

“As a daily user of the Foggy Bottom Metro station, of course I am ecstatic about the three brand-new escalators,” the commenter wrote. “Now it would be great if the station manager would switch in the evening so that two up and one down (which is perfect in the morning) becomes two down and one up.”

Stessel had a comment on that. He said that at many stations these days, the escalators remain in a standard two-up, one-down configuration regardless of the time of day. He cited several reasons:

* In an emergency, it is better to have two ascending escalators.

* People descend faster than they ascend, so it usually doesn’t cause a delay as long as there is one working “down” escalator.

* When people walk to the station, there is a nice, even flow of traffic. That’s quite different when two trains discharge passengers at the same time and there’s a sudden surge of people trying to exit. Having two ascending escalators helps correct this.

* The constant switching back-and-forth of an escalator’s direction causes reliability problems over time.