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Crowding draws complaints about Metro doors, announcements, escalators

A Metrorail train pulls into McPherson Square station. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

How Metro treats its rail customers was Topic A during my online chat Monday, and most commenters wanted to talk about customer discomfort.

The concerns they raised occur during rush hour crowding: Many of the commenter have experienced doors that close not only before riders on the platform can board but also before the riders on the train can get out. Other said they were annoyed by what operators say in response to crowding and delays. But I think all this got started in response to one Q&A with Metro General Manager Richard Sarles. This is the rider’s question and the GM’s response:

Q. “Why doesn’t Metro enforce rules about not closing doors while customers are still entering or exiting trains? A couple of weeks ago I was caught in a Metro train door. It closed on both my upper arms as I was just stepping out of the train. It was very painful. There were others still moving in and out of the car. When I complained to the station staff at Pentagon City, their response was the drivers have schedules to keep and I should step back when the bells sound.”

A. “I am not aware of such a rule. Train operators do their best to provide enough time for boarding and alighting, while not excessively dwelling at any one station to prevent train congestion. We never want to see anyone get injured, which is why we have posters and announcements advising riders that train doors don’t work like elevator doors. When you hear the chimes, the best advice is to step back and wait for the next train.”

That sparked a discussion Monday, in which commenters focused on the plight of riders stranded aboard trains by rapidly closing doors. At chat’s end, I said I would try to publish comments I couldn’t get to during the chat, so here’s one on that theme:

Yep, it’s us awful passengers…

“So if the operator isn’t allowing enough time for passengers to get on or off, it’s the passengers’ fault. It’s always all our fault. Imagine how smoothly Metro could run if it didn’t have to deal with pesky passengers. This is just offensive on too many levels to count.”

Another of the unpublished comments picked up on an exchange we had about what the operators say to riders in response to crowding around doors. In that exchange, a commenter characterized operator announcements as “petulant threats.” I said: “This is a mistake on the part of the operators who do this. They must have no idea how this nanny talk comes across to a train-load of jammed in customers.”

To that, the unpublished reply was:

Nanny talk

“Yes, it is occasionally annoying, but frankly so are the customers who idiotically jam themselves between closing doors, and risk having the train offloaded.”

Plenty of blame to go around. Some riders do lean against the doors, which can cause them to malfunction.

Another thread of this customer service discussion began when a commenter questioned why it may take “five or six seconds before the driver opens the doors” after the train has stopped at the platform. I offered my guess, that the operator first makes sure that all doors are indeed lined up to open on the platform, and also may need to move across the cab, open the window, look out and then hit the button on the left side of the cab to open those doors. This was an unpublished reply:

Metro doors

“I, too, wonder why this happens. However, your answer isn’t logical. First, we know Metro operates trains of six of eight cars in length and no longer. We have to assume that all stations have platforms that are at least eight car-lengths long, which is a safe assumption. Now, we also know that with manual operation of trains, the driver has to stop the train with the front of his/her car at the end of the platform. Therefore, if all that is true, the last car must be on the platform and when the doors open, there will be a platform for the passengers to exit. The only changeable factor is the location of the driver’s cab and if he/she can see out the front window that the train is as far up as it can go, why the need to look out the side window?”

It’s the operator’s responsibility to look out the window when opening and closing the doors. (Some riders question whether this is always done. Or if it is, why would the operator close doors when it’s obvious passengers still are exiting?) To open the doors on the left side, the operator must move from the right-side console over to the left side, open that window and hit the button on the left-side panel to open the doors. Sit in the first car and watch the operator do that. Should take about five or six seconds.

Another rush-hour service question I couldn’t get to during the chat:

Escalator/entrance direction

“Who determines which direction (up vs down) the escalators run at each station? Same question for the direction (in vs out) of turnstiles? The ratio of in/out & up/down often seems arbitrary, rather than reflective of the likely usage of each station. We shouldn’t, for example, see mostly up escalators and in turnstiles during the evening rush hour in Takoma since, as a residential area, people are mostly exiting (not entering) the station at that time… and yet we do (this occasionally causes major pileups of people all trying to exit through the one or two working turnstiles). I’ve seen this at other stations too. Simple common sense should dictate these decisions, but station managers certainly don’t seem interested in suggestions for improvement.”

This question is frequently asked, so I can tell you what Metro’s game plan is: The transit authority puts a priority on getting people off the platforms and out of the stations. During the evening rush, you may find two of three escalators between street and mezzanine going up and only one going down. Transit officials refer to this as “metering” the crowd, and the theory is similar to the highway “ramp metering” we discussed during the chat. Another form of metering is to stop an escalator and make people use it as a down staircase, because it slows their entry to the station. Fans leaving Nationals Park or Verizon Center may have experienced this.

Having experienced some dangerously crowded transit platforms in other cities, I have to agree with this safety measure. But there are other issues, as well. You know how delicate Metro escalators are. The transit authority doesn’t like to reverse direction frequently, because that might bust the escalator.

On that other theme concerning ramp metering in Interstate 66: I’m asking the Virginia Department of Transportation for some information on what drivers say is an extra long red light at the Lee Highway ramp to westbound I-66.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.



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