Barbara Carpaldi-Carrion has traveled Europe on trains, ridden subways in Rome, Vienna, Madrid and Barcelona. The New Jersey native considers herself a public transit veteran and said she never encountered a train so packed she couldn’t find a way to squeeze in.
Until Metro’s Blue Line.
Carpaldi-Carrion tried to board a train at the Rosslyn Metro station around 5 p.m. one day last week. A crush of commuters jammed into the car so tightly that a man’s messenger bag got stuck in the closing doors. Riders rushed to his aid, lest a malfunctioning door lead to two of the most dreaded words for any Metro regular: “train offloading.”
“This is my first experience ever actually getting pushed out of a train” said Carpaldi-Carrion, who had moved to Northern Virginia last week because of her husband’s new job and was experiencing her first day on Metro. “I just thought that was kind of crazy.”
The mad rush is something regular Blue Line riders have come to expect. On most afternoons, riders say, cars on the line feel like locker rooms — hot, sweaty, smelly — a toxic mix for weary commuters, many of whom are leaving jobs in the District and headed to their homes in Northern Virginia.
“You can’t be claustrophobic if you’re going to ride the Blue Line in the afternoon,” said Jared Joe Haas, 35, who rides from Pentagon City to Rosslyn, where he takes Dari language classes.
He described a recent morning trip when riders’ bags got stuck in the doors two separate times.
“Some people weren’t holding on to anything,” he said. “Random strangers were pulling people inside. It’s almost like a team.”
Metro ridership has declined dramatically over the past year — 11 percent in the spring alone, according to the latest data. But you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of that on the crowded Blue Line. Metro’s latest “Vital Signs” report notes that the system “has more instances of overcrowding . . . than last year at the same time,” highlighting Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom as two pain points.
And riders shouldn’t expect changes anytime soon; Metro says the overcrowding is still within “acceptable standards.”
With the exception of two months at the end of 2015, Blue Line trains pulling into Rosslyn during the evening rush have exceeded Metro’s “optimal crowding level” of 100 passengers per car every month since the fall of 2014, right after the Silver Line opened.
When the Silver Line opened, Metro had to decrease Blue Line service because of the limited capacity of the Rosslyn tunnel, which in addition to the Silver and Blue lines is also used by the Orange Line. Metro cut the number of Blue Line trains, increasing the time between trains from eight minutes to 12 minutes.
To ease the blow to passengers, Metro boosted Yellow Line service from Pentagon southward in a program known as “Rush Plus.”
But crowds ballooned on Blue Line trains elsewhere in the system. Since crowding spiked in July 2015, with an estimated 130 passengers packing into some rail cars at rush hour, riders have seen little sign of relief.
This year, passenger loads during the evening rush at Rosslyn exceeded Metro’s crowding standards every month from January to April, the most recent data available. In February, observers noted 119 passengers per car; the maximum allowed under Metro standards is 120.
Metro says it hasn’t had enough railcars to alleviate the conditions. The agency is counting on its new 7000-series trains to ease the problem. The agency also disputes complaints that crowding is worsening.
“Blue Line load factor during this period is essentially unchanged compared to the same period last year and the measure remains within acceptable standards,” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said in a statement. “Metro makes every effort to run 50 to 60 percent of all Blue Line trains as 8-car trains, the longest possible length, subject to railcar availability. As more and more 7000-series railcars arrive, we expect to be able to provide these longer trains more consistently.”
The agency’s SafeTrack maintenance plan has exacerbated the problem, inducing crowding through planned service reductions.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said at a meeting last week that he wanted the agency to perform a top-down analysis of where service is needed, including on the Blue Line.
“I think that on a fairly regular basis we should be doing an overall review of the entire system,” he said, comparing it to Metro’s annual evaluations of bus service.
In the meantime, he said, the main solution Metro can offer is increasing the number of eight-car Blue Line trains. As more railcars become available following maintenance and air-conditioning issues over the summer, Wiedefeld said, more eight-car trains could be floated into service.
Metro’s last formal proposal to relieve Blue Line crowding came last summer. The plan would have reduced Blue Line wait times to eight minutes — but at the expense of four other lines. It failed to the gain support of the Metro board.
An afternoon visit to Rosslyn last week illustrated the impact extended waits can have.
“Thirteen minutes?” Aminata Kargbo, 28, of Alexandria said to no one in particular, peering up at the station board in disbelief. “That’s very, very, very, frustrating.”
Her new job in Herndon takes her from Pentagon City — where a bus drops her off — to Rosslyn, where she transfers to the Silver Line. How could she better spend that hour and 45 minutes?
“Happy hour, sleeping . . . not being on the train,” she said.
Jeff Larrimore, a government researcher who co-founded “Save the Blue Line” in 2014, said Metro needs to tackle the Blue Line issue with the same urgency it does other problems — like the way it addressed neglected maintenance with SafeTrack.
“It’s encouraging that Metro acknowledges that this is an issue,” Larrimore said. “That being said, acknowledging the issue and actually doing something about it are two different things.”
Barbara Hermanson, chairwoman of Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council, said she hopes Metro can come up with an answer soon.
“We’d like them to search for ways to add eight-car trains to Blue,” she said. “Of everything I’ve heard, that might be the most feasible if we have enough cars.”
She added: “It’s been a long time hoping that something would happen. But we’ve heard each time what seemed like really good reasons . . . that it was just really not something to focus on. I’m really encouraged by [Wiedefeld] saying we do need to look at the balance like the bus does.”
One stop away from Rosslyn at Arlington Cemetery, the Robbins family of Elmhurst, Ill., had plans to pay tribute to fallen soldiers when they were diverted by an afternoon downpour. Instead, they decided to continue on the Blue Line to Old Town Alexandria, where they were staying while visiting Washington.
But the first train that arrived was too crowded for the three of them.
“We’re kind of waiting to see if a train comes by that’s a little bit emptier,” Ken Robbins, 65, said.