Columnist

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

A few weeks ago, I had to cancel a Saturday get-together at Dupont Circle with a friend I haven’t seen in years because I didn’t learn until the Friday evening news that part of the Red Line I use to get downtown from Silver Spring would be closed.

Even during planned outages, it seems the shuttle buses are an unbearable, dysfunctional option. Is there any way to discover sooner than the preceding Friday if this will be going on in order to develop some alternative plan?

— Abby Thomas,
Silver Spring

 

All five Metrorail lines take their hits from scheduled and unscheduled disruptions, but according to my mail, Red Line riders feel they’ve taken a wallop lately.

After power problems and disabled trains caused big delays during the Tuesday afternoon rush, Metro issued an explanation and apology to Red Line riders. That was a good thing to do, though one line caught my attention: “We sincerely regret any inconvenience this may have caused.”

The expression of regret was welcome, but Metro should not suggest there is any doubt about the inconvenience to many thousands of its customers.

Thomas focused on the other side of the Red Line riders’ experience: The scheduled disruptions on weekends that are eventually supposed to make the daily unscheduled disruptions much less frequent.

In an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors Wednesday, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles reaffirmed the weekend strategy: To dig out of the hole created over a decade by an inadequate pace of repair, he said, transit workers need time and space to carry out the rebuilding program. The weekends, when ridership is lowest, provide the time and space to work on several projects at once.

The strategy launched two years ago will continue until 2017, when the intensity of the rebuilding should decline and Metro can maintain itself in a “steady state of good repair,” Sarles said.

Metro crews continue to work weeknights, too, but Sarles announced that they no longer will set up work zones at 8. Starting this coming week, the delays caused by trains sharing tracks won’t kick in till 10 on weeknights.

But what about Thomas and the many others who ride on weekends?

Metro generally updates its listing of major track-work projects — the ones that close stations — in six-month chunks, so riders checking Metro’s Web site, at www.wmata.com, can see the scheduled to the end of 2013.

More problematic for planning purposes is the other form of weekend disruption, track-sharing around work zones. But there have been several recent improvements.

Metro is presenting the schedule in a format that is a lot easier to understand. In part, this reflects a change in the single-tracking strategy. The trains are now spaced so that once a rider boards, there should be no delay getting through the work zone.

This is shown on the schedule Metro produces each Monday for the coming weekend, and by midday Friday, it’s incorporated into the Trip Planner schedule guide on Metro’s Web site.

This is better, but not ideal from the riders’ perspective. What they notice is the spacing between the weekend trains. Sometimes, the schedule shows them 24 minutes apart.

Gaps that wide mean riders intent on avoiding a lot of platform time must adhere rigidly to the Trip Planner schedule. Most of us regular humans aren’t like that. We won’t skip the key lime pie, the bottom of the ninth or the final five minutes of “Man of Steel” to catch a train.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.