The D.C. region’s transportation network has made some adjustments to accommodate the Metrorail track work disruption, but at the start of SafeTrack’s second week, the resilient commuters were showing that they could deal with change.
During the Monday morning rush at the Ballston Metro station, commuters showed little confusion about what to expect from a situation that provides plenty of opportunities to be confusing. Meanwhile, the many Metro staff members and transit police officers on the scene were either shouting out information or making themselves highly visible for questions.
I can make some suggestions for Metrorail riders based on the morning observations, but most of them will be good only through Thursday, when this first SafeTrack maintenance project is scheduled to end. As we move into the remaining 14 special projects — with the next one starting Saturday — the most enduring lesson was the need for commuters to be savvy and observant about their options in the unexpected situations they are bound to encounter.
The scene in the photo at the top of the posting occurred periodically between 7:45 and 9 a.m. Riders would gather along the rim of the station’s mezzanine and wait to see which of the side platforms would get the next eastbound Silver or Orange Line train toward the District. They knew that a D.C.-bound train could arrive on either platform. They had all of last week to figure that out. What’s normally the outbound platform was serving through trains heading in either direction. They might be going to Vienna or Wiehle-Reston East, or they might be going toward New Carrollton or Largo.
The inbound trains on that side were almost always very crowded. They had just come through the single-tracking zone to the west, between Ballston and East Falls Church. But many of the riders waiting on the mezzanine simply wanted to get the first train heading east toward the District, no matter what.
If they chose the other side, the side platform normally used exclusively by the inbound trains, they would wait to board Orange Line trains ending their trips from New Carrollton and about to reverse directions for a trip back into the District and out to Prince George’s County. Some riders went that way because they were following directions from staffers who expected the next inbound train on that platform. Others just went that way, perhaps because they knew that while they might not get the next inbound train, they almost certainly were going to get more room.
If you choose the Ballston-New Carrollton platform, move down the platform. The arriving train that you will board after it empties may be a six-car train. The train, like all Metro trains, is going to pull to the head of the platform. So if it’s a six-car train, there will be a two-car gap toward the back. Many riders on my six-car train had to move down the platform to board, so the first several cars wound up being extra-crowded, though it wasn’t a crush.
The Metro personnel I met on the scene were helpful and knowledgeable about the station setup. And there are a lot of them. But I did notice that riders were getting two types of information. Some staff members would simply say that one side was the through trains and other other side was the Ballston-New Carrollton service, which was likely to be much less crowded. Other staff members would offer a prediction about where the next train would arrive. Some were doing this based on the pattern they had observed all morning, and they were usually right, but not always.
If you pick a side, stick with it. I didn’t see any sense in trying to dash from one platform to the other if the other turned out to have the next inbound train. There just wasn’t enough time to make the dash up and down escalators.
Commuters tended to arrive at the station in surges, suggesting that many got there by buses rather than by car, bike or on foot, since those folks usually arrive in a steady stream.
I saw no problems up on street level. The bus bays for the regular Metrobus and ART routes were busy but not crowded. The free Metrobus shuttle to get commuters around the single-tracking zone was not crowded. I think that situation will be very different for the next maintenance project, which will close segments of lines.
The streets around the Ballston station were not crowded with cars. Some commuters may be driving to Ballston from the western suburbs and either dropping people off or parking, but I saw no signs that this was creating problems in the area immediately around the station.
My overall impression was of commuters dealing with the hand they were dealt, that they had learned from the first week and even here — at the Metrorail station most likely to cause confusion — they would make their way through.
Each of these Metro maintenance projects will be a learning experience, but the characteristics that will get us through all of them are the smarts and flexibility shown by the commuters.