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Metro’s bumpy ride continues with Monday’s mess

In this 2015 file photo, Metro commuters are forced to get off the train at McPherson Square during a severe service disruption during the morning commute . (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

As the man was saying, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld can’t seem to catch a break. The same could be said of thousands of riders.

The day the Washington Post was profiling Wiedefeld on the occasion of his having survived his first year as Metro’s chief, a series of problems snarled traffic on four lines in a rush-hour meltdown that ruined the morning commute for thousands of riders. Red Line riders had it the worst after a power problem forced trains to share a track between Van Ness and Friendship Heights. A switch problem near Stadium-Armory and then a broken-down train at Foggy Bottom fouled things for riders on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines.

Will Paul Wiedefeld be the man who saves Metro?

How bad was it? Not so bad if you needed to catch up on your reading.

Riders reported waits as long as an hour at some platforms as either no trains showed or those that did were too packed to take on more passengers.

During Monday’s online chat with Dr. Gridlock, one rider posed a particularly interesting question: Why doesn’t Metro follow Boston’s playbook to clear backups more efficiently by temporarily running express trains?

Once a track is cleared of a problem, the online chatter said, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) runs the first few trains as ad hoc express trains. Trains might roll from the suburbs all the way into Harvard Square rather than making each stop along the way, when the trains are so full that no one can board and few will get off. Then the trains are turned around and sent back.

No doubt it’s an inconvenience to people who needed to get off the train in between the suburbs and downtown.  But they can also take one of the turnaround trains back more quickly. And it sure beats what the reader saw Monday:

WMATA’s bad habit of continuing to stop packed trains at stations where people can’t get on (and anyone attempting to get off can’t get near the door anyway) just means more delays, bad rider conditions and more frustration.

Dr. Gridlock noted that Metro sometimes does this, but then riders gripe about that, too.  Metro spokesman Dan Stessel, in an email that arrived after this post was originally published, said Metro does take advantage of similar tactics to recover from service disruptions. Among them:

  • Trains that are headed against the peak flow — such as outward-bound trains in the morning rush — are sometimes directed by the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) to skip stations in single-tracking zones. “This increases the number of trains that can flow in the peak direction, minimizing the delay for the greatest number of customers,” Stessel said. He noted that, of course, the flip side is that riders on the way sometimes bypass their intended stop, and they can get caught in the inbound stop-and-go traffic.
  • When platforms become crowded and arriving trains are too full to take on more passengers, the ROCC will sometimes offload and turn back trains coming in the opposite direction, thereby emptying a train that can take passengers in the direction with peak demand. On Monday, Stessel said, some trains to Shady Grove were turned back at Van Ness to clear stations there and to the south such as Cleveland Park.
  • The ROCC may hold trains that are actually ahead of the problem as a way of avoiding big gaps in front of a service disruption. “This may sound counterintuitive to customers, but it helps distribute the number of passengers  on trains and prevent a situation where the first few trains to come through a disruption area have to bear the entire load of pent-up customer demand,” Stessel said.

What’s more, Stessel said that much of the operations team is essentially new and open to other ideas about how to make traffic flow more easily after a disruption. He said the agency regularly consults with peers and invites review from the American Public Transportation Association to apply best practices.

“So, I would not rule out anything as impossible,” he said.

Meet some Metro riders — ex-Metro riders, that is

The latest meltdown is another reminder that even as SafeTrack chugs on, Washington’s subway is still a way’s off from providing reliable service. It also raises more doubts about whether the massive rebuilding plan — which was supposed to cram three years of maintenance into one — is delivering on its promise.

Metro had an abysmal 2016. Here’s what riders hope for in 2017.

The next SafeTrack surge is set to begin Saturday, when Metro shuts down the Blue Line between the Rosslyn and Pentagon stations for 18 days. But it’s days like Monday that make a lot of Metro riders wonder when — or whether — the system will ever work the way it’s supposed to.

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