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12 October 2009 @ 11:45 am
The DC Metro: What my $9.00 a Day Buys Me, Part 1  
So I was reading this, and realized that a majority of my readers don't know how the DC Metro systems works. It doesn't. But I decided to write this anyway so that those of you who live in cities with superior transit systems (mostly in other countries) can feel better. Except some of my Bostonian friends, who will probably laugh in derision.

Monty Python fans know there's a "Cheese Shop Sketch" they do, where the entire joke revolves around the fact that this shop is out of everything:

MOUSEBENDER: It's not much of a cheese shop, is it?
WENSLEYDALE: Finest in the district, sir.
MOUSEBENDER: Explain the logic underlying that conclusion, please.
WENSLEYDALE: Well, it's so clean, sir.
MOUSEBENDER: It's certainly uncontaminated by cheese.

This is the best thing I can say about the DC Metro. It's very clean. So was Stockholm's Tunnelbana, but aside from that, I have been on New York, Baltimore, and Boston trains and I can honestly say that the DC Metro is certainly uncontaminated by cheese. Gum? Not so much. But for the most part, it's very clean.

I was alive and self-aware when the DC Rail system opened in the 1970s. This replaced the long-defunct electric trolley system which was replaced by a fleet of buses. The decor is what the 1960s thought a futuristic 1970s would look like. And thus, by the 1980s, it was as fashionable as an episode of "Logan's Run: The Series." I have been riding the Metro since it opened, but only depended on it to get to and from work in small sections of my work life (the current being the longest ever). I have watched it age and wind down under the enormous strain. Since its inceptions, the entire Metro system was sold to the suburban public as a "convenience" rather than a serious transit system, and while many would disagree, the very structure belies a serious transportation study.

The biggest problem is the dual-track system. Most subways these days have at least 3 tracks, or dozens of places to put a spare or broken car to get out of the way of the main line. WMATA only has about 6 of them, and they are all in outlying areas. So when a train breaks down (which is often), this completely clogs the whole system. Often trains have to "single track" around the car (like when a two-way road with no shoulder has a lane blocked by a segment of construction or repair) until the car can be moved. If it can be moved at all. Because I think the prevailing attitude is no one actually DEPENDS on this system, they just use it so they won't have to use their cars, and everyone owns a car, right?

One of the things I hate the most is how just one asshole can bring down the entire system. Just one person. Doesn't even need to be a bomb-wielding maniac with sarin gas, and no one has to die or do anything radical. This is what I see almost every week:

1. Guy really wants to get on car during rush hour. Can't wait for the next one. As the doors close, he jams his arm in the doors. The Metro can't move without opening the doors again to free him (a nice safety feature I actually approve of). But when the doors open, the guy does NOT pull his arm out, but tries to jam himself in MORE. Keeps this up, because dammit, he's got to get on that train. Sometimes, this results in the door mechanism breaking.

2. If the door breaks, the operator opens and closes the doors several times until all doors register "all clear." The mechanisms jam constantly, even without the help of an asshole in a hurry. After about two minutes of this, the driver is forced to empty the entire train.

3. Before he empties the train, people have been piling up on the platform. The trains at the stations behind him can't move, so all THOSE stations have people piling up in them. Or piling up on the train if the train is stopped with the doors open on the station. Once the operator makes the final decision "can't close the doors, everybody off!", everything behind him has piled up. Other trains hear, "We will be moving shortly, there is a train on the platform ahead of us."

4. As the operator of the busted train leaves, now we have a train's worth of people on the platform, PLUS the people that had been piling up. The next train is already full of people, so ALL those people now on the platform try to jam in. This results in more delays. This ripple goes backwards: the platform of the station behind us is already full of people who haven't had a train, who are now trying to pile up on a full train, resulting in delays, which passes it onto the station behind THEM which has even MORE people waiting even LONGER for a train and so on until you get to a station that usually doesn't have a lot of people; usually an end station, to break the chain.

5. This entire chain reaction will spill over when the first full train reaches a transfer station. A shitload of people will get off, and transfer to another line, spreading the problem across lines not related to the tracks of the first breakdown.

6. After a while, so many angry people are piled on station platforms, this makes them unruly and try and cram people tightly on each car when one finally arrives. This sometimes results in ANOTHER door jamming. That trains has to unload after 2-4 minutes of door opening and shutting, and now the problem is DOUBLE. There have been mobs so determined to get on, I have actually been FORCED onto trains I didn't meant to get onto because I could not free myself from the mob. One day, I fear dozens of people will be pushed onto the track like the cliff scene from "300" by the sheer number of people. And the escalators leading to the platform don't give you a choice once you get on them.

7. If the timing is just right, the train that has to go away doesn't have a third track or spare tunnel to hide in until rush hour is over. This clogs the line until it gets there, and all the passengers see in those stations is a train that says "NO PASSENGERS" and just passes by. This makes them even angrier.

One guy. One guy can do this without even meaning to. The irony is, he will be even later to whatever by his need for speed, but he probably has no clue this is how it works: trains magically appear and disappear and sometimes are late.

The other big problem is the way the seats are designed. They are designed for comfortable travel: the seats alternate between forwards and backwards so at least half the car will be facing the right way when it moves. But this means the aisles are narrow, and the poles to hang onto things are all around the doors. This pole placement blocks the flow of incoming passengers, and when the train is crowded, gets in the way. In the middle of the aisles, there are no poles, just handles on the seat backs which are difficult to hang onto if you're on a train that jerks back and forth like it's having sex with a reluctant rhinoceros. They tell you "please move to the center of the car" to cram more people in, but the truth is, those people in the center won't be able to get out if the car is still crowded. I can go to the center, because I get off at end stops, but the vast majority of riders get on and off in the middle of the line somewhere. Newer cars try to address this by removing a few seats around the doors in the center of the car, place poles against the wall instead of the middle, and have more poles around seats in the middle of the rows, but the fact is they need to have the seats facing to the center, poles in the middle of the aisle, and just accept they are going to have to rely on more standing room like Japan and New York, for example. But no. They still think they can get away with carpeting, for God's sake. That rug is filthy and often peppered with blobs of gum.

The last problem I will address is that the escalators and elevators are constantly breaking. Every day, I see announcements that shuttle buses will be provided for people who cannot use a set of stairs when both the escalators and elevators are broken at some station. A few stations are so deep underground, that they have some of the longest escalators in the world, and when they break? It would take some Iron Athlete to use those as stairs. And those mysterious "shuttle buses" are often an ornamental promise. When they shut down some stations after that famous train wreck, those shuttle buses (which can hold only about 50 people at a stretch) were few and far between. I have been told by my handicapped friends that when you see the station manager for a shuttle bus, there isn't one on standby: they dispatch one from a third party, and that takes a while to show up (it would be a lot less time to get a cab). A little research into the problems with this system's "vertical transport" (you like that term?) is a confusing melange of contracts and disputes between the current contract (Schindler Elevator Corporation, who bought out Westinghouse's elevator company) and their previous contract (Elcon Enterprises, Inc, which lost out due to not hiring enough "minorities or women" which was described as "one or more socially or economically disadvantaged individuals." Ouch.). The third party that was contracted to help Schindler when they won the bid in 1992 had no experience in "vertical transport," but in the manufacture and repair of refrigeration units. These are choke points in the system, and unlike some stops (West Falls Church and Metro Center), there are no stairs to take for overflow. So everyone has to chug up and down the dead escalator, unless it's been curtained off, and then the flow is strangled even more. Imagine an entire subway station where the only entrance and exit is a flight of stairs no wider than the one in a single family home.

Rush hour is expensive. To go from one end of the line to another, which I do from Vienna to Silver Spring, costs me $4.50 one way. It's $2.35 during non-rush, but rush hours are from open until 9:00am, then from 3:00pm to 7:00pm weekdays. The trains run until midnight, sometimes up to an hour later depending on the stop or if there's some huge event like 4th of July on the Smithsonian Mall. A gallon of gas currently costs about $2.50-ish, and given the cost of gas, insurance, parking, and wear-and-tear on the car, I am not sure this is cost-effective or more convenient.

The MARC train (commuter rail) charges only $7.00, but that's one way FROM WASHINGTON DC TO BALTIMORE, which is a considerable longer distance in a lot more comfort.

Trains have no schedule. There's LED signs at the Vienna stop that state things like, "New train to New Carrolton leaves in XX Minutes," but those times are completely arbitrary. Sometimes they say that when there's no train there, and the train will leave any old time it pleases without respect to what time you thought you had left. The LED signs inside the tunnels are usually fairly accurate (if they are on), but often they go blank and sometimes on the Orange/Blue line, they get the colors and train sizes wrong, or delayed behind a huge scrolling list of elevator and escalator outages.