Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Complaining About Metro

It has not been widely noted that the Red Line was already a mess when the accident happened Monday. Trains were being single-tracked around a malfunctioning train in one of the stations on the other end of the horseshoe from the wreck, perhaps Tenleytown, and the whole Red Line was backed up. Trains were moving a few hundred yards and stopping, moving a little more, stopping, waiting. This makes the crash even more mysterious, operators should have been watching carefully, trains were holding all up and down the Red line. Nobody was going fast. I talked to somebody who said that at four-thirty it took fifteen minutes to get from Takoma to Fort Totten, which is the next stop, and the accident happened in that stretch of track. It will be interesting to find out what was wrong with the train, maybe the throttle stuck and the brakes failed at the same time, but it doesn't make any sense, on the face of it, for a train to be going that fast in that spot at that time.

I have been thinking about writing about the Metro for a while. You hate to complain, and I understand that it's a big job moving all of the Washington Metro population to work and back, to Nats' games and concerts, taking tourists to the museums and monuments. But there are some things that make you question the whole operation.

Escalators. Have you ever had to walk up a broken escalator at a mall? You have not, because the mall wants your business, they want their customers to be happy. Metro doesn't care. The escalator at Union Station is a stairway most of the time, and lots of others, too. It's not that anybody is working on them, they're just turned off. I was on one a couple of weeks ago that was moving and suddenly, with about fifty people on it, it stopped with a jolt. Everybody just about fell over. There was no complaining, no muttering, people just started walking. I didn't see anyone near the panic button, no Metro staff looking at the escalator, it just turned off. How can an escalator be broken for weeks at a time? It doesn't happen anywhere else, only at the Metro, and it happens a lot at the Metro.

I am as concerned about the security effect as anything. I don't know the actual numbers, but with trains coming from both directions, I'll bet the downtown stations have a thousand people at a time going from the platform to the street on a weekday morning. I hate to think it, but what if something happened? What is there was a gun or a bomb on the platform, and they had to evacuate people? I guarantee people would be trampled on one of those stationary escalators.

And then when you get to the top of the escalator in some of the stations they have stupidly engineered the pedestrian pattern so that the stream of people leaving the building crosses the stream of people going into the system. You have to dodge moving bodies, and it is not always graceful or successful.

The same thing has happened at the Twinbrook parking lot, only with cars. They re-did the whole parking lot last year. To exit the parking lot now, you have to come out to your right and make a U-turn to get into the line of traffic moving to your left. It is just bad planning. People don't complain, there's nothing you can do, they put the exit to the parking lot too close to an intersection, traffic backs up past the exit and you simply cannot get out into the flow.

The Metro has a web site that supposedly tells you when there are delays. You can see it HERE if you're curious, I wouldn't bother to bookmark it if I were you. On Monday, when the wreck happened at five o'clock, Metro announced delays at six twenty-two, an hour and a half later. You're leaving work, you're probably going to head for the Metro between five and six twenty, that notice of a delay was too late for you -- and there was no notice at all for the earlier delay that same afternoon, which had rides taking up to an hour longer than usual.

At 6:22 the notice said, "Disruption system-wide. Customers traveling or connecting to the Red Line, due to significant Red Line delays, customers are encouraged to add an additional 30 minutes to their travel times." Listen, if you commute, you've been on a train where you can hear the operator's announcements get crankier and crankier, telling people not to lean on the doors, until they finally kick everybody off the train. Now they're going to put a whole trainload of passengers onto the next train, which is also already full. If you get information from Metro, you want to know the difference between a collision with multiple fatalities that will clog the line for days and an operator at the end of their shift who has had it up to here with tourists leaning on the doors. Metro can say, "There was a collision at Fort Totten," and we'll know, this will take a while. They don't tell you that.

It was lucky, if you can call it that, that the accident happened on the incoming train during outgoing rush hour. I saw an interview with somebody who said there were about eight people on his car when they hit. It could have been much worse.

An hour after the accident I took the Red Line from Union Station back into Rockville, and there was no problem. The platform was not crowded, trains were on time -- they were only coming from Rhode Island Avenue, not the whole length of the line, but that didn't affect my trip any, I was going the other way. You wouldn't have known anything was wrong. But then, day after day, it has gotten worse. This morning I waited at Grosvenor for an empty train -- normally every other one turns around there and starts fresh -- but apparently there are no Grosvenor trains since the wreck, so I boarded a train that was already full. We were like sardines, and then they offloaded a train in the city, the platforms were packed and our overcrowded train got even more overcrowded. I talked to one guy who said his ride from Rockville took forty minutes longer than usual. It appears that in the aftermath of this tragic accident Metro service is going to deteriorate in a frenzy of CYA.

My kid got stuck in the parking lot the other day, he didn't know you need to have a cleverly-named SmarTrip card to get out of the Metro parking lot. Do you remember why that is? They used to take cash at the booth, but the people they hired were robbing them blind. They'd take your money and put it in their own pockets. I don't recall reading the news that any of them were fired, instead Metro made it more inconvenient for the customer, they forced everybody who drives to the station to buy a computerized card.

There are pluses to Metro. A lot of the cars leak when it rains, water drips on the seats and on your head, and a lot of cars smell moldy, but in general the system is cleaner than a lot of cities have. You occasionally hear about a crime committed on, at, or near the Metro, but it's not a big concern, riders are very safe throughout the system.

Oh, hey, here's something -- have you ever dealt with Metro's lost and found? Here's some advice for you. If you find somebody's stuff on the train, don't turn it in, take it home. See if you can figure out who it belongs to. Call them. If it gets sucked into the Metro's lost and found system it'll never come out again.

We're reading now that the "striking" train (don't you wonder where that terminology comes from?) was old, was running in an unusual configuration, that the brakes were two months overdue for maintenance, and that the National Transportation Safety Board had told Metro three years ago to replace it. The computerized anticollision system was supposed to stop a train that gets too close to another train, the operator apparently pushed the emergency brake but nobody felt the train slow down before the accident -- how did this many things go wrong simultaneously?

This blog deals mainly with issues in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is a collection of suburban towns outside Washington, DC. Many readers here work in the city or in Virginia, and take the Metro to work. It's one of the good things about living here, Metro is generally safe and reliable. But there are a lot of problems flowing from the bureaucracy that runs the system. More than seventy people were injured in Monday's wreck, nine dead, and it was not an "accident" in the sense that falling down the stairs is an accident. A lot of things had to go wrong for those two trains to collide, there was a lot of negligence involved. They've asked if the poor driver of the striking train might have been texting or talking on the phone, and I hope Metro will be careful not to let her take the blame. This collision was caused by neglect and incompetence throughout the Metro organization. You hope it will be a wake-up call, but I'm not holding my breath.


Anonymous warning bell said...

America's head gay, Sir Barney Frank, is more responsible than any other single individual for the curent economic state of the country.

He's at it again:

"Back when the housing mania was taking off, Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank famously said he wanted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to "roll the dice" in the name of affordable housing.

That didn't turn out so well, but Mr. Frank has since only accumulated more power.

And now he is returning to the scene of the calamity -- with your money.

He and New York Representative Anthony Weiner have sent a letter to the heads of Fannie and Freddie exhorting them to lower lending standards for condo buyers.

You read that right.

After telling us how lax lending standards drove up the market and led to loans that should never have been made, Mr. Frank wants Fannie and Freddie to take more risk in condo developments with high percentages of unsold units, high delinquency rates or high concentrations of ownership within the development.

Fannie and Freddie have already lost tens of billions of dollars betting on the mortgage market -- with that bill being handed to taxpayers.

They face still more losses going forward, because in the wake of their nationalization last year their new "mission" has become to do whatever it takes to prop up the housing market.

The last thing they need is lawmakers like Mr. Frank, who did so much to lay the groundwork for their collapse, telling them to play faster and looser with their lending standards.

Fannie and Freddie have always been political creatures under the best circumstances.

But we don't remember anyone electing Mr. Frank underwriter-in-chief of the United States."

June 24, 2009 11:06 AM  
Anonymous mr metropolitan said...

"the mall wants your business, they want their customers to be happy. Metro doesn't care."

An epiphany for you , Jim.

This why capitalism is better for everyone and government run monopolies are bad.

You can look forward to similar health care soon.

This is also indicated by how rude the employees are. You pay but they think you answer to them rather than the other way around. It's government nationalization and monopoly at its worst.

I rarely ride Metro. If I have an appointment downtown, I drive.

btw, why is it no matter what time of day you ride, you have to stand?

if a person has to stand, they should pay less than those who get to sit

but the real question is: if the trains are always full, why are they always losing money?

The funny thing about those escalators is that Metro is always bragging about how they're the longest and steepest in the world.

That would be great if they worked.

It makes them a health hazard when they don't. (oh, they've got elevators- don't make me laugh)

And if you have a heart attack walking up the longest and steepest, good luck suing.

It's not a company, it's city hall.

June 24, 2009 11:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remind me again, "warning bell"...exactly what do your inane comments about Barney Frank have to do with the subject of this blog entry by Jim?
Looks like another tiresome rant on your part to launch another anti-gay diatribe.

BTW..."Sir Barney Frank" is not America's head gay, but acknowledging that would discredit your own infantile idiocy. It's much easier to inject your bigotry with an entry that has nothing to do with the subject discussed by Jim.
You are so pathetic!

June 24, 2009 11:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if Sir Barney F is not America's leading homosexual, who is?

June 25, 2009 12:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why, former Senator Larry Craig, of course!

June 25, 2009 7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Mr./Mrs./Ms. "Anonymous":

We are everywhere!! Get used to it.

June 25, 2009 10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and now...back to a discussion about the woes of Metro

June 25, 2009 12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a lot of Metro's woe would be solved with the implementation of a simple DADT program

June 27, 2009 11:17 PM  

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