D.C. commuters were better choosing Metrorail in snow and cold, despite delays

Transportation and safety officials are always telling commuters they should use transit when travel conditions deteriorate. But many people were unhappy with the Metrorail service during last week’s snow and cold.

Would driving really have been a less stressful experience?

No. Despite problems that affected all Metrorail lines on the worst weather days, most train riders still made a good decision in picking transit over their cars.

We have many reasons to question decisions made by the original planners of the rail system. As in: 586 escalators? What were they thinking? But the fact that they overcame tremendous financial and political hurdles to build the rail lines should earn them our gratitude whenever our transportation network is put to the test.

Now, you’re probably reading this in the comfort of your home or office. My argument would be a tough sell to anyone standing on an outdoor platform with snow coming in sideways and the temperature plunging.

Metro officials themselves saw both sides.

“Throughout the storm,” said Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, “Metrorail and Metrobus continued serving our riders, and Metro’s parking lots and stations remained plowed, salted and shoveled.

“While some of our equipment is feeling the effects of the deep freeze that followed the storm, our employees deserve special recognition for their hard work . . . to keep people moving.”

Tom Downs, the Metro board chairman, focused on the effect of the cold temperatures, a likely cause of the broken rail that slowed travel on the Blue and Yellow lines in last Thursday’s morning rush. Downs recognized “the difficulty the system has operating when the temperature is in single digits. Cracked rail is a phenomenon that everybody who operates a railroad understands. . . .The only thing I can say to our customers is that we’re sorry, and we try to repair the damage as quickly as possible when it occurs.”

Both statements are true enough, but they must be combined for a realistic picture of transit travel last week.

On the rails

Snow totals Jan. 21 were the greatest for the Washington region in four years, but they did not force Metrorail to curtail above-ground service.

Still, those who did commute by rail encountered problems throughout the week. Not all of them were related to the snow and cold. As the storm intensified that afternoon, signal problems and train equipment problems — usually doors and brakes — led to delays of up to 20 minutes, according to Metro reports.

During the big chill Jan. 22, service on all lines was disrupted by track and train problems. The most common cause of delay was a brake problem. Of 51 incidents logged by Metrorail that Wednesday, 22 were attributed to brake problems. Five trains had door problems. During rush hours, most delays reported by Metro were less than 10 minutes. But at 8:23 a.m., a Blue Line train experienced a brake problem and unloaded passengers at the Arlington Cemetery station, an outdoor platform, resulting in a 14-minute delay on the line.

At 9:25 a.m., passengers had to get off an Orange Line train at McPherson Square’s underground platform because of a brake problem, and riders were delayed 24 minutes. At 4:12 p.m., passengers had to get off a Green Line train onto the outdoor platform at College Park because of a door problem, resulting in an 18-minute delay.

The delay totals listed here are from Metro’s reports for the week. Passengers waiting for trains often send out Twitter messages reporting longer delay times. They also experience the residual effects of delays in that they might have to pass up trains that are too crowded to board.

A Tweet last Wednesday morning from Sarah Dunn read: “Longest Metro ride this a.m. in 4 yrs living in D.C.; 90 min. from Dunn Loring to McPherson. Usually takes 30 min.!”

Also, the tidiness of the aftermath reports masks the uncertainty riders experience during the disruptions. Many complain that they aren’t getting enough information over the loudspeakers in stations and on trains to estimate the length of a disruption or devise alternative routes.

A Tweet the same day from Brian W. of Oakton read: “Are any [Orange Line] trains moving? Been sitting at Clarendon for 30 min. and seen no trains.”

The worst disruptions last Thursday affected riders on the Blue, Yellow and Green lines. In the morning rush, many riders on the Blue and Yellow lines were delayed about a half-hour because of the cracked rail between Braddock Road and Reagan National Airport. Workers had to install a new, 39-foot section of rail. Meanwhile, trains traveling in both directions shared the one open track around the problem area.

On the road

So, wouldn’t rail riders have been better off on the Beltway and the region’s other highways? Not according to safety officials and highway departments. During the week’s worst weather, they were urging people to stay off the roads.

The feds, local governments and many school systems did their part by closing last Tuesday and either staying closed or delaying openings the next day.

Road crews benefit far more from these shutdowns than does Metrorail, because the lack of traffic gives the plows a much better chance of keeping lanes open, even if they can’t get down to bare pavement.

The difference between the relatively easy commute on the snowy afternoon of Jan. 21 and the ghastly eight-hour commutes of Jan. 26, 2011, was the federal government’s timely decision to close offices for the day.

Even so, driving was tricky on the highway ramps and merge lanes. Crashes repeatedly shut highway lanes on important commuter routes throughout the region.

During Friday morning’s commute, the major travel disruption occurred on Rockville Pike, where an early-morning water main break near White Flint Malltemporarily closed that busy route to all traffic. Metrorail riders never encountered a similar service disruption.