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Transit


Metro wants you to know when an 8-car train is coming

To make it clear when an approaching train will have eight cars rather than six, Metro has started displaying the number "8" in green on station display boards. The idea, presumably, is to space passengers more evenly along the platform. Will it work?


A PID with green 8s next to eight-car trains. Photo by the author.

Because Metro operates both six and eight-car trains, not every train services the entire length of the platform. When an eight-car train does arrive, there is often extra space in the last two cars because relatively few passengers move to the end of the train. Noting these longer trains in a different color on the Passenger Information Displays (PIDs) may encourage more people to move down the platform.

Will this help or confuse riders?

This will only serve its purpose if passengers know what the green 8s mean. While the green color does stand out against the orange and red text (for most—it might not be so easy to tell the difference if you're color blind), it is not initially clear that the change in color is intentional. When I first saw the green color, I just assumed the board was broken.

The green color could also lead to confusion for some riders. Since Metro names the different lines by color, seeing a green eight could make some think a Green Line train is arriving.

One thing to know is that the PIDS are capable of displaying only three colors (red, orange, and green), and with red and orange already used for the other information, green is the only remaining available color.

One in a series of changes

The green 8s represent one of a number initiatives that Metro has recently undertaken. A few months ago, it began testing floor decals that mark where six-car trains end on the platform. Metro is also rolling out new information screens that do a better job of prioritizing multiple streams of information.

Going back a few years, Metro even changed the programming on the PIDS so that the text is easier to read at a distance.

These additions, along with new mezzanine lighting and station manager kiosk screens, offer passengers tangible improvements in their daily commutes. No doubt the Metro system faces enormous challenges when it comes to maintenance, but it's nice to see other, smaller changes not falling by the wayside.

Transit


Prince George's is not prepared for SafeTrack

SafeTrack, Metro's year-long program to fix its rail system and address safety problems, begins June 4. However, Prince George's County officials have not taken sufficient steps to help residents get around, such as designating HOV lanes or using school buses to shuttle people to and from available Metro stations.


Photo by Russell James Smith on Flickr.

The planned repairs to the rail system will cause huge problems for the region's commuters over the next year. The pain will be particularly acute for Prince George's commuters between June 18 and July 3, when all Metrorail service across the Anacostia River on the Orange, Blue, and Silver lines will be shut down for a 16-day closure of the Potomac Avenue and Stadium-Armory stations.

More than 25,000 riders a day who commute by Metrorail from Prince George's County and DC's Ward 7 on those lines will be completely cut off from downtown Washington and northern Virginia during that period.

Metro is depending on local jurisdictions to assist in the mitigation effort

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld stressed that SafeTrack "will require regional coordination, resources, communication, and shared pain." Specifically, Wiedefeld requested that local jurisdictions provide additional support and input in the form of "traffic control, parking restrictions, bus support, HOV restrictions, etc."

Some localities have already answered Metro's call. For example, Fairfax County has agreed to provide supplemental express buses from Reston and Vienna to the Pentagon during the first scheduled SafeTrack surge. Arlington County will use higher-capacity buses on selected routes, convert some streets to bus-only, eliminate some street parking, and adjust traffic signal operations as needed.

Prince George's, by contrast, is not currently planning to take these kinds of steps. Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) spokesperson Paulette Jones stated that "Metrorail plays an unparalleled role in regional mobility" but that "Prince George's County cannot replicate or significantly supplement [Metrorail's] function" without making dramatic, costly, and inconvenient changes to the county's current transportation system.

DPW&T's Associate Director of Transportation, D'Andrea Walker, added that Prince George's County does not have the same resources as Fairfax and Arlington and that DPW&T cannot afford to do anything other than try to inform residents of alternative transportation options such as ride sharing, teleworking, and working during off-peak hours.

Sadly, DPW&T is missing the point. No one is suggesting that Prince George's can instantaneously replicate Metrorail's service, even if it had unlimited resources. But the county can and should do a better job of mitigating the impact of Metro's service disruptions—and it should be able to do so without breaking its piggy bank.

One idea that I've put forward before was for Prince George's to use school buses to provide supplemental shuttle service during the 16-day shutdown period. The Prince George's County Public Schools (PGCPS) Transportation Department maintains a fleet of 1,247 school buses and employs 2,006 drivers and attendants. Those buses will be idle, since school won't be in session. Why can't DPW&T work with PGCPS to place some of those buses, drivers, and attendants into service to assist with SafeTrack mitigation?


Image from PGCPS.

When I asked, nobody at the county gave me a reason that this wasn't feasible. Sure, the county will need to spend some money to run these buses and do the other things required to provide effective mitigation. That's what government has to do when responding to any crisis. We seem to understand that intrinsically when it comes to things like snow removal. This is just a different kind of transportation crisis.

HOV lanes will help move people, not threaten the public

DPW&T's spokeswoman, Jones, said the agency has not explored the option of creating bus lanes on certain arterial roads because it believes such lanes "would dramatically increase congestion, idling time, and pollution within [those] corridors." Yet when I asked her for the specific facts or studies that support this claim, she wasn't able to cite any.

That's not surprising, for as the graphic below shows, buses transport people much more efficiently than single-occupancy vehicles. And while some have questioned the environmental benefits of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, most serious studies show that they result in reduced emissions and better air quality.


Photo by Jeff Moser on Flickr.

There is still time for County Executive Rushern Baker and DPW&T to come up with real and workable solutions to avoid this looming transportation crisis. You can encourage them to do so by signing Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth's action alert.

A version of this post appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.

Transit


DC's plans for SafeTrack are underwhelming

DC's plans for helping people travel during SafeTrack include expanded restrictions on on-street parking during rush hour, more taxi stands and places to meet up and carpool, and more officers to help control traffic. There's currently nothing about expanded bus or HOV lanes.

DC mayor Muriel Bowser, WMATA Chief Operating Officer (and former interim General Manager) Jack Requa, and District Department of Transportation director Leif Dormsjo laid out these changes at a press conference on Thursday.

In May, we wrote about how important it would be for transportation departments to consider bus and HOV lanes along major transportation corridors. It could be tough to pull off, but getting through SafeTrack isn't going to be easy, and asking people to carpool won't be enough.

Let's hope that with maintenance surges only beginning now, leaders will find more solutions than those currently on the table.

Details on plans for Arlington and Fairfax should come out of a 1 pm press conference today.

Photography


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 84

On Tuesday, we posted our eighty-fourth challenge to see how well you knew Metro. I took photos of five Metro stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 29 guesses. Twenty of you got all five. Great work to the winners!


Image 1: King Street

This week, all of the stations featured are stations that are adjacent to active railroad tracks. The first picture was taken along the walkway to the Commonwealth Avenue entrance at King Street. This entrance was added long after the station opened, and it's far enough north that the platform had to be extended. But the extended platform doesn't serve trains (they still stop in the original location), so fences along the tracks keep people back from moving trains.

The presence of this fence, plus the three-track railroad bridge in the background are both clues that this is King Street. Nearly all of you (26) got this one right.


Image 2: Brookland

The second image shows ancillary rooms at the north end of the Brookland platform, viewed from the Michigan Avenue bridge. The main clue here is that the Metro tracks are straddled by a single freight track on either side, which happens only along the Red Line between Brookland and Silver Spring. That means that this could only be one of four stations.

At Fort Totten and Takoma, there's no way to get a view like this, since there are no bridges nearby. At Silver Spring, there is a bridge over the southern end of the station, however, from that bridge, the MARC platforms would be visible, as would many tall buildings, since Silver Spring is so urban.

One final clue is the cleft in the blockhouse at bottom right. That cleft is home to the base of a bridge support from the older Michigan Avenue Bridge. That bridge was still in use when Brookland station was constructed, so the ancillary rooms were built around the bridge support. However, the current Michigan Avenue bridge was constructed and opened shortly after Brookland station opened to passengers. The old base still exists, though.

Twenty-one of you knew this one.


Image 3: Rockville

The third image shows the view northward from Rockville station. Given that many Metro stations are next to railroad tracks, this one was harder to narrow down, but there were some clues. One is the new platform pavers, which are present now at most Red Line outdoor stations, but few stations on other lines.

The buildings around the gentle curve in the distance also may have helped you narrow this down. The one closest to the station is 401 Hungerford, home to Montgomery County's Department of Health and Human Services. Another clue is the adjacent railroad bridge over Park Road, which is fairly distinctive.

Twenty-one figured this one out.


Image 4: Minnesota Avenue

The fourth image shows a view westward from the platform at Minnesota Avenue. There are a few clues. The most distinctive is probably the bridge over DC 295 at center. That bridge leads to a long ramp down to the station's mezzanine, the top of which is visible as well.

A second clue is the catenary masts with missing catenary. The railroad line between Landover and L'Enfant Plaza (via the Virginia Avenue Tunnel) was electrified just like the rest of the Pennsylvania Railroad between Washington and New York. Back then, not only were passenger trains hauled by electric locomotives, so were freight trains. For that reason, electric wires ran above this freight bypass of Union Station, all the way south to Potomac Yard, where the Pennsy handed off freight trains to the Southern Railway and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P).

Conrail stopped running electric-hauled freights in the mid-1980s, so the wires are long gone. But the supporting masts survive. These wire-less masts run alongside the Orange Line between Cheverly and Minnesota Avenue. So that should have helped you narrow this down.

One more clue that may have helped narrow this down is the parked coal hopper. This stretch of track leads into CSX's Benning Yard, where many of the coal hoppers bound for the Morgantown Generating Station and the Chalk Point Generating Station are stored. Parked coal trains are a common sight on this portion of the Orange Line.

Twenty-two got the right answer (dontcha know).


Image 5: Landover

The final image was taken looking south from Landover station. From this vantage point, you can see the electrified Northeast Corridor. Since it's impossible to tell whether the catenary here is still present (due to the foliage), this could be any Orange Line station between New Carrollton and Minnesota Avenue.

With the Amtrak corridor to the right of the image, this must be a picture looking south. It can't be Cheverly, since that station has side platforms. At New Carrollton, the Amtrak/MARC station would be visible at right and there's a bridge within sight of the southern end of the platform.

Additionally, the southern ends of New Carrollton, Deanwood, and Minnesota Avenue have blockhouses with ancillary rooms (like seen in image 2 at Brookland), so the view to the south is not possible. Minnesota Avenue and Deanwood also have freight tracks on both sides of the platform, which aren't visible here.

That leaves Landover, which twenty-two of you were able to correctly deduce.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


If Metro had been more like Southwest Airlines, it'd have saved a lot of headaches

Last summer, I took my first ride on one of Metro's new 7000 series railcars. They're impressive, but had I gotten my way back in 2006, when I was WMATA's interim General Manager, that ride would have never happened.


Photo by Matt Johnson.

It's not that there's something inherently wrong with the 7000 series, at least no more than there is with any of Metro's other models. The 7000 series is sleek, clean, and efficient. I particularly appreciate eliminating the carpets and the new displays.

The problem is that the 7000 series is yet another kind of railcar that Metro needs to know how to maintain. When that's the case, as opposed to a fleet full of the same kinds of cars, it's a nightmare.

How transit agencies buy railcars

Starting with its first cars, the 1000 series, Metro has bought its fleet in batches, or series. A quick check of Wikipedia can give you the deep dive on the manufacturers, numbers, delivery dates, and the like. The agency has gone back out to market six more time since it bought those first cars, with each successive lot of cars given a new designation: 2000, 3000—you get the picture.

When I was General Manager, we were just finishing delivery of our order of 6000 series railcars. And they had bugs.

Here's the thing about modern transit vehicles: Because each series is bought in a separate procurement, usually after a substantial period of time, the cars' design evolves. Metro then asks a (shrinking) set of global manufacturers to bid for each new design, and once a company gets a contract, it must set up a factory in the United States to construct the order. This factory never gains any economies of scale or long term experience.

The fact is that the best railcar you will get out of this process is the last one delivered. And, frankly, the manufacturers generally just figure out how to build the car when the contract term ends.

Federal Transit Administration regulations require that the agency run a new bidding process to select a new manufacturer every five years. Never mind that the existing manufacturer has the most expertise in building that car they've been building for five years; if a new company comes in cheaper, the agency may have to let that one start building cars, even if that's a surefire way for bugs to come back in.

Many railcars make maintenance harder

One day during my tenure, I was showing a Washington Post reporter, Lena Sun, through a railcar maintenance facility and we met a railcar electrician. He summed up the stupidity of having so many models quite succinctly, waving his hands around his shop and saying, "See all these tools? It is because we have six different kinds of railcars on the system, and each one is just a little bit different. So I need a different set of tools, and parts, and manuals for each one of them."

This is why Southwest Airlines only flies the 737. It is part of their secret to great service, low costs, and high on-time rates. On the corporate side, it increases their bargaining power with suppliers, reduces maintenance cost, increases employee productivity, and streamlines processes.

We wanted Metro to benefit from this lesson by simply continuing to buy the 6000 series. The plan was to negotiate to buy 100 cars a year, every year from that point forward until the fleet was renewed. Then, taper the buys to 50 cars a year to continually renew the fleet.


A 6000 series car. Photo by ExactoCreation on Flickr.

We even had talks with Baltimore and Miami (the two system who use cars that most resemble Metro's) to join in the order and make the volumes attractive enough to keep the manufacturer busy, and drive down costs. We were looking forward to the possibility of jointly training and sharing staff, parts, tools and best practices.

If we had continued on this track after 2006, the system would have all new 6000 series cars by now. But the 7000 series was revived shortly after I left.

Would this have fixed Metro's problems? Not all of them, certainly. But railcar reliability is one of Metro's biggest issues right now, and this could have improved that metric. Also, it could have freed up managers' attention to focus on the track bed, signals, and power systems—the boring parts that have been given a lower priority than the shiny things (literally) like the new car.

Photography


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 84

It's time for the eighty-fourth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?


Image 1


Image 2


Image 3


Image 4


Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun. Please have your answers in by noon on Thursday.

UPDATE: The answers are here.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


Metro doesn't have four tracks. That's not why maintenance is a problem.

"Yet from the start, Metro was saddled with two structural flaws. First, each line runs on just two tracks—New York City's subway generally has four—which makes it difficult to perform maintenance while still shuttling commuters."


Photo by Andrew d'Entremont on Flickr.

That's part of a detailed profile of Paul Wiedefeld and Metro's current struggles in TIME Magazine, the rest of which is excellent but unfortunately behind a paywall. But in the above excerpt, reporter Alex Altman repeats a very common canard about Metro, that having two tracks instead of the four of many New York subway lines is a major flaw.

This pops up in article after article about Metro, though rarely if ever sourced to a specific transportation expert. Instead, it's just something that every reporter "knows"—even though it's largely false.

Frederick Kunkle said something similar in a May 13 blog post:

Metro riders will probably have to pay for Metro's past sins, including the original sin of designing an ambitious regional subway with only two tracks.
False.

We heard the same from unnamed reporters at Agence France-Presse:

But the system was created with two chinks that have proven costly as the subway expanded to keep pace with the metropolitan area's population growth, and money for repairs and upkeep became increasingly scarce.

First, while other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks, Washington's has just two. This was done to save money.

Incorrect.

Other articles, like in the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and ABC7 also mention the 4-track issue and often compare DC to New York, though they don't make the outright incorrect statements of the others.

What is true

1. Metro does have only two tracks on all its lines.

2. This was a deliberate decision, partly because more tracks would have cost more. George Mason history professor Zachary Schrag, the guy who literally wrote the book on Metro, explains that planners thought about making more tracks, but chose not to because it would have been too expensive, and given limited resources, they wanted to build more lines instead.

3. Having more tracks would make maintenance less painful. On New York's four-track lines, the subway system is able to shut down one or two tracks for a weekend and keep two-way service running, though people at some stations may not get trains or might only get them in one direction.

What is false

"Other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks" (from the AFP article). This is almost entirely false. As Matt Johnson explained back in 2009 (the first time we discussed this), there are only three US subway systems with express tracks: New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

New York has a lot of express tracks, and since so many people are familiar with the New York subway, it's likely why people keep asking about the issue. Otherwise, Matt wrote, "In Philadelphia, the Broad Street Subway includes express trackage for most of its length. The Chicago L offers express service on the Purple Line during rush periods (and a short stretch of the Red south of Belmont)." That's it.

There are a few places where other systems have multiple lines that converge for a transfer, like around BART's MacArthur station in Oakland, but that's just a short bit.


Two track line in Chicago. Photo by Jason Mrachina on Flickr.

Worldwide, even, four-track subways are the exception rather than the rule. A few pieces of lines in London have four tracks, but other cities do not. Paris's extensive Métro is all two-track lines. Two lines, the #8 and #9, run together in a 4-track subway for four stations, and the RER regional rail has some sections with more than two tracks, but Paris has more miles of 2-track lines than Washington, and most US and world cities are all 2-track lines.

Resilience isn't why some systems have more tracks

Lines with more tracks aren't that way for redundancy, but rather capacity: they make it possible to fit twice the trains along the same avenue. In only the densest places in the world, like New York, is that sensible, and even so, most cities don't do it.

Instead of making 4-track lines, what world cities with better transit systems than Washington enjoy is just more lines, period. You can shut down a line much more easily when there's another one nearby. Back to New York, for instance, the tunnels between Manhattan and other boroughs are 2-track, but there are many parallel ones.

If the A train is under repair, the trains could travel on the F line instead. When the L tunnel has to be shut down for Sandy-related repairs, it'll be horrible for residents of Williamsburg and Bushwick, but at least they can transfer to the G train to go around to another East River crossing.

When Chicago shut down its Red Line for months, it was able to set up bus service to get people to the parallel Green. Fewer parts of the DC Metro have alternate lines nearby.

More tracks? How about more lines

If the builders of the Washington Metro had had more money, they should have done just what Schrag said they already wanted to do: build more lines, not more tracks. More lines would make transit closer to more people but could also offer redundancy.

In the core, it would have been better to separate the Blue and Orange, or Yellow and Green, into separate, nearby subways. Metro has, at various times, suggested plans to do that. Such a layout would allow rerouting those trains onto the other line in the event of night or weekend shutdowns (and make room for more trains during rush).

While the articles above didn't talk about express service, a related complaint about Metro is that it doesn't have express trains. Actually, the truth is more that it has nothing but expresses. Schrag writes, "The wide spacing of stations in the suburbs make them the equivalent of express lines elsewhere. Rather, Metro lacks the slow, hyper-local routes like the Broadway Local in New York City, which stops every few blocks to serve the tens of thousands people in apartment buildings."

There's no doubt Metro has maintenance problems. But we can't blame them on the system having only two tracks. Other systems keep up maintenance with only two tracks. It's simply not true that building two tracks is "the original sin of Metro" or one of "two structural flaws."

Rather than bringing up the issue about two tracks over and over, news articles would do better to talk about ways Metro is falling short of all the world's 2-track train systems which operate and maintain themselves better.

Transit


Orange, Silver, and Blue riders: Pain is coming in just a month. DOTs: Get moving on bus and HOV lanes now.

Metro's revised SafeTrack plan is out, and riders along the Orange, Blue, and Silver lines will be suffering much earlier than in the original plan. That may be necessary maintenance, but it'll mean local officials have to move fast to find alternative ways to get people east and west.

Shutdown from June 14-16.

The first "surge" is single-tracking from Ballston to East Falls Church from June 4-13. That single-tracking includes rush hours and every other time. There will be fewer trains at rush hour everywhere along the Orange and Silver west of there and the Orange Line east all the way to New Carrollton.

Then, the really big challenge hits June 18, when Metro will shut down the line from Eastern Market to Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road for 16 days, June 18-July 3. This will also mean no trains from Arlington Cemetery to Rosslyn. That means no trains on these areas for over two weeks.

Shutdown from June 18-July 3.

And this won't just affect people traveling on the east side of the region. There will be 54% fewer trains from Eastern Market to Rosslyn during rush hours and 40-43% fewer on the Orange and Silver lines in Virginia.

We'll need bus/HOV lanes and staging parking lots

Based on all the feedback you gave in comments and emails, plus talking to some transportation experts, we think our region's transportation departments need to immediately get together and consider a set of bus and HOV lanes along main arterial roads and bridges along the Orange/Blue/Silver Line corridor.

In addition, the DOTs should find lots that can serve as park-and-rides and slugging staging areas. People could park in these zones and form ad-hoc carpools (called "slugging"), or ride special shuttle buses using the 42 extra buses Metro has available for the surges.

Workers, employers, retailers, and everyone else will have to step up too, to share rides and adjust work hours to keep people getting where they need to go. Still, many people don't have that option and need a way to travel east and west without spending hours in traffic.

We don't have all the answers. The local DOTs have the experts who need to figure out the specifics. Or maybe they have variations on this plan that would work better. But while asking people nicely to please telework or carpool is part of the answer, it's not enough on its own. Some priority for carpoolers and buses is necessary.

There's not a lot of time. But the SafeTrack "surges" won't be permanent. It's not unreasonable to try some meaningful policies in late June to try to keep people moving. Because then in July, the pain will hit Yellow/Blue riders from the south, followed by more single-tracking on Orange/Silver, and then a big Red Line single-track in August.

Ask your local DOTs to get this figured out RIGHT NOW with the form below.

Ask your DOT to act fast

Please ask your local transportation officials to step up. We've suggested some recommendations in the form, but you can customize it as much as you'd like. Our system will automatically send your letter to the right officials based on the jurisdiction you enter.

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Budget


Metro wants to know how you use the system

Have you noticed the orange flyers and collection boxes floating around Metro stations this month? They're part of a passenger survey that WMATA conducts every few years. The results help determine both how much each of our region's jurisdictions pay for Metro and whether or not Metro should make service changes.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Named TravelTrends, WMATA's Metrorail Passenger Survey survey has two primary objectives: To determine how much each jurisdiction (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) needs to pay to subsidize the system, and to help determine whether or not to make changes to rail service.

In addition, the Federal Transit Administration mandates this survey be conducted periodically.

One thing about TravelTrends is that it's not a survey about your satisfaction with the system. It's more like a census, with the same questions asked each period so WMATA can compare the data. Just like with the federal census, which happens every 10 years, the questions are about you or your habits rather than how you think the government's policies are working out.

According to PlanItMetro, Metro's planning blog, "Your answers to the survey contribute to the data used to support operating and planning activities—it provides us with greater insight into how we can best match service to fit the overall needs of our customers using the system."


Photo by the author.

The (statistically valid) results aid WMATA in determining what each jurisdiction must pay to support Metro. It's one part of a complex formula. Each jurisdiction pays according to its population (adjusted for density), the number of stations it has, and the average weekday number of riders who live in that jurisdiction. This survey is used to figure out the jurisdictional ridership part of the formula.

Staff are handing out the bright orange, pre-stamped surveys at each station through the end of May. You can also fill one out online instead of mailing—just use the code at the bottom of the cover page.

Normally, the survey happens every five years. The last one was in 2012. But WMATA is also required to run the rider study two years after starting new rail service, so the addition of the Silver Line pushed it up (has it really been two years?!!).

As an added bonus, if you complete the survey, you're entered into a drawing to win a $100 SmarTrip card.

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