Image by the author.

Last week, Metro introduced a new policy: after pulling into the station, train operators must wait 5 seconds before opening the doors. Ostensibly, this would give them time to ensure the train is properly berthed. This policy won’t actually solve that problem. But it will delay riders.

While Metro denies that any specific incident caused the change, the timing suggests Metro is reacting to last month’s close call where a Green Line operator opened the train doors before the train had completely pulled into the station.

Metro has had 4 door-opening incidents over the last several months, and several more in the past couple years, the results of both technical glitches and operator errors. This new policy does nothing to actually address these root causes, but will add hours of travel time to Washington area commutes.

Where did this issue come from?

Up until 2008, trains running in automatic mode pulled into the stations, and, when the sensors detected the train was berthed correctly, the doors opened automatically.

But several times early that year, train doors opened on the opposite side of the train from the platform. Metro determined that this problem in the automatic system was happening because of the power upgrades needed for 8-car trains, and shut off the automatic door-opening feature.

Until the problem was fixed, all operators would have to open the doors manually.  In most stations, this meant that riders had to wait a couple seconds for the operator to walk across the cab to the left side.

Unfortunately, this created a new problem. Since the operators could manually open the doors, it became possible for them to open the doors before the train was fully in a station. Since Metro operates a mix of 6- and 8-car trains and the automatic system no longer ensures trains are fully berthed, a few operators stopped their 8-car trains at the then-in-use 6-car marker and opened their doors with the 8th car still in the tunnel.

So, in 2009, Metro instituted the “eights to the gate” mnemonic solution. This was supposed to remind the operators of 8-car trains that they had to pull all the way to the front of the platform. Of course, incidents continued to happen.

Then, in the wake of the Fort Totten collision, WMATA changed their policy again, requiring all trains, regardless of length, to pull to the front of the platform. At some stations, this has exacerbated crowding. At Gallery Place, for instance, westbound Red Line trains that are only 6 cars long stop beyond the area where passengers transferring from the Green and Yellow lines come up. This usually leads to a mad dash for the last door of the last car when the train arrives.

And yet, even with that policy, where every train should pull to the head of the platform every time, there have been a few instances where doors open too early. Hence the new policy.

Is it worth the cost?

It’s true that this 5-second delay could reduce the chance that an operator will open the doors in the wrong place. But it does not prevent it from happening.

The benefit is questionable. These events, while serious, are very rare. A solution that reduces the chances of this happening is welcome, but this particular solution still depends on the operator thinking clearly. That’s the same result the other changes have tried to create, and they haven’t solved the problem.

It’s great Metro is trying to stop this from happening again. But without a true way to actually prevent the operator from opening the train doors unsafely, riders will just face yet another inconvenient policy change in a few months.

Why is this so bad?

@WMATA asked on Twitter Monday, if this new policy reduces the chance of a potentially life-threatening situation, how can it be a bad thing?

It’s important to work hard to make the system safe, but this change doesn’t eliminate the danger. Even if it reduces it some, it’s important to weigh the amount it reduces an already-unlikely event against the guaranteed cost.

Sure, 5 seconds doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up. A Red Line train running from Glenmont to Shady Grove will lose over 2 minutes due to this. And that still might not sound like much, but as we add delay, we risk more train back-ups, and schedule adjustments, meaning riders miss connections.

Last Friday, for example, the extra 20-30 seconds my Red Line trip took made me barely miss my Green Line train at Fort Totten. That meant I had to wait 7 minutes for the next train. On the average, most riders aren’t going to barely miss connections they otherwise would have made. But the fact that it becomes a distinct possibility means many will add some time to their schedules.

The daily delay for a single rider may not be a whole lot, but it adds up for the region.  With daily weekday boardings around 740,000 and a conservative estimated average trip length of 7 stations, the new policy will waste 26 million seconds, or about 7000 hours of Washingtonians’ time every day. This seems like a lot of lost productivity for a measure that doesn’t actually prevent the dangerous situation.

What’s a real solution?

Solving the problem means making door operations fail-safe, not making operators do more mnemonic exercises at stations.

In the London Underground, for example, if a train, for whatever reason, doesn’t detect the platform sensor, the operator can manually open the doors. But to do so, they must push a special override button first, then push a second special button to open the doors. If the train doesn’t detect the platform, the operator cannot open the doors using the regular method.

On Metro, the trains have a similar platform detection system. But it’s only operable when the doors are in automatic mode. When the doors are in manual, the train’s computer systems do not require an override, and the operator can open the doors whenever the train is stationary (whether it’s in a station or not).

It won’t matter if Metro requires all operators to do a few rounds of heads, fingers, knees, and toes at every station stop before opening the doors. If the doors don’t have a safety mechanism in place, it’s only a matter of time until a train operator opens the doors in the wrong place again.

Now, Metro may have determined that if trains will soon be returning to automatic operation, that this sort of feature is not required. But no one at the agency has been willing to publicly guess at a date for returning to automatic operation. Besides, some trains will be operated in manual mode from time to time. And regardless, this sort of safety mechanism should be in place.

In June of 2009, Metro’s then-spokesperson Steve Taubenkiebel was quoted in the Washington Post about the unsafe door operations: “We wish we had an answer as to why this continues to happen.”

Unfortunately, more than three years later, riders still ask the same question. We wish Metro had an answer too. This new rule is certainly not it.

Ultimately, this just punishes riders for the sins of a miniscule number of train operators. And to add insult to injury, the punishment won’t even ensure that the crime won’t happen again.

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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.