There was track work on the Red Line last weekend, and as it turned out, a smoke incident as well. Both Mitch Wander and David Alpert were riding the Red Line, and the experiences yielded plenty of examples of the bad and the good of Metro and other transportation choices.

A family (not Mitch’s or David’s) in the snow. Photo by Amber Wilkie on Flickr.

Mitch says, “My son and I considered car2go or Uber for an early morning trip from Glover Park to Catholic University. Uber had surge pricing in effect, likely because there were few cars on the road, but there were two nearby cars2go. We walked to the first only to find it parked on a patch of ice and on a hill. But the second one fit the bill.”

Meanwhile, David and his daughter were going to Tenleytown. He says, “We’ve mostly given up on using Metro on weekends when there’s track work (and often, sadly, even when there’s not). But we didn’t want to drive back in a major snowstorm, so we tried the Red Line even though the Metro website said service was only running every 20 minutes.

“We just missed a train to Shady Grove by a few seconds, but fortunately, though the website didn’t mention this, there were some extra trains just from Dupont to Shady Grove (and from Judiciary Square to Glenmont), one of which pulled in shortly after.”

The snowstorm begins

By the time both families were coming back, the snow was coming down heavily.

There were nearly two inches of snow on the ground when Mitch and his son left Catholic University just before noon. He says, “I overruled my son’s suggestion to use car2go again. Instead, we decided to take Metro to Tenleytown and either take Metrobus or get a ride from my wife home.

“We walked to the Brookland-CUA Metro station. The first train arrived but the conductor announced that the train would go out of service at Judiciary Square without explaining why. We waited for the next train which continued downtown.

“At Dupont Circle, the train stopped with doors open for several minutes. There were still no announcements, but Twitter showed photos of smoke at the Woodley Park station.”

“My son and I left, as did a few other passengers I informed about the problem. People by the bus stop said that the D2 had not been running for 45 minutes, so after trying to walk a few blocks, we decided to use Uber despite the 1.7x surge pricing. A car arrived within 10 minutes.”

Another Metro delay compounds problems

David and his daughter left a little later, at 12:30. It was difficult to even push a stroller two blocks up a small hill to the Metro along sidewalks with fresh snow. This was not a time to be driving.

“Another ‘special’ train pulled in right as they got to the platform, which I knew wouldn’t go through downtown, but he initially assumed it would reach Dupont before turning. However, it instead went out of service at Woodley Park. The conductor also did not explain why; I guessed that perhaps the train was going to wait in the pocket track before going to Dupont, though it also could have related to the smoke which I didn’t yet know about.

“The conductor announced that another train was 20 minutes behind, and the signs confirmed this. This seemed odd since the wait between through trains was supposed to be 20 minutes, and the special was surely in between. Nonetheless, we settled in for a wait. Since mobile phone service works in Woodley Park, they were able to play music and watch videos.

“However, 20 minutes later, there was no train,though multiple trains had passed outbound. The top ‘Glenmont’ line on the digital displays showed a blank space instead of a time estimate. Eventually, the station manager announced that there was a disabled train at Friendship Heights.

Photo by David Alpert.

“I considered bailing on Metro, but my daughter is too small to ride in a car2go or an Uber without a carseat. There were no Uber vehicles with carseats available at all, according to the app, even at a surge rate.

“The platform had grown quite crowded at this point. Fortunately, Metro sent an empty special train in the opposite direction to pick up waiting passengers (even though, as Twitter showed, having a train pass by without picking them up annoyed some people waiting at Dupont Circle).

“An employee arrived on the platform and told people that a train would come within 15 minutes. And it did. The total trip ended up taking about an hour.”

What can we learn from this story? There are a few conclusions we can draw:

Travelers have so many options, which is terrific. Mitch and his son used three modes of transportation (car2go, Metroail, and Uber) and considered two others (Metrobus and private car). He says, “I think my son takes for granted that we can seamlessly jump from one transportation option to another.” If one mode is struggling, as Metrorail did, many people can opt to switch.

Modern technology is extremely helpful to compare options. It wouldn’t have been possible to find out about the smoke so quickly or evaluate as many choices without today’s smartphones, apps, and social media. We didn’t have these options or this timely, decentralized information even just a few years ago, and it’s transformed mobility.

Metro still can do far, far more to communicate about outages. Neither Mitch nor David knew about the short-turning special trains before riding one, and the website didn’t talk about them. Some train announcements are hard to understand because of bad equipment and/or train operators who mumble through their explanations.

The following day, David and his daughter rode the Metro again, and when arriving at Dupont on a special train which was turning around, he overheard a rider saying, “I don’t understand how this system works.” People get confused and frustrated during planned or unplanned disruptions. Communication wouldn’t stop all frustration, but could stop the confusion and reduce anger.

We’re still lucky to have Metro even despite all its problems (which are many). Even though it took an hour to get from Tenleytown to Dupont Circle, that was better than trying to drive. Buses were not running. Walking was out of the question. Underground trains had a lot of problems, but they still worked. Maybe that’s not much to be happy about, but people in most cities and even most parts of our region don’t even have that.

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Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 30 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.