Despite the fact that Metro is the worst, people are constantly telling me that I’m too harsh. Of course, these people are usually tourists or non-commuters, who then tell me that the train worked just fine when they went to that one Nats game that one time, or how when they visited DC it was so easy to get the museums. These people are wrong. Metro is a poorly maintained, poorly run, and overpriced debacle. The small annoyances are so typical I barely think to complain about them: unheated or unbearably overheated cars, constant delays, trains that don’t show up, 19 minute waits for the train you need. The larger annoyances sometimes grab attention, but it takes a death to make a big splash. On Monday of this week, a yellow line train on the DC Metro stopped 800 feet from the station it had just departed and filled with smoke. Passengers sat in the increasingly hot train for about an hour, breathing in the smoke and being told to not open the doors. When paramedics finally showed up, one woman was dead and over 80 needed hospitalization. Monday was not an isolated incident; it was just an example of how inefficient and incompetent Metro is.
It is ridiculously expensive to take Metro for the quality of the service you get. Speaking as someone who frequently pays the extra money to take Amtrak to Alexandria instead of Metro, I’m fine paying more for efficiency. Metro runs on a system that requires you swipe your card when boarding and then again when exiting, running prices on a sliding scale based on distance. To get from the heart of the city to Franconia-Springfield is $5.75; if it was my daily commute, that would total $16.35 for round trip and $4.85 parking (interestingly, the stations in Prince George’s County are $5.10 — despite being far less crowded). Doesn’t WMATA have a responsibility to make using Metro worth $16.35, or at least make Metro convenient enough that you’re fine leaving the comfort of your car? You’d think.
Paying $16.35 a day, would you expect to have to hike up 188 foot long escalator? If you’re a Washingtonian, the answer is “yes.” The DuPont South escalator is the worst. The escalators at all stations are constantly out, and sometimes the elevators are too. Are you disabled? Metro doesn’t appear to give a shit about you.
Maybe if you were one of the passengers stranded just steps from L’Enfant Plaza, you’d think that you were entitled to just get the hell out of the station once you were being evacuated. Nope! I know it isn’t typically the most reliable source, but people reported on Twitter that they were still forced to scan their card and wait for the exit to open for each evacuee (the same person said she told the news and they didn’t report on it).
On Monday, the smoke in the train was caused by arcing. While it produced a massive amount of smoke, it didn’t cause a fire. Of course, people on the train don’t know this. As usual, Metro didn’t tell the passengers the information they needed (and deserved) to know. The one thing they did communicate was to stay in the train — despite being only 800 feet from the station/freedom. Even though all of the emergency signs say to exit on the side of the tunnel where the lights are (away from the electric third rail), passengers weren’t allowed to exit, and the firefighters couldn’t figure out if the third rail was on or off to get to the victims. But this makes a lot more sense when you look at Metro’s Standard Operating Procedures and realize that….they don’t actually have a plan.
You’d think that Metro would put into their rules what they would do when there is a lot of smoke, since this isn’t a new problem. According to WMATA, arcing insulators occur about twice a month, though IMO that number seems like it’s low. The day after the L’Enfant Plaza incident, sparks and smoke were reported at the Gallery Place stop. All locals remember in 2013, when a Green Line train had a problem with arcing — and everyone was told to spend hours stuck in the trains, without power. Riders started to “rebel” by self evacuating. Not only did Metro not approve, they wondered if they could arrest people for freeing themselves. What. The. Fuck.
To be fair, “sit still and do as we say” is the only way Metro has to handle any situation. In July 2012 a train lost power and passengers were told to hang tight…on a 90 degree, muggy DC summer day. Not in a tunnel. While the passengers say they exited after being told to do so by the conductor, Metro claimed that passengers were responsible for being forced to sit so long. Even though the “rescue” train also lost power before the pax self evacuating, apparently the passengers were to blame.
Now the union representing the transit people is on Twitter, holding a Q&A…and getting an earful. They linked to a useful PDF about why we shouldn’t privatize the system because people will lose jobs. In reality, illiteracy, drug use, and prior convictions run rampant in the staff currently employed by the system…as does extreme overpayment. Anytime you’re interested in a good laugh (or cry), just search Twitter for #wmata so you can see the day’s misery. And remember: it’s DC, so if you’re an American…this is your tax dollars at work!