When Metro Gets Off Track, Commuters Follow Suit

Passengers Complain About Schedule Delays, Escalators and Elevators

Howard University News Service

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or Metro, has been delivering riders to their final destinations since 1976. Over the years, the system has accumulated problems. Buses arriving and leaving off schedule, escalator breakdowns and out-of-order elevators are occurring more often, passengers complain.

In recent months, the downturn in the economy and fluctuating gas prices have pushed people out of cars and onto the Metro rails. In just 12 months, ridership increased nearly 75 percent, from 184,456 people on Dec. 9, 2007, to 736,641 on Dec. 9, 2008, according to the Metro’s Web site.

Age plus a huge increase in ridership equals Metro deterioration in some places. These problems make life difficult for the people who rely on the subway system for their daily routine.

“It’s a slight inconvenience for people who notice slight inconvenience,” said Emil Roth, a Maryland entrepreneur who hopes to work for Metro. “It’s a heavy maintenance task. [Escalators and elevators] are going to break down. You just got to do what you got to do.”

‘Add a Whole Hour for Travel’For some passengers, getting to work on time has become a hassle because of the train delays. Craig Jones, who is also from Maryland, searches the track for the Shady Grove train on a sunny day at Fort Totten. Standing tall in his crisp white shirt and black pants with his tie blowing in the wind, he’s becoming irritated.

“It takes longer now,” Jones said of his commute. “Sometimes you go to places where you have to use bus assistance. You have to add a whole hour for travel; otherwise you’re going to be late.”

Charlene Miles, a long-haired woman with rich brown skin, said that disruptions “shouldn’t be an everyday thing.” Waiting for the train, Miles blames the breakdowns on “a lack of maintenance or money.”

The Metro’s Web site offers a Disruption Report under the Rail tab. The daily report tells which tracks are scheduled for maintenance work and delays of 10 minutes or more.

Metro Is Ranked No. 2 in NationJones finds it shocking that the Metro system is still top rated in the nation. According to City-Data.com, the New York subway system is No. 1 followed by Washington’s Metro system. San Francisco’s subway comes in third.

Jones adds that the bus system is off during the night, in some cases leaving passengers behind.

Diane Smith, a communications operator at Providence Hospital in Washington, agrees.

“At night, during the 12:15 time frame if you miss the last bus, you have to call a cab or rely on someone to pick you up,” Smith said.

“From 11 to 12 at night, they’re not on time,” she said of the buses. “Sometimes they don’t even show up.”

“The new buses are smaller, they get packed quickly and you can’t get on,” added Smith, shaking her head, which is full of curly hair pushed back with a headband.

“I’m 53 years old, and I remember when it started.” She pauses; a small smile appears on her face then quickly fades away. “Now it’s too congested. The train, it’s a health hazard. In different bus stations in the minority areas, you can’t find any restrooms! But farther up in the white neighborhoods, you can always find restrooms. The buses that go in the minority parts are not properly maintained.”

Failing EscalatorsSmith says the Metro is being unfair with the failing escalators. “If you have someone that’s handicapped, you have an issue there.”

M. Webster, a proudly retired federal worker, said, “The escalators are always out of order, always an escalator out of order. Makes you miss your bus sometimes. A lot of people use the escalators; you can’t jump over their heads.”

It’s even harder for people carrying bags and on the elderly. “It’s an aging system,” noted Webster, sitting on the base of a lamppost surrounded by grocery bags. “As things get older, they break down more and more.”

At times, it’s not just age that interrupts escalators and elevators, Metro spokesperson Angela Gates pointed out. They occasionally “become inactive from people jumping too hard or pushing on the emergency button.”

According to Metro’s Operational Report, Columbia Heights is the worst stop for malfunctioning escalators, with availability at 0 percent from November 2008 to through January 2009. Waiting for the BusWebster sucks her teeth when she thinks about the bus schedules. “They’re not on time,” she complained. “They’re late more than they’re on time. The bus drivers are not very courteous.”

The most recent figures in Metro’s Operational Report shows that the bus system was on time about 75 percent of the time from July 2007 to January 2008.

As Webster stands to get on her bus, she said: “Just like everyone else, [Metro] is trying to cut corners where ever it can. If you don’t complain, you don’t get anything.” She recommends that Metro “hire more staff to keep it up or a contractor to keep the system flowing.”

The transit system is trying to make improvements. “Metro is 30 years old,” Gates said, adding that escalators and elevators “are reaching the end of their useful life. We’re doing a complete overhaul of the system.”

In December, Metro tested eight car trains for rail and track enhancements. It has also been testing its ongoing power and systems. On March 30, Metro introduced the S9 Metrobus Express route with limited stops in Northwest Washington on 16th Street. Adding the Express bus was designed to cut down on overcrowding on regular Metro buses.

“They have been improving on stuff,” Roth said. “They’ve got some new subway buses and new bus routes. The basis is always there.”

But until then, Metro riders will have to leave early and plan ahead — just in case of delay.