Thursday, May 15, 2008

Strategies For Surviving On Metro

Washington's Metro was state of the art and universally praised when first pressed into service in 1976 and seems to ride on its laurels from three decades ago--as best evidenced by the orange/yellow/brown color scheme still prominent in many of their cars.
What's sad is that it wasn't cool then, and it's not even retro-cool now. In fact, it's not even retro now, they just never got around to updating it in many of its oldest cars. Breakdowns are frequent, and screwups on the part of operators have increased dramatically since they were given manual control over the doors. Riders are rowdier than ever. The supporting infrastructure--escalators, elevators, lighting--is also showing its age.

Carpet--unheard of in a transit system and supposed to symbolize luxury--totally stinks with mold when the weather gets the least bit damp, and poses a genuine threat to public health. But let's face it--unless there's padding (and there never was), and unless it's maintained and kept clean, carpet isn't much of a luxury. Metro is planning on removing it in favor of more durable, sanitary, low-maintenance flooring, but it can't happen fast enough.

So here are some survival strategies from a longtime rider for those new to the system:

Avoid the 1000-series cars at all costs. It's been raining for five days straight, the relative humidity is 1000%, and your only car offering is a 1000-series relic from the Jimmy Carter era. Besides the aforementioned moldy orange carpet, look forward to no working air conditioning.

I can only liken the odor and overall experience in rush hour to being trapped in a Porta-Potty on a 90 degree day with a wet golden retriever.

What's the operator thinking? If you get on the train, and the first thing you hear is "Yellow Line to Mt. Vernon Square...Sorry, Red Line to Shady Grove," you want to get off while you still have the chance.

Mysterious station announcements. An announcement comes over the station loudspeaker that sounds like it's coming from Charlie Brown's teacher...except for key words like your destination and "shuttle," which come across clear as a bell. ("Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah Vienna, wah wah wah shuttle wah wah wah wah.")

Head back to the street and find the nearest taxi.

The WMATA Afterschool Special. Boarding at a downtown transfer station at 3:45 on a school day? On a very special episode, enjoy a live reading of John Singleton's Boyz 'n the Hood. (Not suitable for all audiences.)

Don't believe the destination. On some lines, some trains aren't supposed to go to the end of the line, but do so anyway. Take MoCo's line (Red). It doesn't happen very often, but trains labeled Grosvenor sometimes receive last-minute orders to continue all the way to Shady Grove; some labeled Silver Spring continue all the way to Glenmont. So if you need to get to the furthest stations, board whichever train is going that direction (especially if seats are readily available in rush hour), even if it means you'll probably need to get off and change trains eventually.

In the interest of full disclosure, be aware that this strategy actually could backfire. Last year I took a Silver Spring train in the hope that it might continue on to get me to Forest Glen. The train died somewhere around Takoma and we waited a half-hour for a special train to pull us to the station so we could unload. While helplessly stranded, I watched at least five northbound trains pass us on the southbound track. Doh!

Check your calendar. If it's a Saturday or Sunday, drive to the nearest Metro parking lot. Then keep on driving to your destination.

Stand to the right. This is fairly common advice, but I'd also encourage those walking to walk to the right, as well, provided there's nobody standing there. Because someone on the left will be running.

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