Railwayed into a Rude Reality

Cup'pa JoeEvery so often, real life rudely and crudely invades the isolation and comfort of our sports-addicted world. Monday evening on Washington’s Metrorail was one such instance.

What tragically happened on the Red Line (the death count at seven at this writing) has, for this blogger, a direct bearing on Washington’s hockey team, insomuch as somewhere between 65 and 80 percent of home game patrons rely on the rail for their attendance. You can view Monday’s malevolence as anomalous if you choose; as a daily rider of the rail for longer than John Carlson’s been alive, I am one who would point to the system’s innumerable broken parts, never-ending pursuit of the most basic maintenance, and conspicuous absence of daily operations accountability as conditions likely to breed more of what we saw early Monday evening. For me, the horror of Monday was in the scale of mortality, but I can’t profess shock at its arrival. 

The rail system is wildly oversubscribed, particularly on the Red Line; at its inception Metro was envisioned to transport a quarter million of the region’s residents to work and home each day, but today does so for upwards of three quarters of a million. We also have a few tourists who use it as well. And that ridership volume is growing — there’s simply no space left for more road paving. At its present age and with its present wear and with the system’s solvency a General Motors-like delusion, Metro daily teeters on a brink of mechanical collapse. On its good days. During weekday rush hours — and not just on the Red Line — Metro must operate cars at 3-minute intervals to address the teeming platforms of patrons. Conditions within those congested cars are at times sub-human.

We who ride it regularly are in a very real sense survivors, even on eventless days. This morning in the office it was sobering to listen to the accounts of other Red Liners who yesterday on their own incident-free trains were informed of malfunctioning brake systems by operators.

As an additional structural shortcoming, the system is absurdly vulnerable to the misfortune experienced by a single passenger. I took the train into work this morning not 15 hours removed from yesterday’s accident. A sick passenger on a single train brought the system to a virtual screeching halt. Murphy’s Metro’s Law.    

At OFB, as riders of the transit, we’ve been outspoken critics of the system, not criticism for criticism’s sake but because the rail is so central to the hockey experience in Chinatown. It is also, to some extent, how we showcase ourselves as a hockey town to visiting fans. There’s a cruel irony in that just as hockey matures into a tier I status in sports in Washington the very transportation system required for its patronage is crumbling.

It is appropriate this morning to keep in our thoughts Monday’s victims and their surviving family members, but I think it’s also a moment to reflect on what could be done for the betterment of our regional transportation in a world in which Metro may not be appreciably improved while Alexander Ovechkin plays his hockey here.

Suddenly, Ovi racing on roads at 100 miles per hour in his sports car seems safer to me than taking the train home.   

Looking ahead, toward a day when Capitals’ hockey is distinctly profitable for ownership (i.e., soon), I wonder if some manner of shuttle service, vividly themed in Red, might not be deployed about Northwest D.C. on home game evenings, a shuttle that would deliver ticket-holders from their offices or downtown homes right to the rink. I’m envisioning about a half dozen moderately sized buses, no massive fleet that would further clog the District’s already rush-hour clogged roads. With 50 or so Caps’ fans aboard each route, and running from say 4:30 til 6:45 on game nights, hundreds of hockey fans could be efficiently and reliably transported, before and after games. Maybe it’s Capitals-sponsored, maybe it’s a public-private venture, but if viable it could help alleviate congestion on Metro underground and also be a spirit-boosting experience — ticket holders in Pens’ sweaters, for instance, wouldn’t be allowed to board.

In perfectly good conditions such a shuttle service might be a good idea, but imagine if Monday’s tragedy had occurred at a time when 15,000-plus hockey patrons expected to ride the train after a game.     

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7 Responses to Railwayed into a Rude Reality

  1. MaryRWise says:

    This hits very close to home for me, because my husband was on the train that crashed last night. He was on his way to meet me for the Caps Select-A-Seat season ticketholder event. He wasn’t hurt, thank God, but only because he was in the last car of the striking train. We always sit in the last car; it lets you out at just the right spot at Gallery Place. I shiver when I think that he might have caught a slightly earlier train!

  2. Maria says:

    Pretty cool post. I just came across your blog and wanted to say
    that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your posts. Any way
    I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you post again soon!

  3. Tom says:

    I live fewer than 6 blocks from 2 metro stops and I take a cab home from Verizon Center.

  4. Grooven says:

    Such an incident is unfortunate, but might finally be the thing that gets the Feds, DC, MD and VA off their respective collectives asses, quit messing around, and actually put up necessary money to make these fixes that have been needed for years instead of squabbling about a million here and there. (And maybe it will be a call for WMATA to actually have oversight and do a much better job with the money it has.)

  5. OrderedChaos (Mike Rucki) says:

    Metro’s fundamental problem was going on the cheap when the system was designed — by building only 2 sets of tracks rather than 3, they screwed themselves pretty hard. Any train problem causes massive delays; they have to pay OT rates for track maintenance during the wee hours rather than just using 2 of 3 tracks while the third is fixed; and the track lives are shortened by being in constant use rather than rotating one of three out of use now and then. Just a horrible decision that, at this point, cannot realistically be remedied. And don’t get me started on the escalators…
    Sadly, over the years the administration of the system has become worse and worse, a dangerous combination of incompetence and corruption. So while I think the Federal Government should contribute much more toward Metro, they also need to rip up Metro’s bureaucracy and start over. Too bad they can’t also rip up the tracks and do those right too.

  6. chelle says:

    I’m a huge Caps fan, but I was concerned this morning when I read the exert from OFB posted on the Express Blog Log, as it almost seemed a bit heartless in regards to the victims and their families. I’m glad I came to read what you wrote in its full context. You made several valid points 🙂

  7. Doug says:

    Oh, gee, thanks for telling me this is but one more responsibility for the Federal Government. After the ‘purchase’ of banks & auto industry, (and maybe health care) maybe the Feds need to completely take over the public transit system.
    I like Swedish hockey players, but not their nominal tax rates.
    Agreed, Metro is flawed. Solution: significantly raise the rates, bank the money and fix the problems.
    It’s indeed sad and tragic, but please look at the number of passenger miles compared to injuries/fatalities. When you do that, Metro is far safer than auto travel.

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