Thursday, June 05, 2008

Metro...The Fifth Circle of Hell


Yesterday, I had the occasion to leave downtown for suburban Virginia at about 3:45 pm. I entered the Metro station to board my Orange Line train, as I have done regularly for years. But as I descended into the station on the escalator, I realized…this day would be different.

The disembodied voice echoing through the station was reporting that westbound Orange Line trains were carrying passengers only as far as the East Falls Church station, due to debris and power lines in the tracks. Then, The Voice uttered the two words that send shivers down the spines of riders across the region…”shuttle buses,” as in “there will be shuttle buses between East Falls Church and West Falls Church.”

With great trepidation, I boarded the westbound train for whatever adventure awaited me. At each stop along the way, the driver of the train reminded passengers of the outage between the Falls Church stations, and reassured passengers that Metro was on the case with shuttle buses waiting to ferry passengers to West Falls Church. One could see from the looks on the faces of passengers that those reassurances were being treated with skepticism.

The train emerged haltingly from the bowels of Ballston with dark skies overhead and bumper-to-bumper traffic on either side of I-66. The train inched along, delayed as single tracking ahead caused inbound trains to block our way. Finally, we got to East Falls Church, where trains emptied, escalators backed up, and faregates were clogged with people trying to exit the station.

4:10…Shuffling along with the herd, I made it to the bus stop, where there were…no buses. Not only were there no buses, there was only one sign directing passengers to where they were supposed to be, and that was inside the station. Once outside, one followed the crowd. And oh, what a crowd it was. It would have been one of the larger crowds for a hockey game in December. Spilling over into the exit lanes for buses, commuters looked in vain for a bus.

Meanwhile, Metro transit police were milling about, talking to one another, standing around, and generally doing nothing to direct crowds or to even control them. One officious dweeb in particular (whose name I did not get, but who I will refer to as Officer Shortpants, for the blue shorts he was wearing) was walking up and down the line, strutting as if he was chief of police and making jokes about the situation.

“Where are the buses?”…they’re coming, we were told. Finally, a bus – note the singular – arrived. Having no designated place to stop to take on passengers, the driver merely stopped arbitrarily in front of what I suppose he thought was the thickest part of the crowd. What ensued was a rush that looked like several hundred Rosie O’Donnell’s unleashed on an all-you-can-eat buffet. It was not pretty.

Eventually, the bus filled and groaned with the weight as it rolled away from the bus stop. What it took away made barely a dent in the crowd, now growing as trains rolled into the station above. This scene repeated itself often…a bus would arrive, stop somewhere along the line of people waiting, stand as the throng rushed forward, then crawl away.

In the meantime, Officer Shortpants was strutting, police were walking about with no apparent purpose, people were muttering, and clouds were gathering. One commuter cracked, "someone's going to jail tonight," a reference to the possibility of one (or many) commuter going off.

5:15…Finally, one transit police officer took – for lack of a better term – “charge,” and directed incoming buses to pull to the front of the bus loading area to take on passengers. Unfortunately, those buses had to compete with regular line buses arriving and departing. So, to the extent they were held up, wherever they stopped, that is where they took on passengers. The drivers didn’t know any better…no one gave them any direction (Officer Shortpants playing to the crowd and paying no attention to the buses).

People were getting angry and wondering how far it was to walk to West Falls Church. When asked – pointedly – why buses were being allowed to take on passengers at the back of the bus departure area instead of the front, where most people had been waiting for over an hour and where another officer said they would be stopping, Officer Shortpants replied with arms spread wide, “what do you want me to do?”

Well, that was one answer he could have given, but it wasn’t one that made anyone happy, or made anyone think that the Metro Transit Police could control anything bigger than a one car parade.

5:45…the rain clouds have returned, and people are openly discussing hijacking a bus. I watched as one transit police officer (the same one who told the crowd that buses would be directed to the front of the bus loading area) told a colleague that they needed help. The colleague, a rather fit looking fellow looking all the part of a modern, young law enforcement official, blurted, “go tell the supervisor to get over here to help.” Makes one wonder…with a crowd of several hundred or more milling around in disorganized fashion, with no apparent rhyme or reason to how buses were arriving, taking on passengers, or departing, just where was that supervisor?

6:00…finally. Another officer commandeered an Annandale-bound bus and directed the driver to make a detour to the West Falls Church station, which allowed some of us who had been at the station for almost two hours to make some progress toward our destination.

We did not get to West Falls Church until almost 7:00 (there were pedestrians, in a driving rain, actually passing our bus as it was inching along in traffic), and I didn’t actually “get there,” at least not in the bus. A few blocks from the station, with the bus stalled in traffic, the West Falls Church-bound group on the train got out and walked the rest of the way. At the station, I waited another hour for my commuter bus to take me to Loudoun County. Just before 9:00 pm, more than five hours after I left downtown, I was home, still soaked to the skin from the heat and the rain, and having missed the first period of the Stanley Cup final game I was looking forward to watching.

I can appreciate that there will be acts of nature that will make what is usually an uneventful commute a nuisance, or even a nightmare. What I cannot accept is that Metro has no discernible contingency plan for a station out of service (one cringes at what must pass for Metro's plan for a homeland security event). I don’t fault the drivers of the buses – they had no direction. I don’t even fault the transit police (except the feckless Officer Shortpants, who should be dismissed, or confined to a desk filling out forms for the duration of his career) – they had no procedures. No, the fault lies with the management of the system, which lacks the imagination, talent, or desire to plan for contingencies such as that which interrupted service yesterday.
The irony was watching buses gorged with passengers passing by and a sticker pasted on the window of each bus asking "why travel any other way?" Well, yesterday offered an answer. It was an embarrassment for Metro.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Peerless thats when you find a bar and just drink for a few hours.

The Peerless said...

I stopped for a six-pack just before I got home...it was gone in about ten minutes (fluid replacement, you know).

Sherwood said...

I was there. Had parked in the lot. Got off the train at 5:30 - had a 5:45 appt at the Hospital on George Mason. Metro did NOTHING to organize the crowd, as you said. It was wall to wall people from the fare gates to the bus stop. People couldn't understand why I was trying to get through - they probably thought I was trying to "jump" the line. (As if there truly was a line!) I finally made my way through on the left side of the crowd by hugging the wall and saying "excuse me" to every person. Your description is totally accurate. Metro was not helpful.

Marky Narc said...

Wow. Even the T up here in Boston isn't that disorganized.

Lisa said...

From a loyal reader, sorry about that. Can't relate since I walk to work but Metro's performance is bordering on criminal negligence.

If it makes you feel any better, your writing is a joy to read and in this case, so evocative I felt like I was there. Not to mention being good for a few laughs during a long afternoon at work!

Thanks and keep it up.