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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Pair of Whammies and an Ace Kicker

[Cross posted from the NotoriousCar5Gang blog]

It happens all too often. It seems to me that it happens more often just as I am getting ready to put the commute on hold for a few days while I travel on business. The correlation is uncanny and I have mentioned to several of the regular MARC conductors enough times that when something goes terribly wrong, one or another will ask if I am traveling again. It used to be a preponderance of incidents low platform arrivals at Union Station that occur when I am about to travel. Now the train that I ride in the morning so regularly arrives on 8 or 16 that the correlation has been made meaningless.

This doesn’t mean that other fubars don’t surface to fill the void. It was July 26, the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This day will live in my memory as the day of A Pair of Whammies and an Ace Kicker.

First let me explain that the following day I was scheduled to fly to Alabama on company business and would be off the remainder of the week. We arrived on the 16 Track as recent normal would dictate. The manual lift was littered with trash that the conductor kicked to the curb, so to speak, and onto the track bed. Beads of sweat on his forehead formed into rivulets and dripped off his chin. As always, I thanked him for the service he provided and let him know that I was going to be away for the remainder of the week. He replied with, “ah, oh.” We both knew that something probably was in store for us.

I departed the office a few minutes early in order to stop by the ATM at the corner near the office. I would need a few dollars for the meals on the trip. When I arrived at the station, Dave, one of the station supervisors gave be the heads up for the 16 Track so that I could get aboard before the onslaught of the remaining 899 passengers. I got me vertical ride to the car floor level and backed into my usual spot. Soon others of the Gang filtered in. Sandy and Mikey arrived followed by George. Even Princess Carly arrived soon enough to get a seat. George got up for Shelly, who has been a new addition to the usual suspects. Mikey held his seat in case Candice arrived.

Billy and Andrew made their appearances and Susan too. We had a quorum and a peanut gallery of itinerants, those people who just happen to stop for an open seat.
The day had been one of those above 90 days where Amtrak promised cold water in the station and just water on the trains in case there was a problem. The HVAC cut out a minute or two before the train started moving. The Princess, sitting in her corner spot, said, “A least we are moving.” It could not have been more than 30 seconds before the train slowed to a stop. I gave Carly one of those sideways glances and expression of mock disgust.

We all waited for the announcement. They were going to get the on-site mechanic out to the locomotive to see about getting it restarted. We had only moved about 2 car lengths before the end came. They fiddled about for a few minutes before announcing that the train was dead and the run canceled. Remember the double whammy? Here it comes. The 6 o’clock departure would take on as many of us that would fit. Here it is. The 6 o’clock train is on Track 8.

Now I have to wait to get off after they drag the half dilapidated lift down to my new location AND I would need to wait again to get back on the replacement train. The Gang ran ahead and regrouped in the fifth car on the new trainset. While there were a few strangers already seated, Carly and Shelly got their relative positions again. While I waited for the lift to be brought along the platform, Sandy and George taunted me by holding cold beer cans up to the window. Although I would have to wait, I did know that a cold one would be waiting. Billy took the opportunity to stop by the station package store.

A round of cheers when up as I made my entrance. Even though the aisle was crowded, my usual spot had been preserved. The new fifth car was a “cafĂ© car” with the alcove behind where I sit. I offered to pull in there if two people cared to sit. Billy declared, “no way, we fought hard to keep that seat up.” I didn’t argue. Soon enough I was cracking open the cold one that was handed across the aisle and along to me.

We waited until the scheduled departure of this train. As we lurched into motion I said to Carly, “don’t say a word.” She pursed her lips and kept quiet. We held our anticipation until we were fully out of the station.

One of the occasional guys who drops in on occasion got talking about how the heat breaks down the locomotives and that they knew that DC was hot in the summer. Why then didn’t they buy equipment that wasn’t as sensitive to the heat? Billy mentioned the catenary lines and how they sag when it is hot. Mikey added the phrase “the cat and the canary” from our previous raucous conversations.

I said that it was just like the railroad folks to underestimate the needs of the people that serve. After all they would prefer to be hauling freight. Bill questioned, “Why so negative, Bob? You are usually the optimist.”

Mikey quipped, “He’s SEEN the canary.” That brought up all the imminent failures we have experienced over the years. Susan brought up her fifteen years of MARC commuting and how even when it was bad in those “old days” it was not nearly so often.

The ride moved along reasonably fast up until we had to stop to allow the Acela to clear the BWI platform before we proceeded. I promised an “ace kicker.”

The train stopped with our car reasonably close to the stairwell. I jumped out and headed for the stairs like everyone else. Susan and I waited by the elevator for it to return to the lower level. A crowd of other anticipatory commuters hoped for a spot in the elevator. One of these days BWI station will have two elevators on both sides of the platform. For now though the single rickety units would have to suffice. We packed in and bore up under the extreme heat of 8 human bodies packed into an already hot 280 cubic foot box. When we arrived at the pedestrian bridge level, the kicker became manifest. The door failed to open. The buttons failed to prompt the door. The car would not move and the door did not open.

At least the emergency bell, for what it’s worth, rang out clearly. The emergency phone also dutifully dialed its prescribed number. No one answered. Maybe he or she was out for a smoke or a toilet break or maybe no one was there. We didn’t wait.

A woman asked the logical question, “can we open the door ourselves.” She also posed the associated one about how we would do it. Undoubtedly there was at least one person on the verge of freakout.

I said for those by the door to place the palms of their hands flat on the door and push left. With several intermittent pushes, the door mechanism clicked into place and it slowly slid open. In one big wave everyone was out the door. I quipped to myself that I would probably be the only one in the elevator on the other side. It was astute deductive reasoning. No one waited there to ride down.

Just as I was about to cross the bridge, Jill emerged from the stairwell and we walked over together. I related that we had just averted a major meltdown in the stuck elevator. “Really,” she pondered? “Yes, really. No one is waiting to ride down in this one.” It arrived at my call, Jill and I rode down together. There was no Ace to match the kicker.

Now my only travails will be the three As of flying that constantly are a problem to the traveler: Airlines, Airplanes and Airports. They are all equally good and equally bad each in their own ways. But THAT is another story.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Adventure of Commuting

Recently, my oft posed question has been: When did commuting to work become an adventure? Wasn’t the stereotype of the commute a long boring drudgery that had to be endured in order to match ones household expenses to ones income. Or it was a necessity for having access to suburban schools while still holding down that urban managerial job where you had worked your way up from peon to harried middle-manager. Whatever the reason for the long trip, one had to drive alone on what is euphemistically called an “Expressway” or sit in a bus in the same traffic are the motorists or read the morning newspaper while cruising along the tracks on a commuter train.

When I relocated my career to DC in 1994 while still living in my house on the cul-de-sac in Baltimore, the daily repetition was quite ordinary and indeed boring. I had to meet the train on a crumbling platform in a swampy valley near the BWI airport. The station there already showed signed of its age even though it was not quite 15 years old. The bloom was off its flower even then, but the station as a whole was still quite functional. The two elevators that made crossing over the three tracks worked every day and there was little need to consider what I would do should there be an outage. My wheelchair doesn’t do steps very well but it goes down a flight far better than up one.

On February 22, 2000 the MTA inaugurated the bi-level train car service and announced the intent of doubling MARC ridership by 2020. That was a noble endeavor but one that was more marketing and pronouncement than substance. Ridership did however increase with the advent of the larger capacity cars. At an average of 132 seats per can there was comfortable room for more passengers. Fortunately there was also more standing room for the additional commuters who would be seeking transport into DC each day. The total number of trains each day remained constant on the Penn Line and space was at a premium almost from the start, even on a normal day.

Soon the parking lots at three of the busiest stations were filled and reached capacity earlier in the morning. Halethorpe, BWI and Odenton each reached capacity in a rotation mostly determined by the construction schedules of additional space and the fees that were charged at BWI where they constructed first one garage then a second one. Walking distances at Halethorpe and Odenton reach as long as 0.6 miles from the farpoint to the boarding zones. This long walk is an inconvenience but doesn’t not deter the commuters as a whole. There is a significant amount of ‘churn’ in the overall ridership. When a new rider sees the crowded conditions and challenges of parking and the regular delays of service, they drop out and someone else fills their place. One doesn’t need to be a masochist to commute on MARC, but it certainly helps. I say that with all due respect to MARC personnel who are the front line interface between riders and the operations and themselves must have masochistic tendencies in order to put up with the daily guff that several thousand people can present.

The MTA intent coupled with the economics of $4 gasoline conspired to raise the level of ridership to unprecedented levels. They added a ninth car to some trains because there is a fixed number of parking slots for trains at the terminus in DC. More and heavier cars loaded with 132 seated people and sometimes another 20 to 40 standees, taxed the capacities of the locomotives that were sized and purchased at a time when there were fewer and smaller cars in the set. One an occasional basis the additional weight could be handled by the exiting tracktive effort of the equipment. That ability to manage the additional load may have been possible when the equipment was new, but after a decade and longer, the motors just cannot work reliably every run every day. MARC is the victim of its own success and lack of ability to respond to age and capacity demands. This all is cold comfort to the 900 plus riders who were stranded in sweltering heat on May 21, 2010 when the locomotive that pulled them homeward failed between stations for the ‘um-teenth’ time.

But all of that is not what I am writing about today. There are ancillary equipment and services that are just as essential to commuting as getting a seat on a crowded train and having a locomotive successfully pull it to all the stations in a reasonable on-time manner.

Union Station has 4 tracks on the lower level which do not board from high-level platforms. On the upper level where most MARC commuters are familiar, there are three such tracks without high-level platforms for boarding the trains. To most riders climbing the steps is a perfunctory exercise that is accomplished without must thought. But then there are those passengers who are marginal at best with their abilities to walk and climb steps. Such people actually have a more difficult time going down the steps than up because of the last big step and the affects of momentum as their body mass continues to move pursuant to Newton’s Law’s of gravitational forces. Ten there are the riders such as myself who use wheelchairs and are completely dependent on the train crews and the lift equipment to board and alight a train when the high-level platforms are not scheduled for the train.
The need for such lift equipment is a necessary part of the realities of a station that has a higher need for moving luggage and supplies around than for ease of passenger boarding. Elevators are necessary where passengers must cross over tracks. This is a fact. The issue is the collateral deterioration of these ancillary systems. The wheelchair lifts and elevators are getting older too and are in a state of decline just like the locomotives and rail cars. All are necessary for the successful operation of a passenger railroad.

During the last two weeks period of June when the locomotives failed and an engineer blew passed the Odenton Station there were multiple incidents of passengers being diverted and delayed due to the ancillary equipment and scheduling failures.
One evening the conductor stopped back at my location as we prepared for arrival at BWI. He reported that the elevator was broken and I could not cross the tracks to the garage. The Plan B solution was to continue on to Penn Station and take the next train back to BWI. This entails an extra hour of travel in order to get 30 feet across the tracks to the other side. A week later that scenario was repeated on July 2 except that no one on the train knew that the elevator was positioned between levels while a technician was troubleshooting why it did not work. Faced with another unscheduled trip to Penn Station, I negotiated a solution with the Tech. He could make it run in manual mode by riding along and communicating with his partner in the well beneath the car.

All of these snafus took place during one of the worst weeks for MARC commuters that included three out of 5 days on low-level tracks, a major breakdown, a station blow-by, a meet the managers meeting where the managers were 35 minute late, two minor locomotive failures, two elevator outages.

This is one week in the life of a MARC commuter. Other events in the past year involve the extended commute that involves driving to the parking lot, and talking WMATA to ones final destination. Metro has its share of the exact same infrastructure deficiencies. I have lost count of the elevator and escalator failures that have impacted arriving at work and catching the evening MARC back home. The trains are the primary mode of transport, but getting into and out of the stations counts as part of the experience. Those experiences constitute the adventure I alluded to at the beginning of this story.

There was the fatal crash that claimed 9 lives a year ago. There is the dropped collector shoe that set off electrical explosions in the tunnel by Judiciary Square in October 2009. There are the innumerable service disruptions that took place in that year since that fatal crash. All events add to the notion that commuting has become a life and limb adventure. Not one of these situations is related to terrorist or even alleged terrorist activities. Commuting is quite enough excitement without the addition of the intrigue of bad actors trying to make it worse.