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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Debriefing the DC Earthquake

Debriefing the DC Earthquake

I was surprised as was everyone when the ground rippled and the buildings shook. Being in DC and mere blocks from the Whitehouse some first thoughts were "Not Again." While sitting at a desk or up getting copies made or coffee poured one has no idea of the width and breadth of the event. Tenth floor suites make observing the street a difficult task. There was no immediate telling of how narrow or extensive the unknown event was. An explosion typically would be of limited radius. A building fault would be contained in the immediate area of the building. An earthquake on the other hand affects whole cities, counties and regions. As we now know the seismic waves traveled from Richmond, Virginia up into Massachusetts and west into the Midwestern states.

The shaking of the ground and the swaying of the buildings prompted many people to leave their office suites and congregate on the sidewalks outside their buildings' doors. Actually, that is a poor place to stand after an earthquake. Many other people choose to remain inside and wait for information about what had happened. Yes, it was an earthquake. No, there was no significant damage. There were no collapsed buildings or debris strewn streets. This doesn't mean the streets remained clear and passable.

The throngs of office-workers now aimlessly milling about on the sidewalks made walking on them very difficult. Most people were talking with each other or trying to make cell phone calls and were not very cognizant of their surroundings. They were focused on distant matters, listening with ear buds and not paying attention to anyone who was trying to get from one end of the block to the other.

Not long after the mass egress of the office buildings came the second flow of humanity. People who drive their cars into the District and park in the garages beneath the office building began to pour out onto the streets. There they stagnated and created a gridlock by not honoring the traffic signals that were still operating. They did not honor the traffic policy of reverting an intersection to a "Four Way Stop" when the lights go out entirely. Each driver contributed incrementally to his/her own delay and to the many more thousands of bus riders who in the absence of so many automobiles would have made the trip much faster. Fortunately this was not a massive destruction event. Fortunately we all did not need to evacuate the city in a hurry, although a lot of people seemed to think there was a reason.

The MetroRail system was brought to a stop due to the unknown conditions of the tracks, signals and station roofs. When tentative service was restored, people mobbed the trains. The densely packed commuters on the platforms made a sea of humanity that was impounded by the lack of trains to move them out. The first train at Metro Center arrived already fully packed. Still people pushed to get on. The next two trains arrived nearly empty. Those who waited or had to wait had a much easier time getting on the train and on their way.

The D6 shuttle bus that goes passed the Metro Center entrance on the west side had been delayed for about 30 minutes before arriving from the K Street area. A man sitting in the bus shelter said that the D6 had to get out of the K Street area and "it's probably a big mess up there." K Street is the big Lobby Firm area of the city. There is a higher concentration of parking garage spaces up there for all the wealthy lobbyist-types. The D6 finally arrived with a nearly full load. It inched along in the gridlocked streets taking 40 minutes to go the distance to Union Station that usually takes about 10 minutes by subway.

Car drivers ignored the attempts of the bus to pull over to the curb to take on and discharge passengers. Cars parked at the curb made the going very slow when the bus had to change lanes to go around. Additional drivers emerging from their underground lairs intensified the slowness of the trip to Union Station by bus. A woman on the bus pointed out that all the bike rental racks were empty. People peddled passed the bus making faster headway than either the cars or the bus. Pedestrians were moving far faster that the vehicles too.

At Union Station they closed the building for a short time due to small chunks of plaster falling from the vaulted ceilings. MARC, VRE and Amtrak services were all suspended while an assessment was completed. Once the building was reopened and the hopes for commuter train rides were rekindled passengers mobbed the gate to try for a space on the first trains out. Scheduled trains were departing about 1 hour later than the schedule. The first MARC train out took 2 hours to make the 35 run up to the BWI Airport Rail Station. The next train departed about an hour late and took 90 minutes. By 7:40 the 7:40 train departed on time, with plenty of seats available and took the customary 40 minutes to reach BWI.

The Center Café had plenty of seats available, beer on tap, wine and liquor, and a full menu of food items for wise commuters who chose to be patient and wait for the first flush of humanity to dissipate and make the remainder of the day a pleasant journey with interesting company.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Metro Police Officer and the Escalator

A Metro Police Officer and the Escalator

First let me say that the officer in this posting was very polite and officious. In my 16 years of using the Metro Rail system in DC and particularly while riding escalators using a wheelchair, I have been approached only a dozen times by Station Managers, an escalator tech or two and only two Police Officers. On the other hand, 16 years times 250 workdays, times 2 rides up and out in the morning and 2 rides down and in the evening each day equals 16,000 escalator rides on the DC Metro system alone. This introductory information should put the remainder of this posting in proper perspective.

The Police Officer followed me onto the Metro Center South entrance escalator to tell me it was dangerous to ride it with my wheelchair. I am always facing up the incline regardless of the direction of the stairs. I saw him step on and come to the step above me.

The ironic part of this story is that he and I would not have met this day except that the West entrance lower level escalators to both tracks were stationary. I discovered this only after going down to the plaza level on the one escalator that was going down from G Street at 14th. Fortunately the other side was going up and I could get back out to the street.

"You know we have elevators for this."

"Yes, it's on the far side."

"This dangerous."

"You're new at this. What you have to know is that I have been riding Metro escalators for 16 years, every day twice a day."

"If you would fall you could get killed."

"I could also get killed crossing the street to get to the elevator or by getting shot by someone who is over-reacting to the situation."

"You should use the accommodations that are provided. This equipment was not designed for this."

"I think there is nothing wrong with this way." We reached the bottom and I rolled smoothly off and turned to go to the fare gates.

"Well have a good day."

"Thanks." I went on my way and he made the return trip to the street. I thought about all the times that Metro escalators and elevators have been out of service and I have had to make some accommodation to get to work and more importantly, back home.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Another Way to Make MARC Delay

Another Way to Make Delay

Aug 10, 2011. The BWI Rail Station platform got busy just before the 8:03 train pulled in to the station. Back along the platform sat two other passengers with wheelchairs. I knew this would be a busy morning. My jaded attitude made me believe that we would arrive on the 16 Track. The 16 has no high-level platform and requires the conductors to position a lift to get passengers with wheelchairs off the train at Union Station. My early assessment was well founded.

Due to constrained space, the three of us were in two different cars. I was at the head end of the train in an older single level car. The other cars are bi-levels. This fact will be important later. As usual the first car attracted a significant number of people who will stand in the aisle. This morning my Car 5 buddy, Trish, was with me and stood nearby as other passengers dragged their wheelie-bags across my feet.

At 8:42 we arrived at Union Station and on the 16 Track as I had figured. The passengers of the fist car were taking an inordinate amount of time to file out of the train due to the both the required use of the steps and the fact that the outer door did not open. Two cars full of passengers had to exit out one door and down the steps. I said good bye to Trish and a couple of others whom I know. Soon I was he only one still waiting to get off the train.

The Conductor, Alice, soon poked her head in the far doorway and said that they would be there shortly after handling the other two people who needed the lift. She came up and keyed the door to open it. It didn’t open. Repeated attempts at the key panel failed to open the door. The door mechanism inside the car could not be activated to open the door. After awhile another Conductor, Warren, arrived and said that in Baltimore “they locked out the door because it was not opening properly.” He did not know exactly what had been done, but it was not operational.

A train mechanic stopped by and boarded the train when he saw Alice’s bag sitting on the ground by the door. He was checking on her and that unusual situation. He worked on the door for a while, too. I told Alice that because the inter-car passage was from a single level car to a bi-level car the doorway was too narrow to pass my wheelchair. I suggested that sometime another conductor opens the door on the 15 track side of the train and I get out that way. Warren tried to do that but the electrical substation equipment and a heavy cart were in the way and there was insufficient width to turn a lift to get to the door.

Car 7747 left side door. After about 10 more minutes the mechanic had gotten the stuck door half way open. It kept hitting something inside the door pocket and reclosing. With a few more tweaks and twists, the door finally opened. After 20 minutes I was on my way to work. As Warren poured sweat in the humid DC morning and cranked the lift down to track level, I told him that what MARC lacks in good reliable equipment they make up for with good personnel. Well almost. The personnel is good, but the equipment situation and the track assignments are huge problems. The yard controller directs trains in a manner that is convenient for the railroad and fails to address customer needs and comfort. The factor that is most disturbing is the fact that the door was purposefully disabled and was a disaster in the making had there been a need to evacuate the train. Fortunately such emergencies are rare, but they do happen. Newspapers are full of stories of nightclubs and other venues that lock and chain doors to keep gate crashers out only to have dozens of people trampled, crushed or burned trying unsuccessfully get out.

Today remained a good day.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stormy Morning, Center Track at BWI Rail Station

Most people who travel through the BWI rail station in the valley below the BWI airport on a daily basis have at one time or another had to board or exit a train on that infamous center track. For them it is a nuisance that makes them queue up to walk to the far end of the platform and wait to walk down the steps there and up on to the train.

For the commuter who uses a wheelchair or is otherwise unable to negotiate the steps, the train that dwells a mere 10 feet away might as well be on the far side of the Grand Canyon. Actually being on the far side of the Grand Canyon would be far better because the view would be spectacular rather than this dreary morning. It is just another day in the life of a long-term commuter. BTW, I-95 had the two left lanes blocked this same morning due to an accident.

Although this location is not WMATA, per sa, Metro Fail riders were not spared the train malfunction at Fort Totten this morning that backlogged rail traffic to and from Shady Grove once again. The entire Metropolitan DC-Baltimore region is in failure mode and in need of major infrastructure improvements. Particularly in this time of nobody wanting to pay a tax to keep America on the move, and Congressional Freshmen all wrapped around the axle about not raising the debt limit, travel will get worse. Even as WMATA tries to overhaul its aging hardware, the money is getting pulled back by legislators who fail to see the Equals Sign in the equation.