Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Metro Inferno

Tuesday afternoon WMATA announced several steps which will be taken beginning immediately to address the power-related fire problems which caused the shut down of much of Washington's Metro Monday evening. This closure followed several hours of chaos for Metro customers on Sunday evening when stations on all five of Metro's lines were closed due to fires and smoke almost simultaneously.

Monday evening's incident caused the closure of the Columbia Heights and U Street-Cardozo Metro stations on the Green and Yellow Lines for an hour and a half beginning at approximately 7:20. Several minutes earlier, just after 7PM, power problems caused rail service to be suspended on the Blue Line between Rosslyn and Franconia-Springfield and on the Yellow Line between Huntington and L'Enfant Plaza. This outage resulted in the elimination of all Northern Virginia Metrorail services except for the Orange Line's Vienna Branch and stemmed ostensibly from complications resulting from Sunday's outages. A track fire was reported at the Pentagon Metro Station. Portions of the Blue and Yellow Lines in Arlington and Alexandria were closed for over three hours, however normal service resumed Tuesday morning.

Track Twenty-Nine is pleased to hear that Metro is taking immediate and long-term actions to resolve this situation. It is, however, unfortunate that it took a situation as dire as this to cause Metro to take the appropriate steps. According to the Washington Post, WMATA has blamed aging equipment as a primary factor in the chain of service outages on Sunday and Monday of this week. While it is understandable that the cash-strapped agency must scrimp and save wherever possible, it must not be at the expense of vital maintenance. Metro is an aging system and 31 years of continuous operation has taken its toll on the infrastructure which rushes Washingtonians across town.

As the rapid transit system of our nation's capital, Metro has long exemplified what successful transit looks like. Metro carries over 700,000 passengers daily through stations which are considered some of the most beautiful in all of America's transit systems. It is time that Metro set an example in terms of upkeep and emergency situation management. America is at a turning point. It is vital that this nation reorganize its priorities for urban development, especially when it comes to transportation and infrastructure. Some of our cities have rapid transit systems which are a century old. As Metro has shown, however, even our "modern" transit systems are beginning to age: San Francisco's BART turns 35 in September of this year and Atlanta's MARTA turned 28 in June. Regardless of the age or mode of the system, we cannot wait for a fatal disaster to act. Governments at all levels from the federal government down to local communities must take steps to reanalyze the course that America has charted based on the last five decades of public policy.

With peak oil approaching and with the realization of many that our current predominant form of development is unsustainable, all Americans have an obligation to work for change. It is time for a new vision for our cities which includes priority funding for the maintenance of our existing infrastructure. Track Twenty-Nine encourages WMATA to take the lead in this intiative as a part of any consideration for future service expansions.

Room with a view

I'm happy to announce that I'm almost done moving into my apartment. I'm living in an apartment tower on the Green Line near the University of Maryland, and there is quite a view. My windows North toward College Park and the University and West toward Silver Spring. I can even catch a glimpse of what I believe is the Washington Cathederal to the Southwest. Anyway, living 14 stories above the street is quite different from what I'm used to. Anyway, I thought I'd post some photos. Enjoy.

North: University of Maryland

Northwest: Silver Spring

Southwest: PG Plaza, National Cathederal (center, distance)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Lighting a fire under WMATA

Not that WMATA needs any help in lighting fires, but it seems that the rail system's problems are multiplying. According to the Washington Post, fires and smoke caused a set of major service disruptions "without precendent" in Metro's 31 years. The service disruptions which I reported yesterday recurred again today with smoke and fires causing the closure of Metro lines again during Monday evening's rush hour.

WMATA issued a press release this evening summarizing the extent of the service disruptions yesterday which caused major delays on all five Metro lines. Beginning at approximately 5:30 pm on Sunday, several apparently unrelated problems sparked fires and smoke in various parts of the rail system in both the District of Columbia and Northern Virgina.

The Department of Homeland Security made it clear that this was not an act of terrorism. Even so, the almost simultaneous breakdown of Metro service represented the cascading failure of transit infrastructure which usually appears only in the nightmares of transit officals. This meltdown culminated with the breakout of a fire on a metrobus which was shuttling passengers around Farragut North on the Red Line. According to the Washington Post, only one of the sixty-five passengers on the bus was injured during the evacuation of the burning vehicle at 12th and Eye, NW.

WMATA has tasked a team of workers with discovering the causes of this major breakdown of Washington's transit infrastructure. They have are apparently working with Virginia Dominion Power to investigate a possible Northern Virgina power surge as the cause of some of the service disruptions.

All in all, between 5:45 and 9:15 yesterday evening, the following service disruptions were reported:
  • Track fire at Mount Vernon Square caused single tracking on the Green and Yellow Lines from 5:45 to 7:56
  • An equipment room fire at National Airport Station caused the closure of the Blue and Yellow Lines between Braddock Road and Pentagon City Stations from 5:54 until 9:19. During this time, no Blue or Yellow trains were able to travel through National Airport. This incident also caused the loss of propulsion on a Blue Line train at Braddock Road bound for Largo Town Center and a Yellow Line train between Pentagon and Pentagon City in the direction of Huntington.
  • A track fire at Farragut North caused the Red Line station to be closed, with no trains permitted to pass through, at 6:32. The station was finally reopened at 8:54.
  • A 6:35 fire in the tail tracks (used for storage) south of Huntington Station caused Eisenhower Avenue and Huntington Stations to be closed for just under 30 minutes.
  • At 7:40, a bus transporting Red Line passengers around the Farragut North closure caught fire near Metro Center at 12th and Eye Streets, NW. The only injury of the evening occured when one of the sixty-five passengers on board the bus tripped and fell during the evacuation.
  • Farragut West was also closed from 8:25 until 8:58 because of the presence of heavy smoke due to brake problems on a non-revenue train between Farragut West and Foggy Bottom. This 12-car non-revenue train was made up of the Blue/Yellow trains taken out of service during the National Airport Station fire earlier in the evening.
The causes of Monday's outages were not immediately available. The Washington Post reported that officials were "baffled" over the incidents which many are beginning to wonder may be more than coincidental. The evening rush hour disruptions caused the closure of U Street-Cardozo and halted all Green and Yellow Service through the station for over an hour. The Post reported that at least one Metro customer was reduced to tears during an ordeal which lasted over three hours while she was stranded at the Pentagon while smoke caused the closure of that station.

Metro serves our National Capital with distinction most of the time. Recent problems, however, are shaking citizen's confidence in the ability of WMATA to get us where we need to go. A recent column in the Post on August 12th opined that decision-making at WMATA was not so good. This was mainly in response to major delays on the Orange and Blue Lines during another of WMATA's cascading failures. This followed power problems earlier this year which virtually shut down the Green Line, whereupon thousands of commuters were turned away from already-full Metro stations.

WMATA is under a mountain of pressure to provide adequate transportation to the hundreds of thousands of commuters, tourists, students, and locals who rely on what has been characterized as America's subway. Compunding this problem is the lack of dedicated funding for the region's transportation infrastructure and a federal government who, judging from the way it spends its money, is still obsessed with building roads. According to an article in Monday's Post, next year the federal goverment is projected to spend $42 billion on roads, but only $1.4 on transit projects.

In the face of the Interstate 35W Bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the federal government has been slow to react to the decay of our nation's aging infrastructure. Congress must do what is right, not what is necessarily politically popular; they must dedicate themselves to the generation of tomorrow and set aside revenue for the repair of both transit and roadway infrastructure. Furthermore, they must commit funding to alternative forms of transportation. Peak Oil is rapidly approaching and highway building should go the way of disco.

However, even considering the challenges facing America's second busiest rail system, WMATA must work to prove that it can cope as well with emergency situations as it can with normal rail operations. I do not envy the position of the WMATA personell who are charged with responding to fires, bomb threats, and other strains on the system, but things must improve. A good start would be improved communication.

I was one of hundreds of travelers stranded at Dupont Circle when Farragut North was closed Sunday, and the fifteen minutes of a tight-lipped public address system was stressful. When the announcement came that shuttle bus service was being offered, it was not at all clear where we should exit or where we would find the buses. Having already waited a quarter of an hour at the station, we were not told how long of a wait it would be before buses arrived. As a resident of the Washington Area, I was able to find my way to another Metro stop by walking over a mile, but I wonder what the tourists from Munich or the protesters from Des Moines did when they were forced into the hot August evening.

After a second day of track fires and power failures, I would also encourage WMATA to undertake a systemic evaluation of the infrastrucutre which provides power to the Metro. It is obvious that something has been stretched too thin on Metro. I hope that it is only the patience of commuters and not a vital part of the infrastructure of day-to-day operations.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Lions and tigers and emergencies at Farragut North, oh my!

So after spending my first night at my new apartment, I got off to a busy start today. This morning I met the first year students from my program, Urban Studies and Planning, and the first year students from the Historic Preservation program at the National Building Museum at Judiciary Square for a tour. I had been on the tour before when I was in Washington in March, but the museum was interesting and I wanted to meet more people from my program. The tour was as I had remembered it and I did meet some new students. After the tour several of us went to lunch at a tapas restaurant nearby.

Lunch was good and we stayed and chatted for quite a while. Afterwards I went exploring with Brent and Chris, who I met on Tuesday at the GRA orientation. We went up in the Old Post Office Tower (which is free, like almost everything in DC). The tower is the fourth tallest building in Washington and offers spectacular views of downtown and the surrounding areas. Afterwards we decided to take the Metro up to Columbia Heights, a gentrifying neighborhood, and walk over to Adams-Morgan. Adams Morgan definitely has a similar feel to Atlanta's Little Five Points, but Atlanta doesn't have any neighborhoods as diverse or urban as this one. It is a neighborhood which wouldn't look out of place in Chicago or San Francisco. Our trek took us up to Woodley Park, just across Rock Creek from Adams-Morgan, and then up Connecticut Avenue to Cleveland Park. Along the way we stopped at the National Zoo (also free).

Unfortunately we got there just as some of the exhibits were closing, so we didn't stay long, nor did we venture far into the zoo. We only made it as far as the Panda habitat, but the Pandas were AWOL unfortunately. We didn't see any lions or tigers either, unless you count the stone lions guarding the entrance to the zoo.

We did, however, see an emergency at Farragut North (a Metro station on the Red Line in Downtown DC). Well, we didn't see it exactly, but we were stuck because of it. At Cleveland Park, we boarded a Silver Spring train and stood by for several minutes after the operator announced that an emergency at Farragut North was holding up service. When we finally got moving after well over 10 minutes, the operator told us that we would be single-tracking as we approached Dupont Circle.

True to his word, we did cross over onto the Shady Grove track as we arrived at Dupont Circle. The operator took the train out of service, and we all stepped off onto the platform. We waited for several minutes with no word from WMATA employees as to whether we should go across the mezzanine to the Glenmont track to continue eastbound or whether we should wait. Brent, Chris, and I had been in the last car of the train, so when the operator got to our end and put the train back into service as a westbound Shady Grove train I asked him which platform we needed to be on in order to continue in the direction of Glenmont and he told us to go over to the Glenmont platform. As I repeated this to the frazzeled customers around me, a man said loudly that this is why he wanted to get a car. I thought it was ironic that while a growing number of Atlantans were abandoning their cars, Washingtonians were getting fed up with one of America's most popular and well-reknown transit systems.

As we waited on the almost-full Glenmont platform, eastbound trains continued to cross over onto the westbound platform and go back toward Shady Grove. I suggested to Brent and Chris that we try to walk the 7 or 8 blocks to Farragut West (near Farragut North) and catch a blue or orange line train in order to transfer to the green line. As we started to work our way to the escalator, WMATA finally made an announcement: the emergency at Farragut North had shut down all red line service between Dupont Circle and Metro Center; shuttle service was being put into effect. I couldn't tell from the announcement where I was supposed to go to catch the bus bridge, and no else seemed to know either. A surge of passengers carried us out the faregates, where we ran into one of our fellow first-year-USRPers, Mike. He had also been trying to get home off of the green line before the service disruption. We decided to walk over a mile to the U Street-Cardozo Metro Station on the Green Line.

While ascending the escalators to street level, we saw firemen in full gear going down into the subway, ostensibly to walk down the tracks to Farragut North, the next station eastbound. At the top we were greeted by mass confusion about the shuttle buses, and we noticed in the distance (near Farragut Square) that Connecticut Avenue was closed by a gaggle of fire trucks (at least 6) and police cars.

Our walk was quite nice, and I even ran into a friend of mine from Atlanta on the Circle. Anyway, after arriving at U Street-Cardozo, we discovered that not only was the Red Line closed at Farragut North (with trains operating from Glenmont-Metro Center and Dupont Circle-Shady Grove), but that the National Airport Metro Station was closed completely due to an "emergency" with Blue Line service between Crystal City and Largo Town Center and Braddock Road and Franconia-Springfield. A separate "emergency" at Huntington had shut down all Yellow Line service between King Street and Huntington (including Eisenhower Avenue Station), an outage that when coupled with the National Airport closure left Yellow trains operating only between Fort Totten and Crystal City, with no service south of there.

We waited several minutes but got moving soon despite yet another "emergency" at Shaw-Howard University which was causing single-tracking on the Green and Yellow Lines. There's been no word from WMATA about what caused this meltdown with "emergencies" in four separate locations causing major delays on four of the five lines. Only the Orange Line came out of this disaster unscathed, but don't worry, it was already experiencing minor delays due to scheduled track maintenance.

Overall, I love the Metro. It is so much better than MARTA, even on days like this; in Atlanta, we couldn't have walked to another line as easily since there are only two trunklines. WMATA has done a great job so far in the week that I have been staying in Washington, but we must measure success not by how successful we are during the good times, but how we are during the bad times. I hope WMATA continues to work to improve customer communication and service in the future.

I'll keep you posted once I find out what went down today. I think it's probably worthy of a Washington Post story, plus WMATA posts a record of all service disruptions on their website every day.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore..."

I'm sure I'll exhaust the lyrics of this tired old song soon enough, but they seemed appropriate for today.

I have been wanting to visit Baltimore for some time now. I had even hoped to squeeze in a visit when I was in DC in March, but there just wasn't enough time. Anyway, I met several other fellow first year students in the city planning program at Maryland at my GRA orientation on Tuesday and I went to Baltimore today with one of them. Brent is a fellow research assistant, and he's my local guide: he grew up in nearby Rockville. Anyway, we boarded a Penn Line MARC train at Washington's beautiful Union Station (and no, it wasn't a quarter to four). Less than an hour later, we were in Baltimore's Pennsylvania Railroad Station.

We walked to downtown along Charles Street, passing through the Mount Vernon neighborhood. I was amazed at how urban and lively the city felt. Perhaps growing up in the South had given me a false impression of the state of northern industrial cities, but the truth is that nothing could be further from the truth. Atlanta could use some lessons from Baltimore about what it means to be a city. Downtown is fairly standard as downtowns go, although Baltimore seems to have kept a lot of residential units fairly close to and within the urban core. It reminded me of Seattle for some reason, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Brent and I decided to eat down by the Inner Harbor, and he insisted as a Marylander that I eat a crab cake sandwich: It was delicious.

After lunch, we trekked over to Little Italy and noticed on the northern edge that several square blocks housed recently constructed urban infill housing. Brent and I were left agahst at the contrast between the old streets of Little Italy and the new cookie-cutter townhouses south of Baltimore Ave. It is amazing that we knew how to build cities in the 1920s, but now we can't figure it out to save our lives--and that is not an understatement. If we are to have a sustainable society, especially in the face of peak oil, we must save our cities. Perhaps it's not that we can't, but that we don't have the will-power. I certainly hope for the best. Baltimore has good fielding postion; it never tore down a lot of its older housing stock.

A quick trip on the Metro (yes, Baltimore has one) took us over to Lexington Market, where we changed to the Light Rail (yes, they have one of those too). We made a quick trip to Federal Hill, which is a nice mix of Little Five Points and Chicago.

I think Baltimore is one of America's great undiscovered secrets, and I'll definitely be back there, hopefully often. I don't think that their motto "the Greatest City in America" is too far-fetched. But what do I know? Come and visit for yourself.

Monday, August 20, 2007

"Nothin' could be finer than to have your ham and eggs in Carolina..."

There is no other way to travel. Trains are the way to go. Even when you go coach, you are still better off than those people in first class on airplanes.

I just moved from Atlanta to Washington on the Amtrak Crescent, and there it is an amazing feeling to be eating breakfast in a cafe speeding through the Virginia countryside at 80 mph. It's also an awesome sensation to walk into Union Station's great hall and realize that you are only four blocks from the center of government for the United States.

It's a shame that Atlanta got rid of its great stations. The Terminus would have definitely rivaled Washington; but alas, Atlanta found the Richard B. Russell Federal Cube to be a more important use of the land on which Atlanta's foundation as the capital of the New South had been layed. While we can't turn the past back, we can still shape the future, so I would encourage Georgia to commence construction of the long-awaited Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal. Of course, they don't build 'em like the used to, do they?

Anyway, I've started this blog to chronicle my new life in my new home, Metropolitan Washington; so I expect that it will be a nice mix of news and commentary on both my old home and my new one.

Anyway, the last stanza of my favorite poem comes to mind at the moment:

Travel, Edna St. Vincent Millay

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Pardon me boy...

I'm afraid you won't find Track Twenty-Nine at New York's Pennsylvania Station, and you wouldn't have found one in 1941 when the Glenn Miller song debuted either.

But of course, with the Internet, all things are possible; you've found Track Twenty-Nine here in the ether of cyberspace. I hope you visit often. You never know what you might find along the tracks here.

Anyway, as for me, I am a first year Masters student at the University of Maryland. I am studying City Planning and I just moved to Washington, DC from Atlanta, where I got my undergraduate degree in Public Policy from Georgia Tech.