April 2009


I was on the metro recently (surprise) when it was not particularly crowded — there were no angry people standing, bracing themselves against walls and handrails, but just about every seat had someone in it. With The Great Gatsby in my lap, I was reflecting on how grateful I was to be in a seat facing forward while I was reading. Usually I get metro-sick when I read while facing backward and I’m forced to take a nap instead. I reflect on such things when I’m on a quiet metro.

Then the train stopped. This is not unusual — they stop all the time in between stations. But it stopped in a dark, dark tunnel. The track lighting was non-existent on one side of the track, and the train settled into silence. There was no air blowing loudly through the car. I couldn’t hear the train’s usually gurgling mechanics. Even the kid who wouldn’t stop asking his mother questions quelled his curiosity and his volume.

The setting sent my mind racing through a flashback from a childhood visit to Universal Studios in Florida. I don’t know if it was the whimsy of the book I was reading or if my imagination just felt like taking a joyride, but off it went.

It felt like a theme park ride — not a roller coaster that requires individual seats, shoulder harnesses and liability waivers, but the kind of ride that smells sort of musty and has only a lap bar that rests two feet higher than your thighs, doing about as much good as one swimmy in the middle of the ocean would do you.

And it felt like that moment where you’ve been riding along thinking Man, this ride is lame, then everything gets silent. And dark. And still.

And now you’re clutching the arm of the person next to you, thinking it was your dad’s but it actually belongs to a stranger, but you need something to clutch and you’re already committed to this arm, so you keep clutching. And you’re waiting in fear, in childhood terror, of what is to come. The tension and the impending doom are palpable. You can almost taste them.

This was going through my mind while I sat in silence on the metro. jurassicparkIt felt exactly like this moment I had on the Jurassic Park or Jaws ride at Universal Studios. I was waiting for the big drop, the plummet down a waterfall to the unnecessarily large splash below, the dinosaur to jump out at me, or a roar and breath of fire to come from behind my head and shoot goosebumps down my spine.

I closed my book and held on to my seat.

This idea – of the metro becoming a thrill ride and existing in a theme park (as if DC isn’t one in its own right) – made me laugh. Yes, in the middle of the silent metro I laughed out loud. And people stared. And the train revved its third rail connection and fired up the AC and conversations resumed.

Most of my fellow passengers who were focused on the silence like I was were probably running through scenarios in their minds of bombs, anthrax or ninjas. I wonder if they thought I was crazy, or not taking the situation seriously enough, when I started to laugh. I laughed like a child. Like a child in an amusement park (before the heat exhaustion set in).

I believe that moment was good for my soul. I also believe I will pursue a DC-themed amusement park with a metro-themed roller coaster. Instant gold. Who’s in?

The time has come to bid farewell to my dear, dear friend the Virginia Railway Express.

Hallelujah.

I’m moving this weekend to a place that is minutes not hours from the metro (hooray!) and never again will I need to rely on the luxury of the VRE for my daily commute. It is indeed a bittersweet goodbye. I will not miss the pre-sunrise rides and the motion sickness, but I will certainly miss all the characters.

Neo was one of my favorites, I sat behind him every morning from Manassas to … well I’m not sure where he got off because I slept through it. But he was so quirky and obsessive about his VRE routine that he always made me feel less insane for having my own obsessive VRE routine. I will not miss Sugar Daddy, even though I only saw or spoke with him once, the possibility of a future run-in often haunted my evening rides. And of course I will never miss being verbally abused by Madam Conductor.

I will definitely miss the naps in the morning. Somehow, no matter what awkward position I was in, I managed to sleep for almost an entire hour on the way in. I will also miss the views. I was fortunate enough to get a few good looks at the tidal basin during the pink snow a.k.a. the peak weeks for the cherry blossoms. The view I had was panoramic, from behind the Thomas Jefferson memorial, and free of swarming crowds of tourists. It was lovely.

I will also miss the blogging material. As several of my loyal readers (read: friends who are bored at work) have pointed out, my blog could take a serious hit to material abundance and hilarity levels once I no longer frequent the VRE. Never fear, metro rides will still provide me plenty of fodder, and of course I have a few anecdotes backlogged for future release.

They say all good things come to an end. And since I’m no good at goodbyes, I’ll just say this:

See ya later VRE. It’s been real.

Oh man am I sick of hearing that word.

At any rate, WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) is finally organizing its progress on its $202 million stimulus plan into a readable, understandable format on its website. I have been searching for this information ever since I read WMATA’s first news blurb about the burgeoning plans for the millions – it seemed to disappear afterward and only recently showed back up on WMATA’s site.

On Feb. 18, Metro released its first musings about the $202 million plans, including a list of some projects that would get a chunk of the stimulus cheese in the coming months. The goal was to stimulate “the local and national economy by creating jobs and building a stronger regional transit system,” according to the release. Metro also stated that its “strategic goals” included improving quality of service, safety, and security, and that the following list would help reach those goals (this is a direct quote from their press release):

Some examples of Metro’s stimulus projects include:
• Replacing Metro’s oldest buses
• Replacing crumbling platforms
• Installing SmarTrip purchase capabilities at more Metro fare vending machines
• Enhancing bus garage security
• Installing technologies to improve bus route and schedule information
• Rehabilitating the oldest stretch of track in the rail system
• Building a rail car inspection and test facility to speed up the process of putting rail cars into service
• Updating the train arrival signs on platforms and mezzanines
• Replacing the Metro Center Customer Sales Facility
• Expanding and replacing vehicles for para-transit service

When I read this list back in February, I was increasingly outraged. I understood that it was only a preliminary brainstorming step toward the larger goal of what seemed like fixing everything, but it also seemed to me that the more prevalent of Metro’s issues were buried toward the bottom of the list.

For example, as you may have read or experienced first-hand, there have been many instances of single-tracking on various metro rail lines in the past few months, due solely to train derailments. I can think of three that specifically burdened my commute – on only one line, in only one month.

Why is “rehabilitating Metro’s oldest stretch of track in the rail system” resting at #6 on the list? This ancient track is between the Rhode Island Avenue and Judiciary Square stations on the Red Line, which is not where the four most recent derailments have occurred. Where is the funding for the stretch of track or the piece of equipment that’s causing derailments on Orange Line?

A possible band-aid on this boo-boo might be a rail car inspection and test facility, which by the way, is lower on the list than adding more vending machines for SmarTrip cards.

Which leads me to the kicker…

WMATA still has a $154 million gap in its operating budget to patch up, which means that the idea of service cuts is still being entertained as a possible way to cut spending. The stimulus funds can only be applied to Metro’s capital budget, so even if this list of projects sounds great, is executed perfectly and results in newer, better-working rail cars, we still might be facing service cuts and [even higher] fare hikes.

All that complaining aside, I am sure Metro’s stimulus plans will help the area’s economy – even if it succeeds at nothing else, it should be great for creating jobs. Of course all this hinges on grant approvals and permit approvals and the like. The new Economic Stimulus Program page on Metro’s site is marginally helpful right now, and will hopefully grow as more plans become concrete and more hurdles are cleared.

This is all part of Metro’s six-year transportation improvement program, so I have high hopes for the “Time line of Milestones” on this page which is currently only detailed through June 2009 and is so far pretty unimpressive.

I would also like to see the “Where is your money going” get more detailed when actual individual projects get rolling. I want it to tell me that one million of our dollars this year are going toward repairing the holes in the tiling at the Shady Grove station, and I want it to say, “Hey Lauren, guess what! We just started deploying extra Metro security officers in the dark, seedy parking garages at all of our stations, for your security! And it’s going to cost you and your fellow commuters another million.”

I just want to thank the Metro Genie for hearing and fulfilling my wish for this information to be made readily accessible to Metro patrons like myself. I would like to issue a second wish to the Metro Genie for this site to be updated and with details!

Thanks in advance.

My third wish is still under consideration.

I haven’t updated recently on account of the amount of work I’ve had to do at work. Go figure. But there has been no shortage of adventures in the many days since I last shared my run-ins with umbrellas. I recently had an interesting encounter with a cleaning device on the metro. For your reading pleasure:

I was riding the metro from work to Union Station one afternoon around 4:30. It’s usually not crowded at all at this time (pre-rush hour), which means that there is no need for the crowding around doors that always happens in the evenings. It results from people being too impatient to wait for the next train (arriving in a short two minutes), that they have to push their way through the closing doors and into the middle of a huddle of ornery suits. This of course triggers, “Ding ding ding Caution! The doors are about to close. Ding ding ding Caution! The doors are about to close. Ding ding ding Please allow the doors to close.”

But I rarely have to hear that on the pleasantly unpopulated 4:008sac_lynn_cohen_00230 p.m. metro ride from Dupont to Union Station. One day last week though, I heard the ding-ding-dinging and looked up from my book and pulled an earbud from my ear. There was a lady with an arm stuck in the doors.  She was short and squat and reminded me of Magda, Miranda’s housekeeper/nanny on Sex and the City, but a tad more rotund.

The doors kept trying to close, smooshing the excess arm like cookie dough around the outside of a dull cookie cutter. A couple of gentlemen ran to her rescue, and from my vantage point it looked like they pulled her clear of the hazardous doors, and we would be on our way.

As I looked back down at my book (What is the what by Dave Eggers, check it out) I heard the “doors closing” warning again and angrily wondered who tried to sneak in after this lady’s arm was freed. I prepared a look of disgust to shoot over toward the culprit, and I found the same lady trying to pull something (no doubt a rolling briefcase) through the doors. She couldn’t just be satisfied with rescuing her arm, she had to save her belongings too. The nerve.

So now her briefcase on wheels was stuck in the door and she was pulling on the handle with both hands and all her might. The two kind gentlemen that freed her arm were trying desperately to pull the doors open. The metro driver was shouting over the speaker that once the doors close you must let them close, that’s why there’s a warning. I appreciated that the driver gave this woman one chance (saving her arm) before she started getting an attitude at a high volume, but clearly she was as unhappy about this rolling briefcase as the rest of us. I’m sure she resentfully pushed a button to open the doors again, because the woman saved her brief case, quickly wheeled it into the middle of the car, and headed back toward the door. I couldn’t wait to see what else she had up her sleeve, and she certainly delivered.

She immediately began the same routine she had just successfully navigated, with something of similar size and shape – I thought it had to be yet another rolling briefcase, but I couldn’t really see from where I was sitting. I was thinking that this lady was very lucky to have already saved a limb and a briefcase from the clutch of the metro doors, what else could she want?

She lunged into the effort – both hands grasping the handle of whatever it was, pulling with all the strength she had left. The same two gentlemen, bless their hearts, tried yet again to help pry the doors open for her. The driver was getting sassier by the second over the speaker system, and I was sitting back enjoying the whole scene. It was already pretty comical.

Then the lady defeated the doors and wheeled her vacuum cleaner into the middle of the car.

Wait.

Vacuum cleaner?! sabrina2-cov

I immediately thought she might be a relative of Sabrina the teenage witch, because they all rode around on vacuum cleaners (instead of brooms, because brooms are so, like, old-fashioned. Duh.). But if she could ride the vacuum through the air, she probably wouldn’t have fought so hard to get it onto the metro. I settled on the conclusion that she must work for a cleaning service or be borrowing the cleaning device from a friend or something more realistic like that.

Whatever her excuse for dragging a rolling briefcase and a vacuum onto the metro, I admire her guts.

She wheeled her belongings, one-by-one, to a seat at the back of the car. Once she sat down she assessed the damage to her arm with enough of a pout on her face that I felt bad for her. But I wanted to offer her some advice: If you’re trying to squeeze through closing metro doors, first weigh the value of your limbs, then whatever belongings you might be toting behind you. If that driver had been a smidge less patient, the nice vacuum cleaner lady might have lost a right arm.