I know you know, but just in case you missed it – Yesterday around 5 p.m. (you know, peak rush hour), two metro trains on the red line collided in northeast. As of this morning they’ve confirmed nine or seven casualties, depending on who you ask, and many many more injuries.

I can’t even imagine.

I got to Dupont Circle metro station around 5:15 yesterday, and waited 15 minutes for a train. This seems trivial, I know, but they normally show up one right after the other with a maximum of three minutes in between. The platform got more and more crowded as people piled in and the electronic train status signs remained blank.

There were no announcements, no alerts from WMATA, nothing.

So when a phenomenally crowded train showed up after what seemed like an eternity, everyone piled on. It was reminiscent of the failblog video I wrote about once. People were actually holding onto other people to keep them in the train while the doors attempted to close.

At Farragut North, when even more disgruntled, uninformed people tried to cram on, I thought I was about to witness a metro mutiny. There was shouting, lecturing, arguing, shoving, and even more squishing of smaller people (me) into larger people’s arm pits. Sweaty armpits, because the air wasn’t on.

I thought to myself, I might blog about this tomorrow.

It wasn’t until I got to Metro Center that I even heard an announcement that there was “a situation” on the red line, and that you should expect delays in both directions. But there’s always a situation on the red line, so I casually, like every other day, filed onto my orange line home-bound train and opened my book.

When I got above ground and regained cell service I started to get worried. I had numerous texts, missed calls and voice mails from various friends and family. One text from a coworker asked if I made it home okay, “I heard about the red line.”

I got off the train and headed out toward kiss&ride to wait for my shuttle and heard another announcement about a portion of the red line being shut down, shuttle service, delays, etc.

I called my mom, assured her I was fine and asked what in the world was going on. I had an all too familiar pang in my stomach, one that’s lived there for two years now and flares up when it senses disaster. Sirens, triage stations, media, questions, chaos. Casualties.

Yes, it was a freak accident. It was nowhere near where anyone I know rides the metro, and it was nowhere near where I ride it (for which I am exceedingly grateful). But, as such things always do, it opened a limitless box of questions and what ifs. What went wrong? Who’s to blame? Equipment failure or operational error? How do we know other trains on other lines are safe? What if it had been underground?

Being in the dark, literally underground, having no idea what was going on and no source of information, is a metro fault. We’re all used to hearing announcements of delays or single-tracking or “malfunctions” and not finding out what really happened until you get home and check the news. Some metro officials argue that telling passengers, via station and train announcements, the details of what’s really going on could cause panic. I would prefer if I could first have the information and then be able to decide for myself whether or not to panic. I know plenty of people agree.

My heart goes out to the people on those two trains — the ones going into the city for Monday evening fun, and those coming out after a day of work — their families, friends, loved ones. I understand what it’s like to have something mundane and normal, a staple of your everyday life, be disrupted by something traumatic.

This morning I avoided the red line, walked about a mile from Farragut West to work, and was thankful to no longer be on the train or underground. I’m also thankful to those of you who read this blog and checked in yesterday, it’s much appreciated.

For the details, coverage of all angles (of particular interest is the ‘The Probe‘ article), and some intense photos, check out the story at the Washington Post.

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Some mornings there’s a song that I think about. I first heard it on my drive to work, when I used to drive for an hour to complete the first leg of my two-hour commute. It’s pop-country. It’s twangy and upbeat. It can be annoying.

But I love this song, because the opening four lines make me laugh (primarily at myself) every time. Not only is it so, so true, but it happens. And I know it doesn’t just happen to me.

It goes like this:

Missed my alarm clock ringin’, woke up telephone screamin’
Boss man singin’ his same old song
Rolled in late about an hour, no cup of coffee, no shower
Walk of shame with two different shoes on

I have never gone to work with two different shoes on, and my boss has never called to inquire about my tardiness, and I’ve never actually been late to work. But the point is: I am always a disheveled bundle of stress scurrying to work in the morning, and this song makes me laugh about it.

In fact, my morning routine upon arriving at work is what most people do before they leave the house in the morning and it usually involves:

1. Put bag at desk, log in to computer.

2. Make a stop at the bathroom to wash hands (metro germs!).

3. Put on make-up in the bathroom, hopefully before saying good morning to anyone.

4. Adjust wardrobe; Add sweater and belt from tote bag stash, remove cat hair from clothing with scotch tape.

5. On rainy or winter days, change out of boots into acceptable shoes.

6.  Return to desk as if I walked into work put together.

Here is a bad video of the song “It Happens” by Sugarland, if you would like to get the full effect. I think it has a good, light-hearted message that is necessary to keep in mind when you get caught up in the nine-to-five-rush-around-look-important-and-busy phenomenon in this area. Enjoy!

As much as I complain about the metro and its often unpleasant stench, unpredictability and unhappy patrons, I realize that it could be so much worse.

It’s not even crowded all the time. At certain times it is heavily traveled, that’s for sure.  The platforms are crowded, the trains, the parking lots, the fare card lines…

Sure, I’ve almost been pushed onto the tracks by an arrant briefcase or stroller. One crowded train (during public school winter break) taught me that I may be average height for a 22 year old female, but I am also average height for a middle-aged man’s armpit. It seems they’re everywhere I go on a train, every time I have to stand and it’s even a tad crowded — I end up in an armpit.  Delightful.

But it is not this crowded:

Hilarious.

And quite a shame.

I firmly believe — even if it’s not true please let me hold on to this belief — that the DC metro area will never get this crowded. I don’t believe the metro will ever be so crowded that it must employ people to stuff us onto public transportation like I stuff clothes into suitcases — however it will fit, worry about the wrinkles later…

Here’s hoping.

(Thanks to Jason for the link)

Early last week we saw wonderful summer-like weather in the DC area. Monday and Tuesday temperatures reached the mid-90s, my shoulders turned light pink, and the hope that April showers had finally given way to May flowers ran rampant. That is, until something else ran rampant. Ahem, I mean “rampant.”

An apparent almost-pandemic, then definitely pandemic, then a maybe-not-a-pandemic strain of swine flu took over the human race and wiped out populations in mass, including all of Mexico. Oh wait. That’s not true. Some people caught a bad flu, one U.S. citizen died of the bad flu, schools shut down due to students with suspicious symptoms, and Joe Biden encouraged everyone via the Today Show, to avoid public transportation. Thankfully I was watching the Today Show when Biden shared his words of wisdom and doom, which was approximately 15 minutes before I got on the metro.

Amid all the media flurry over the swine flu, I learned a few things:

  1. I should wash my hands frequently. Of course, I already came to my own conclusion that the metro is dirty and I should wash my hands as soon as I get off of it every day. But since news of the swine flu, I’ve gone through even more of my Purell supply than I budgeted this month. Dagger.
  2. I should be afraid of anyone who coughs or sneezes. I was reading on the metro one morning and some poor unsuspecting person sneezed and everyone immediately shot her a death stare of disapproval.
  3. I should be afraid of confined spaces and breathing the air inside them. I’m fairly claustrophobic, so the news media confirming my fear was not good for my mental health. Despite this, I haven’t resorted to wearing a SARS maskbaconator yet.
  4. All this talk about swine flu has made me seriously crave bacon. I also learned that I cannot contract swine flu by eating bacon. I’ll be heading to Wendy’s after work for a Baconator.

So anyway, I set about my normal business on Monday last week, remembering to wash my hands frequently and be cautious of everyone’s snot. Fortunately, the swine flu hysteria had put me in a good enough mood to last the day, because it quickly turned into a prime example of Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

The evening commute was a stress, because the shuttle to our apartment building comes every 30 minutes, and I was on track to barely make it to West Falls Church for the 5:10 shuttle. I rushed down Connecticut to the Dupont Metro, thinking to myself that it’s going to be a long summer if I don’t start hanging out for happy hours in the city until the heat cools off. By the time I was half way down the escalator, half way under ground, I was at least 10 degrees cooler. I was thankful for the shade and the cave-like atmosphere in the metro station and thought that it might actually be a pleasant ride home.

When I switched lines at metro center, it was considerably more muggy and disgusting underground. I told myself to stop complaining because in a mere three minutes I would be on another train with the air conditioning on full blast.

Unfortunately when I got on my orange line train bound for home, not only was there no air conditioning, but there was no air to speak of. All of a sudden I had a mini Joe Biden on my shoulder saying “If you don’t want swine flu you better not breathe! I told you not to ride public transportation!”

Deep breaths, Lauren. Deep breaths.

Of course it was peak evening rush, so the train got ridiculously crowded, and I got increasingly angry at every new person that got on for taking a portion of my air. And as the train emerged from the Ballston underground, it got instantly hotter with the sun’s proximity, and slower for an unknown reason. We had one of those drivers that never tells you what’s going on – he just lets you sit there and ponder the possible reasons the train is stopped and wonder if you’ll make it off alive.

Inch by inch we made our way toward East Falls Church and inch by inch I checked my watch thinking  I could definitely still make the 5:10 shuttle… If we pick up speed right now, I’ll make it… Stopping at East Falls Church shouldn’t take that long… I’m right by the doors, I’ll definitely be up the escalator in a hot second…

And then the driver enlightened us, just when the station was in sight.

Customers, we will hold here until further notice. There is a train offloading at East Falls Church due to a sick customer, we are operating on one track through the station right now. We will move when we get the go-ahead.

Well I still kept my hopes alive of making it to the 5:10 shuttle. I also wondered if the “sick customer” had swine flu. I got really nervous about this possibility when we finally stopped at East Falls Church and everyone who had offloaded the sick person train crammed onto the one I was already crammed onto. It had to be topping 100 degrees on that train and there was less and less air to be breathed. And every one of those new passengers could now possibly be sharing a swine flu infestation with the rest of us. Oh great.

But I turned my thinking toward the silver lining and that was that I had stealthily secured a stance directly in front of the door so I would definitely be the first person off the train. I took great pride in this quick thinking of mine.

The train stopped at West Falls Church at exactly 5:10. I stood facing the doors waiting for them to open when the driver said, “This is West Falls Church, doors opening on the right.” What?! The doors always open on the left at West Falls! Murphy’s Law.

Behind all the people who were lined up at the right side doors, I bolted off the train thinking maybe Phillippe (the shuttle driver) is caught up in a lively conversation with someone on the bus and has forgotten to leave yet. This is completely plausible, it happens all the time.

I basically ran to the escalator, but I was already behind a thick crowd. We shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder in a massive huddle toward the escalator. I was queued up on the left side, lifting my foot to step onto the escalator, when all of a sudden the person in front of me was moving backward toward me. I looked to the top of the escalator and people were grabbing for something to brace themselves with and simultaneously they let out a “Whoaaa.”

It was a rapid reverse.

The escalator had instantaneously switched — while overcrowded with angry, sweaty people — from going up, to going down. I tried to move backward as the people on the escalator were shifting toward me, but the crowd behind me wasn’t catching on and wasn’t moving. Finally, everyone started hiking the escalator as it eventually came to a complete stop. I looked at my watch on the way up: 5:12.

I had to wait for 30 minutes for the 5:40 shuttle in the unbearable heat after breathing little air for the last hour. I didn’t have a book that day, so I was left to sit with my thoughts and consider the possibility that I just contracted the swine flu from seven different people whose snot ranges I was riding in.

I came to two new conclusions while I sat on the curb waiting for the shuttle:

  1. Quit whining, 30 minutes is not that inconvenient.
  2. Always heed Vice President Biden’s advice.

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.