Friday, August 24, 2012


As a taxicab driver in the National Capital Area, one question I am asked with inreasing frequency is if I am concerned that the new Metro "Silver Line" out to Dulles Airport will hurt my business. Actually I think it might improve things. First off, instead of a trip to Dulles once or twice a week I might wind up getting five or six trips a day to the eastern terminal of the new "Silver Line" in West Falls Church, since people with luggage don't like to change trains. The only people I see getting hurt are the "Super Shuttle" cheap shuttle ride guys. Them, and the damned corrupt bellhops who try to "sell" Dulles fares to the cab drivers (and in Virginia that's illegal. It's called extortion, and it's a felony; but it is still quite common).
But for a second thing, I personally don't think the "Silver Line" will be all that popular after people in a hurry to catch a flight experience Metro's legendary capability to fuck things up. There's the fact that Metro passengers bound for Dulles will detrain to a station located a whopping SIX HUNDRED YARDS (the equivalent of three football fields) from the terminal. And although I haven't seen the plans yet, I bet it's uphill. (Oh, yeah, moving sidewalks; no doubt as reliable and well maintained as Metro's escalators and elevators aren't.) But by the time these poor travellers have been put through Metro's notorious delays, derailments, and service interruptions that 600 yard hike will merely supply the  icing to the cake. Or more apt, the last straw.
The planning for the Washington Metro was flawed from the beginning. It was based on the premise that the Federal government would always be the number one industry in the region and that it would always be mainly centered on downtown Washington, D.C.. Metro was created to take the masses of government workers from their homes in the bedroom suburbs and transport them into D.C.; get them to and from lunch and meetings during the day and then get them home at end of day. Therefore the hours were only from 5AM until around 9:30PM weekdays, and 7AM to midnight weekends. This was thought to eliminate the necessity for "extra" tracks; in the event one set of tracks needed work the work could be done during the ample "down time" when the entire system would be void of passengers. But a funny thing happened on the way to Utopia.
Just about every land developer with half a brain saw mountains of money to be made in buying up huge tracts of private homes in the vicinity of Metro stops and having them re-zoned for high density mixed-use high rise development. Arlington County, Virginia in particular embraced this practice eagerly, and soon the laid-back single family houses and neighborhood restaurants and taverns within six blocks of every Metro station between Rosslyn and Ballston were ripped out, plowed over, and replaced with high-rise offices, hotels, apartments and condos. (Here and there have been instances of residents fighting to keep a few vestiges of the Rosslyn - Clarendon - Ballston corridor from the wreckers, but even so more of these older funky shops and restaurants fall to high rise redevelopment every year.)
This redevelopment near the Metro stations has not been limited to Arlington, and the resulting glut of relatively inexpensive office space has led to more companies hiring more workers and increasing the population of the Washington Metropolitan Area. All these people making all this money fueled a boom in the restaurant and entertainment industry, and a few years ago Metro began adding post-midnight service on weekends.
With the trains running from 5AM to Midnight on weekdays (with the last train pulling into the yard empty at around 1:30 AM) and until 2AM wekends (with the tracks devoid of trains around 4AM); this left about four hours in the morning to do all the necessary maintenance. It was not and is not enough. This in turn has led to everything from minor delays in service to deadly collisions and everything in between.
It simply was not forseen that the mere existance of Metro would fuel a development boom and a population growth that would quickly strain the system beyond its design limits. It was thought at the time that since Metro would not be a 24/7 system as is New York City's, there was no need for spare track capacity and the like. And although Metro still is not a round-the-clock transportation system it may as well be.
"Single-tracking" and station closures - even at peak rush hours - have become nearly normal. Accidents and near accidents are common occurrences. Last year it was rumored - and never satisfactorily proven or disproven - that Metrorail train operators, having insufficient time for latrine breaks when needed, were carrying trash bags in which to - er - eliminate bodily wastes.
We will not, being constrained by time, go into such things as cars with inadequate air conditioning and such. Unless Metro can do something to expand capacity and add spare rail lines to allow for repairs without disrupting service, the first trip to Dulles someone undertakes may well be the last.
I only hope the novelty of it lasts long enough to put the el cheapo shuttles out of business. What? Me worry?

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