A day on (and fighting) the Metro

My first contact with Metro’s woes comes every day when I enter the upper parking garage at Huntington. There’s a pothole there, right where it’s been for at least eight months, and I know it won’t be fixed any time soon. I duck by it instinctively in my car…and we’re off.

I park my car and walk up two floors, ducking the trash and assorted gunk that has a near-permanent home on the stairs. I walk to an entrance, where I hope the computer will read the smartcard in time to avoid a potentially testicle-crushing closure of the gates. You may ask: Why doesn’t Metro use a regular turnstile like so many other high-volume operations? You soon learn to quit asking those questions Because Metro.

On to the escalator. It’s a long one here, and at this time of day, two of the three escalators head down. The middle one makes groaning noises on and off, and has since winter, and it’s been patched back into service numerous times. I usually pick the narrower one to the right.

There’s usually not any drama on the platform, and now it’s time to play Train Car Roulette. When the train arrives, I look at the car to see how beat-to-hell and trash-strewn it is (typically this ranges from ‘shabby’ to ‘WTF?’) and decide whether to step in. Even that may not settle things; at this time of year, there’s always a reasonable chance the air conditioning will not be working, or will be in some state of barely-working-ness, in any given car. Fortunately, because this is the end of the line, I usually have a minute or two to hop from car to car before the trip begins.

I settle in. Ideally, I like to get a seat at the window right in the middle of the car. This lets me drop my earbuds in, prop my head against my arm and snooze off if I like. It also virtually eliminates the chance I’ll become a victim of a grab-and-run robbery.

The train heads out. Now, this is a fairly long ride, but it’s getting longer these days because of track issues and numerous stops. The train almost always stops in a little tunnel before the King Street metro these days, and it then runs at a fairly constant pace, with the usual stops, all the way to the Pentagon.

By the time I get there, the car is typically jammed, with people who live in closer-in stops stuck standing in the aisles for 20 minutes or so. Upon leaving the Pentagon, things go pear-shaped.

Ahead is the Yellow Line bridge across the Potomac River. Even when everything is fine, this can be a bit of a creepy trip; you can’t see the safety rails from your window, and when you look out/down, all you often see is the Potomac, right below you. And you can’t help but think: What happens if this train derails?

For the last few weeks, trains in both directions have been slowing to a crawl at or near this bridge. The issue reportedly is the dreaded “wide gauge” problem, where the track becomes too wide for safe travel at normal speeds, probably because of the heat. Metro says this will be repaired Very Soon Now, but the weeks keep drifting by. The train often stops, leaving you to meditate on your mortality as you look down at the water. Eventually, it limps across.

There will be another stop soon enough. It’s virtually impossible to reach L’Enfant Plaza on the yellow line without stopping in the tunnel between the bride and the station perhaps a mile away. This is generally because of traffic, but I can’t help but think of how Metro killed someone last winter because of its incompetence when a train broke down in this tunnel.

After L’Enfant comes Archives and finally Gallery Place, where I get off. The possibility of ball-crushing at the Gallery Place during rush hour is even higher than at Huntington, to the point where I stop and make absolutely, positively sure my card has scanned before I run the exit gate gauntlet. I’ve still been caught a couple of times.

Homeless people/junkies/etc. come down into the Metro here and beg for money, even though that’s illegal. There are two sets of escalators, but neither is terribly long, so it’s not a life crisis if you have to walk up a broken escalator, which you probably will.

You escape onto the street, but since Gallery Place is such a busy stop, it’s a magnet for a variety of crazies, drunks, racists hiding behind quasi-religions and street performers (interpret that as you wish). You push through and hike toward work, remembering the days when Metro was a modern, efficient system that was in many ways the pride of the area. Those days are long gone now.

The honor of this trip costs me $13 a day as I travel on one of the nation’s busiest and most expensive subways. I’d sure like to know where that money goes.


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