Washington Metro weekend closures draw passengers' praise, anger

Metro's handling of weekend closures on the Orange and Blue lines drew mixed reviews Monday from riders who complained of confusion and longer travel times but also praised Metro workers for being helpful.

Signs at several stations were not displaying line or destination information; instead trains were labeled "special" and platform displays simply read "train."

"The trains were not clearly marked where they were going," said Peter Rothschild, a computer security analyst who commutes from Capitol Hill to Clarendon, Va. Rothschild said that neither a station manager or a train operator at Pentagon Station could tell him where a train marked "special" was going. After he boarded and the train pulled out of the station, he got confirmation over the intercom from the operator that the mystery train was traveling on the Blue Line.

Metro said that some trains displayed "special" because they did not accept a signal indicating the line and the stop; the same issue caused the problem with the platform displays.

"We are looking now into how widespread it was," said Metro spokesman Reggie Woodruff.

Metro closed Farragut West and McPherson Square stations and the Orange and Blue Line level at Metro Center for the Columbus Day weekend work.

Some riders were also unsure whether they had to swipe their electronic fare cards when exiting a station to board a shuttle bus. Station managers resorted to shouting or using bullhorns to notify passengers to pass through open fare gates if they were taking a shuttle bus. The SmarTrip cards of customers who were not resuming their trip at another station would be blocked later if they did not swipe out.

Through Sunday, nearly 65,000 people had used the free Metro shuttle buses operating in the work zone, according to transit officials.

Delays irked some customers who said they were caught off guard by the closures. However, Metro began releasing information about the planned work several weeks ago.

"I'm running about 30 minutes late," said Danielle Canterbury of Arlington, Va., as she waited for a train at Pentagon Station.

The transit authority plans to resume normal rail service for the morning commute today after completing several major maintenance projects, including replacing track switches, a safety recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board; installing new track and tunnel lights; and repairing leaks in tunnels.

"Everything is going pretty much according to plan; the work has gotten done," Woodruff said.

Over the past year, Metro has scheduled extensive track work on long holiday weekends to take advantage of low ridership when the federal government is closed; federal workers make up more than 40 percent of rush-hour Metro riders.

The next scheduled shutdown will occur on a two-day weekend, Nov. 5 through Nov. 7, according to Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. Metro will close the Orange Line between Stadium-Armory and New Carrollton stations and the Blue Line between Stadium-Armory and Benning Road stations to make structural repairs to the bridge at Cheverly and to replace track circuits outside Stadium-Armory, he said. More details on those closures will be available next week, he added.

Taubenkibel said Metro is running out of opportunities to do major track work this year. The agency doesn't want to do work during the holiday season because of the number of people traveling and shopping. The next holiday weekend closing will occur in January during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, when the agency replaces track switches at Foggy Bottom, he said.

"We anticipate there will be numerous closures of the rail system in 2011," Taubenkibel said. "We will take advantage of every single holiday weekend. It has to be done."

On Monday, customers disagreed on whether the weekend work plan was the best solution. Judith Hart grew so exasperated trying to get to a doctor's appointment that she decided to turn around and go home. "Where am I?" she exclaimed after boarding a shuttle bus headed to Foggy Bottom. "This is Metro's worst day ever," she said.

Still, several customers gave high marks to Metro employees in neon yellow vests and Metro Transit Police who were out in force to offer assistance, giving directions and helping customers with everything from luggage to strollers and wheelchairs.

"I was dreading it, but it turned out to be a decent trip," said Courtney Doehler, a teacher from Loudoun County, Va., as she rode a shuttle bus to Foggy Bottom Station. "Everyone has been very helpful."

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