Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Riding the Washington Metro


     When I learned that my older son would be spending the summer interning in Washington, D.C., my immediate concern was for his safety, though not because of the threat of terrorism or predatory senators. I worried about the train. The Washington Metro marked its 40th anniversary with a spate of bad publicity about how decrepit, run down and dangerous it is—nine people died after two Metro trains collided in 2009. 
    Or, short of disaster, I worried if it would be able to get him to where he needs to go. Stretches of the system are going to have to be shut down, sometimes for weeks or months at at time.
     We went to visit the lad recently, and stayed in North Bethesda, taking the Red Line back and forth into DC, giving me a chance to thoroughly inspect it. I was interested in how bad it is, and how the system differs from Chicago's "L" and Metra.  
    The stations are vast, dim, with indirect lighting on barrel vaulted, honeycombed ceilings. 
     The DC system was the handiwork of Chicago's underappreciated, tormented architect Harry Weese. In designing the Metro, he created "some of the most powerful public spaces of our time," New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote in Weese's obituary in 1998, calling the Metro, “among the greatest public works projects of this century." The sections where two stations intersect “induce an almost religious sense of awe”
     The trains? Not so much. The first car we got into was one of the 40-year-old relics from when the system was unveiled as Washington's Bicentennial Birthday gift to itself. It was, I noted with amazement, carpeted, whatever the original color was now a salmon brown. I hard to marvel at the hubris of that. Maybe the original wallpaper peeled away.
      Every time a train pulls into the station and stops, there is a full five-second delay before the doors open. I'm sure you get
 used to it, but it was just long enough for me to wonder whether they'd open at all, or perhaps, the whole car would just burst into flame instead. My wife, trying to put a bright spin on it, pointed out that the delay allowed riders to not have to stand up until the train was stopped, a bonus, of sorts.
     The Metro is one of the deepest subway systems in the world, which required the enormous escalators leading down into and out the system, entrances that seemed so Jetsons in the late 1970s. Now the escalators are often broken, forcing passengers into that mincing Geisha quickstep people fall into when trying to get up and down broken escalators. 
    And because the stations are under the water table, there is evidence of seepage everywhere: streak doors, corroded metal. It turns out they didn't fully waterproof the thing when building it, as a false economy, and now part of the $1 billion repairs it needs it to be retroactively sealed.
    In its defense, the Metro got us where we were going. The system also tells you how much is left on your transit card when you enter and exit a station, a trick that Chicago's Ventra card devices cannot manage to do. While Chicago has the efficient one-fare-takes-you-anywhere system, in Washington, you pay when you leave, the charge depending on how long of a trip was taken, which makes sense, and is what they use in Tokyo, but adds another layer of complexity.
     Back in Chicago, taking the "L" to the Cubs game Monday, I had a renewed sense of appreciation for our system's clean, new cars and lack of water damage. The Metro was a triumph 40 years ago; now it is a rebuke, and a reminder that we not only expect a government that makes the trains run on time, now, but demand one that remembers to maintain them so they keep running into the future. To do otherwise is to betray both our past and our future.


  1. CARPETED train cars? Wow. That wasn't Harry's call, I bet. I'm just wild about Harry Weese. Great architect: River Cottage on the river at Kinzie by your office, Christian Science Church at Wabash/Wacker, etc.

    1. The SwissĂ´tel on East Wacker and the Metropolitan Correctional Center, its less welcoming triangular twin on South Clark.

  2. When the photo showed up yesterday, I thought it might be DC, but I really didn't remember the impressive station. What I impressed itself in my memory were the "enormous escalators," at least the one at DuPont Circle, where my daughter lived cheek to jowl with the Scientologists. That escalator seemed like a descent into Hades -- you couldn't even see the bottom from the top, or so it seemed.

  3. Enter the north portal of the DuPont Circle station and you'll find yourself on an escalator that travels through a tube so deep that some locals refer to it as the Martha Washington Monument.

  4. I only rode the D.C. METRO once and it was uneventful. It was clean and we had no problems. I've ridden the MARTA in Atlanta a few times and I remember they had a very long and steep escalator...I thought we'd never reach the top!

  5. Sad to learn of the system's decline. I recall when it was put in service, and how it opened the city up. I ususally departed from the Pentagon stop, which is probably now all buggered up by security, and could get anywhere I needed to go across the river in minutes instead of an hour or more.

    Tom Evans

  6. I've ridden on transit systems all over North America. The D.C. Metro system iss somewhere in the middle of the pack...better than some, worse than others. It is spartan, functional, and compared to the century-old systems in places like Boston and New York, quite sleek and modernistic...at least it was in the Seventies and Eighties. It's hardly "new" anymore...other cities have far more "futuristic" systems that were built during the last four decades.

    I haven't been on the Metro in twenty years, and had forgotten about the carpeting, which can only exist because Washington is really a Southern city with a very mild climate. Try to imagine the absurdity and futility of carpeting CTA cars. By the middle of the first winter, they would be a dark and dirty gray that matched Chicago's snow cover and its winter skies. And they would have to be torn out and scrapped.


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