Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Columbus Day commuting: Shuttle buses, delays, and Green Line confusion

October 10, 2011 - 10:55 AM
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Free WMATA shuttle buses. (Photo: John Hendel)

Here's a friendly reminder in case you've forgotten, D.C. Metro riders —  three Metro stations on the Green Line (U Street, Columbia Heights, and Shaw) will remain closed all through today up until Tuesday morning. WMATA is running free shuttle buses to connect these three closed stations as well as to connect the broader sections of the Metro lines that are closed, such as from the Georgia Ave-Petworth station to Mt. Vernon. The stations first closed on Friday night to allow construction workers at least 76 hours to install NTSB-recommended track switches near the U Street Metro station, according to WMATA. The transit agency has already offered raw video footage of the track work, posted below, to show riders why it's taking action this weekend. Today the Metro system is, more broadly, running on a Saturday schedule from 5 a.m. to midnight  due to the federal holiday.

As some commenters observed last week, WMATA ran the shuttle service with a surprising amount of efficiency, at least from what I observed this morning — rider tempers were less than thrilled, but plenty of WMATA staff kept the shuttles moving and riders more or less informed of what was going on. At least some commuters were, from what I observed, apparently unaware that Metro stations were closed this morning and caught off guard by the notion of the shuttle buses, despite Metro's announcements and signs throughout the last few days. These shuttles ran on the stretch of the Green and Yellow lines mentioned above as well as on the Orange Line from West Falls Church to East Falls Church to help prepare for the Dulles rail extension.

I first arrived at the Georgia Ave-Petworth station this morning to encounter a man with a bright yellow WMATA vest. "Where are you headed?" the man asked with a smile. I told him L'Enfant Plaza and he pointed down to the shuttle buses a block down the street. "Those will take you to Mt. Vernon." He handed me a piece of paper explaining the track work. Two or three other WMATA buses waited down there near the bus shelter, and the large Metrobuses were lit up with "Shuttle" alerts on their sides.

The bus itself left seconds after I boarded. Not a bad start, I thought. The vehicle was mostly full, with several people standing as we began our voyage south into the District. Hushed grumbling characterized a few commuters' conversation in the back of the bus.

"I'm going to be late for work," one man said. "I didn't know Metro would be closed on Columbus Day."

"Me neither," the woman next to him said.

"No one did," a third rider remarked.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: John Hendel)

As the bus headed through the blocks of Petworth, a couple pedestrians attempted to flag the bus down near at 11th and Columbia Streets. The driver let them on, and as they tried to pay, said a little gruffly, "Don't you see the shuttle sign? It's free."

I hopped off the shuttle at the Columbia Heights Metro stop to see how long I would have to wait for another bus and to test the vibe at another location. Again a crowd began to gather at the bus shelter, where two WMATA workers laughed with cups of coffee, ready to answer any questions. Soon more than a dozen people waited. Minutes passed. A relatively young man in a blue shiny jacket stood next to me.

"You waitin' for the shuttle bus?" the man asked me.

I nodded and sighed.

"I'm going to be late for work," he replied, sighing himself and speaking in a tone that suggested this was all a little crazy. We agreed it was a little rough, closing three Metro stations on Columbus Day, because a lot of people still had work this Monday morning.

The next shuttle bus arrived about 12 minutes after the first dropped me off and was even more crowded than the first. I ultimately sat in the back. The only real complaint, forgetting the crowd, was that there was little indication of what stop we arrived at as we passed from Columbia Heights to U Street to Shaw and ultimately to the Mt. Vernon station. The rides themselves were mostly silent. Two people near me clutched coffee mugs and stared out the window until we arrived at our final destination.

The Mt. Vernon Metro station resembled ordered chaos as I descended into it. People crowded around everywhere. The one big sign that announced "Shuttles" and pointed in their direction had been knocked over onto the WMATA concrete. I headed down to the platform where a WMATA worker was motioning people in the direction of a waiting train. "Branch Avenue, right down this way," she told arriving riders. Had any riders ever known such personal service?

Once we headed out toward L'Enfant Plaza, I observed Metro trains that were shockingly empty for a D.C. Monday morning rush hour. The same remained true when heading out to the Rosslyn Metro station, and I could understand why, given the number of commuters, WMATA shifted to a Saturday schedule. In any case, the train schedule created no delays or problems for me once I was in the system, and my arrival at work was only 20 minutes later than it normally would have been.

Here's video that WMATA provided showing the hours of construction work happening near the U Street Metro station. The vision of WMATA is rather different from what a rider ever sees from inside a Metro train and is worth glancing at, if only to understand why WMATA felt compelled to close three stations today. "Because all four switches must be changed at the same time, both tracks must be taken out of service to perform the work," WMATA notes about the U Street track work. All stations will open again Tuesday morning, bright and early, and for now, the shuttle buses do seem to be working well enough, even if people are a few minutes late to work on Columbus Day. Be aware, however — Metro has single-tracking planned for various lines this week as additional track work proceeds. Is there ever an end? WMATA, at the very least, hopes to avoid significant track work during the coming holiday seasons this winter, so we have that hopefully smooth (and at least more consistent) service to look forward to.

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