As Washington Shivers …

Snowmap Anyone interested the transit effects of weather will appreciate this press release from WMATA in Washington DC, announcing the suspension of all above-ground transit services in the current snowstorm.

Metrorail trains will stop serving above-ground stations at 1 p.m.
today, Saturday, December 19, due to heavy snowfall that is covering
the electrified third rail, which is situated eight inches above the
ground. The third rail must be clear of snow and ice because it is the
source of electricity that powers the trains. Metro officials believe
that by 1 p.m. the exposed third rail will be covered by snow. All
Metrobus and MetroAccess service also will stop at 1 p.m. because
roadways are quickly becoming impassable.

(The release also includes this “snow map” of the rail network.  Faded-out segments are above-ground and therefore not operating.)

Those of us who work around government are often used to a certain guardedness and shadings of meaning in public announcements of agencies and politicians.  To us, such a simple and direct statement of the facts can feel like a blinding insight, much like the effect of sunlight reflected on snow.

13 Responses to As Washington Shivers …

  1. Alon Levy December 19, 2009 at 7:19 pm #

    In New York, they don’t have those problems – they juts clear the snow. But the MTA’s reaction to snow is much more inscrutable. For example, yesterday evening, all northbound 4 and 5 trains ran local in Manhattan, even though they’re fully underground there.

  2. rhywun December 19, 2009 at 8:35 pm #

    All bus service canceled?? Yikes. We’re getting pummeled here in NYC right now but conveniently it’s the weekend so I’m battened down here at home. But yeah, the only announcement from the MTA has been “expect delays”. I’m always highly critical of city government but one of the few things they generally get right is snow removal. Just looked out my front window and the B1 was passing by, slowly & empty 🙂

  3. Alex B. December 19, 2009 at 8:51 pm #

    Well, New York has more snow-clearance infrastructure than DC does. Even so, it was snowing a good 2 inches per hour earlier today. At that clip, no plows are going to keep the streets clean.
    As far as rail goes, DC’s Metro does not have third rail heaters, thus ice and snow can build up on the third rail and break contact.
    It’s been a mess, but we’ll see how fast they get back up to normal service on the rail system now that the snow has stopped. A lot of that might depend on how much snow drifts this evening in the wind.

  4. Phil December 19, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I heard they store subway cars on the express tracks to protect them from freezing.

  5. Dan December 19, 2009 at 9:27 pm #

    Interesting that they’re keeping the little three-stop underground section of the Yellow line in VA in service. Are they planning on leaving a train “stranded” on that stretch between Pentagon and Crystal City? Is there enough commuter/shopping/etc. traffic between those stations to make this worth it, especially on a weekend?

  6. Matthew Pennington December 19, 2009 at 10:14 pm #

    I’ve found the CTA and Metra, in Chicago, to be forthright with snow announcements. Metra especially is open with their weather-combatting strategies and shortcomings.

  7. Eric Herot December 20, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    It seems counterproductive to close parts of the transit system in snowy conditions. After all the most important thing is to keep people off of the roads so that a) they don’t cause so many accidents and b) the roads can be plowed more quickly and efficiently.
    I would think that running the surface trains in the snow would be easier than trying to do items a and b above with all of the extra cars this forces onto the road, especially considering how many other systems in cold climates manage to make their systems work in the snow.

  8. EngineerScotty December 20, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    The real reason that downtown DC still has transit service is not because the rails are underground–it’s because of all the hot air from Congress melting the snow in a five-mile radius of the Mall.

  9. anonymouse December 21, 2009 at 8:22 am #

    Eric: It’s much more counterproductive to try to keep service running until snow gets blown into the electronics of all the trains and fries them. Or if a train gets stuck due to iced third rail, leaving the passengers in it stranded, in the snow with no heat, until a rescue train can come.

  10. John December 21, 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    I have heard that Chicago will run extra train service, even overnight if necessary, essentially for the purpose of plowing the third rail. Trains passing periodically keep it clear of snow and unfrozen. Of course, that could just be an urban legend.

  11. J December 21, 2009 at 2:58 pm #

    John, thats true in Boston and probably Chicago. Trains may run 24 hours (In Boston no line is usually 24 hours) to keep the tracks clear.

  12. walter December 21, 2009 at 6:52 pm #

    Metro-North in New York avoids the third rail problem: the trains meet the third rail underneath the the rail, instead of on top. It’s pretty unique, but helps in the snow, as any snow that does get under there is simply pushed out by the third rail shoes. Of course, it’s no where as great as their catenary in Connecticut.

  13. Scott January 21, 2010 at 7:53 am #

    Was reading this old piece of news just out of curiosity. I love how the New Yorkers were boasting that their buses and transit was running during the storm despite the fact that NY only received about 6 inches of snow compared to the 22 inches that DC received. Having lived in both cities, snow, especially in amounts of 12+ inches creates lots of transit issues.