Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Metro's lying signage

I take mass transit to work every day. Part of my trip involves taking Washington MetroRail. It's more expensive than it should be for the short distance I travel, and there are often random delays. This is aggravating, but those are the breaks.

What I don't like is the fact that the computer signage is frequently wrong. Not just off by a minute or so, but so far off that some trains don't seem to even exist! You may think that this is just an unfortunate system glitch, but this has now happened three times in the past 6 commuter-days I've traveled.

In order to get home at a reasonable hour, I need to catch a bus in Reston at the Metro station at 6:05PM. Because it takes a few minutes to get through the turnstiles and walk to the bus lane, the train needs to drop me off there by 6:00. It takes about 8-10 minutes travel time, so the train needs to leave Tysons Corner (where I get on) by 5:50. Trains at rush hour are supposed to arrive every 8 minutes, but there are always delays, so I generally allow 20 minutes (more than double the wait time Metro claims I should expect) and arrive at that platform at 5:30.

This past Friday, on October 30, I got out of work a few minutes late. While walking to the Metro station, I checked with an app on my phone to check the times. Not only was the train going to be late, it was going to be massively late. At 5:36, the schedule said that the next train wouldn't arrive for another 27 minutes, at 6:02. Meaning my bus would be long since gone by the time I get to Reston.

Now, I realize that Metro can't promise exact schedules, but when trains are supposed to arrive every 8 minutes, it is completely unreasonable to have to wait 27 minutes.

So I don't bother walking fast, since it won't matter anymore. I text my wife and tell her I'll be late. I arrive at the platform and take a picture of the signboard at 5:39. It says I've got another 26 minutes to go, so I can now expect the train to arrive at 6:05, 3 minutes later than the previous estimate.

I resign myself to a nice long wait on the platform. At least I've got games to play on my phone and a book to read.

Four minutes later, at 5:43, however, a train arrives! I guess there was some problem that they resolved, right? But wait. According to the signboard, this train doesn't exist. As you can see from the photo, the next train is supposed to arrive in 22 minutes (at 6:05, as the sign was saying for the last 5 minutes.) But there's a train in the station and it is boarding passengers!

Needless to say, I got on the train and arrived in Reston before 6 and had no problem catching my bus.

How is it possible that a system that allegedly has all this high-tech train monitoring equipment is incapable of knowing that there is a train in the station? And if the sign-board thinks the train doesn't exist, how do I know that the rest of the Metro system knows about the train? Do the computers in the central office know?

If you remember the news from 2009, you may remember a red-line collision that killed 9 people and injured 80. An investigation showed that this was the result of faulty track sensors that caused the automatic train control system to think the track was empty even though there was a stopped train.

When I see trains pulling into a station and the train doesn't appear on any automated signage or on the mobile app (which I assume gets its information from the same data center), how do I know that this isn't another catastrophe waiting to happen? If the same sensors that fail to put a train on the sign-board are also failing to report that train to the control center, then it's just a matter of time before some other train plows into it at full speed, thinking that the track is empty.

And please note that this is not an isolated system glitch. The same thing (massively late arrival times on the sign-board, followed by a train not shown on the board) happened on the previous Monday (October 26), and this past Monday (November 2), although I didn't take photos on those occasions.

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