All eyes on safety

Hav­ing jour­neyed on enough sub­way train rides abroad, our colum­nist looks at how Wash­ing­ton DC’s trains and sta­tions mea­sure up.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING -

I RE­MEM­BER the first time I de­scended the es­ca­la­tor into the bow­els of the Foggy Bot­tom Metro sta­tion. It was dim, dank, and frankly, a lit­tle creepy.

Two years later, it’s still dim, dank and creepy. “Creepy” doesn’t just re­fer to the am­bi­ence, but also to the oc­ca­sional creep lurk­ing among the com­muters who thinks noth­ing of run­ning his grubby fin­gers down the length of your arm drawl­ing, “Well hello there, Pretty Hair.”

And then take af­fected of­fence when you an­grily and loudly enun­ci­ate, “Do. NOT. Touch. Me!”

I sus­pect though that the Sea­son 2 opener of House Of Cards be­came some­what of a cau­tion­ary tale for those of us ac­cus­tomed to brighter lit un­der­ground sta­tions.

Just about ev­ery­one men­tions that shocker when ( warn­ing: spoiler alert!) du­plic­i­tous politi­cian, Frank Un­der­wood, pushes his lover and jour­nal­ist Zoe Barnes onto an on­com­ing train from a dark cor­ner of the fic­ti­tious Cathe­dral Heights sta­tion plat­form.

Some now con­sciously stand far­ther away when­ever a train ap­proaches for fear of be­ing un­in­ten­tion­ally pushed onto the tracks by zeal­ous com­muters keen on beat­ing the train doors, es­pe­cially dur­ing peak hours.

In case you’re won­der­ing, DC train doors do not au­to­mat­i­cally pull back open if you un­for­tu­nately get wedged be­tween them. I’ve seen peo­ple valiantly try­ing to pry them­selves out, with the driver hol­ler­ing at them over the PA sys­tem. Posters at sta­tions warn, “Hold­ing the doors open could end up cost­ing you an arm and a leg.” De­spite know­ing the drill, I re­main skit­tish when­ever a train ap­proaches and have lit­tle pa­tience for com­muters who leisurely exit trains!

Iron­i­cally though the very fea­ture that irks many com­muters, namely the dim light­ing, was an in­ten­tional part of the sub­way’s de­sign and con­struc­tion be­tween the 1950s and late 1960s. ( The first seg­ment of the sub­way opened for op­er­a­tion in 197 6).

Ap­par­ently the plan­ners were gun­ning for some­thing dif­fer­ent against the city’s pre­dom­i­nantly neo- clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture. In­spi­ra­tion came from an­other fed­eral build­ing that can also flum­mox new­com­ers ex­pect­ing ei­ther tra­di­tional opu­lence or sleek moder­nity upon ar­rival in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal: the Wash­ing­ton In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

I learnt a new term while work­ing on this piece: “bru­tal­ist archi- tec­ture.” The Swiss- French pi­o­neer of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, Charles-Édouard Jean­neret- Gris, bet­ter known as Le Cor­bus­ier, in­spired it. Ap­par­ently he loved the idea of build­ings made sim­ply of flex­i­ble steel and re­in­forced con­crete and not much else. Be­ing “brut” ( French for “wild, rough or un­fin­ished”) was what in­spired “Bru­tal­ism.”

Hence, the Wash­ing­ton Metro sta­tions were de­signed for practicality. Al­most ev­ery sta­tion fea­tures the same widely arched high ceil­ing that fea­tures a waf­fle- like pat­tern. The plat­forms are free of pil­lars or col­umns, adding spa­cious­ness while deny­ing un­savoury char­ac­ters handy hidey- holes. The high walls’ unattain­abil­ity en­sured they were out of reach of graf­fi­tists. And fi­nally, the lights were re­cessed to high­light the ceil­ings’ pat­tern – hence the dim­ness.

Some sta­tions are si­t­u­ated deep un­der­ground: some re­port­edly as deep as 60m below street level. It can be rather dis­con­cert­ing to ride an el­e­va­tor that seems to be de­scend­ing into a gloomy cav­ern; al­though I do take the op­por­tu­nity to work out and treat them like step­pers when head­ing up­wards.

As for the trains them­selves, de­spite their rel­a­tive “youth” ( com­pared to far older sys­tems), the car­peted car­riages and up­hol­stered seats are of­ten tat­tered and stained. This de­spite strict rules pro­hibit­ing eat­ing or drink­ing on- board.

From my own ex­pe­ri­ence, most trains have been on sched­ule ex­cept for the days when track work ne­ces­si­tates sin­gle track­ing, and you end up wait­ing 45 min­utes for a train.

This and safety seem to be the com­muters’ main con­cerns. Tun­nel fires caused by elec­tri­cal faults have caused mas­sive de­lays and stalled trains. Last Jan­uary, a train stalled in was en­gulfed in smoke, caus­ing many pas­sen­gers trapped in­side to be­come sick and killing one pas­sen­ger for res­pi­ra­tory fail­ure.

How­ever, all that now pales in com­par­i­son to a se­ries of at­tacks on com­muters by ju­ve­niles. In mid- Fe­bru­ary this year, two teenagers shot a 24- year- old man on the Green line – one that I oc­ca­sion­ally take as well.

Frankly, this is the worst of my night­mares. When­ever I’m on a train and no­tice some­one get­ting ag­i­tated for some rea­son or other, all I keep mut­ter­ing to my­self is “Please don’t have a gun.” A girl­friend from Cameroon who com­mutes daily re­cently told me that an ad­vi­sory has been go­ing around that com­muters ought to now fo­cus more on their fel­low pas­sen­gers in­stead of their mo­bile devices.

At the time of writ­ing this, train ser­vice to our sta­tion was tem­po­rar­ily halted be­cause of a tun­nel fire. It makes me thank­ful that my cor­ner of DC isn’t that vast and I can reach most places on foot and with proper time plan­ning.

Be­sides, the ex­er­cise won’t harm me.

Brenda Bene­dict is a Malaysian liv­ing in DC. From ex­pe­ri­ence to date and free of bias, she’d hand a “Clean­est Sub­way train Award” to the city of Frank­furt. Fol­low her at face­book. com/Sam­balOn­theSide.

The Wash­ing­ton Metro sta­tions were de­signed for practicality. — reuters

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