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.
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