Transcript of Get Ready Report Podcast, episode 36

This is the American Public Health Association’s Get Ready Report, coming to you from Washington D.C. Today’s episode, “Winter weather and mass transit: Tips for a safe commute, "interviews Caroline Laurin, manager of media relations and deputy chief spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, also known as WMATA. She is interviewed by Get Ready team member Nathan Bhatti.

Do you have any tips for how public transit passengers should prepare themselves if they plan to travel by bus or train in cold weather?
Absolutely. You know, whenever you have to commute in unfortunate weather, it’s always best to planWMATA bus in snowstorm ahead. One thing we encourage our customers to do is to go to our website, wmata.com/snow, to get the most up to date information on any inclement weather that might be affecting service. In the D.C. region, we need to be cognizant of how much snow accumulation there is, because that could affect rail traffic, depending on how much snow there is. And it has to be very inclement weather and really severe in order for it to really impact service. But we encourage our customers to dress warmly. Plan ahead — give yourself extra time as well, because trains might be running a little delayed and you don’t want to get late for wherever you it is you’re heading. But just be aware of checking your times to make sure that you’re at your station with a reasonable amount of time, so you’re not waiting outside on the platform too long. Another (reason) why we say to give yourself more time before you leave is that the last thing you want to do in inclement weather is to be running on our platforms. We never encourage people to run in our stations to begin with, but you might find more slick conditions, so to prevent yourself from tripping and falling, give yourself plenty of time, check our app as well online (hyperlink: http://www.wmata.com/mobile/ ) to make sure you know when your train is arriving and plan accordingly.

So would you suggest to customers or travelers — Should they carry specific types of emergency supplies or anything in case there’s a delay or in case they’re stuck out on a platform or anything like that?
I don’t think that level of caution is quite necessary. You know, trains will continue to run, even throughout heavy snow conditions or in the cold. The kind of delays you might see would amount to maybe 30 minutes of delay, which is why we say it’s important to dress warmly, especially if you’re at an above-ground station, and you might find that you’re waiting a little longer than anticipated or than we’d certainly like for you to be waiting. But if you’re commuting in a way that involves having to take your car to a train station and then transferring there, or taking metro to another train station and transferring — depending on how long your commute actually is, it’s always best to have a few emergency supplies with you in the event of any extreme delays.

So how important is it to know an alternative route? If you want to get from point A to point B, how important is it to know an alternative route and multiple routes planned?
You know, I would say in any condition it‘s always best to know alternate routes on your way home. You never know what could happen on an evening commute, and there’s always a number of possibilities, whether it be a service disruption that causes severe delays. So being familiar with the region and the area is always beneficial, it will never hurt you to know that “Hey, if I can’t get home on the red line, this bus line will get me home as well, or I can transfer from here to here.” So being familiar with your surroundings, being familiar with the service, is always a great idea. We certainly encourage folks to go on our website and familiarize yourself with our route maps. Check out our bus maps as well. We have a very extensive and very intricate bus service that services the area as well, so it’s always best to be prepared.

Great. What are some of the things that WMATA and other subway systems have to prepare for specifically during the winter? As we know, the D.C. area subway system is situated both above and underground. What kind of extra considerations does WMATA have to make?
Right, you know, we have more than 600 pieces of snow-fighting equipment. Think snow tends to be the type of weather that causes the most concern in the region. But, we are prepared for all types of weather; extreme cold can also have an impact on service, as well as extreme heat. So we try to always monitor that system to make sure we know what exactly is happening in the system and where. We have salt domes, very much like those used by the Department of Transportation, in our rail yards and all over; we have rail heating equipment, switch heaters. And the good thing is that once you get into revenue service, the frequency of trains running on the tracks helps to prevent snow accumulation on the tracks.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but we say, generally, if you get more than eight inches accumulating at one time, which would indicate a very, very heavy snow fall like we saw in “Snowpocalypse,” which was back in, I think 2010, when you get that kind of accumulation, that’s when you start to run into difficulty with running trains. Because when you get eight inches or so of snow, that’s when it can start impacting the third rail, and that’s when you need to start perhaps cutting back on above ground metro service. The trains can still run below ground, in all our underground stations, but our above ground stations can be a bit more tricky. We also need to make sure that our platforms are kept snow and ice free. As part of our Capital Rebuilding Program, we are replacing some of the tiles in our above-ground stations. The older tiles or original tiles tended to get slick in icy and snowy conditions, so now we’re replacing that with a more durable tile that is more slip resistant. So again, we try and monitor the system, make sure we keep our eyes and ears to the ground to, you know, listen to our customers when they’re telling us that “Hey, you’re getting a bit of accumulation at some of your above ground stations,” we make sure that we send folks out there with shovels or whatever we have in order to make sure that the system is safe for all of our riders.

So how can people who use subway systems like WMATA’s metro system stay up to date when there are emergencies or unexpected interruptions? I know you mentioned the app, so how does that work, and is that the best way for commuters to stay up to date with emergencies or the latest information regarding delays and such?
Sure, there’s actually a number of ways. One would be to check our website; we always keep the most up to date information online. As (another good way) would be to sign up for metro alerts. That is a great service that you can specify by rail line or by bus line; you know whatever metro service you use can specify the metro alerts so that if I am a blue line rider, let’s say, and there is a disruption on the blue line, I can get an email and a text message sent to my mobile device to let me know that we’re running delayed so you can plan accordingly. So we certainly encourage everybody who does use metro to sign up for that option. You just go online and search for “metro alerts,” and it will take you right through the process. You can sign up for as many rail lines as you like and for certain period of time of day as well; like if you’re only interested in blue line service in the morning, let’s say, you can specify that as well.

You can also follow us on Twitter; we have several Twitter handles depending on what kind of service you use. So you can use @metrobusinfo or @metrorailinfo, and that will give you information about delays, depending on whether you’re using the bus or rail. And again, one other thing we have at all of our stations (are) screens; backlit screens at the entrance of all of our stations alerting customers of a delay. The screens turn red if there’s a service disruption so customers can make the decision before they enter the station whether or not taking transit is the best way for them that day.

Great. So what advice would you give to customers who have to commute to the subway station — those who travel by car and park at various metro stations, have to take the bus or ride their bikes — during the winter months? What advice would you give to those customers on how to stay safe and secure while they’re en route to their commute?
Sure, I think the biggest piece of advice for anyone in the winter months is to give yourself extra time. When you have snow, as you know, it impacts the roads probably more than it impacts the rail. So if it’s possible to get yourself to a train station, park your car and take the train, you’ll probably find that it’s an easier commute than you crawling along some of the major interstates (by car) with heavy snow conditions. But pack (in) extra time, be patient; the last thing you want to do when the roads are slick is to be speeding somewhere, because you know that can be very dangerous. So, pack (in) some extra time, dress warmly, in layers is probably a good idea as well, because depending on if you’re waiting on the platform but then as you get into a heated railcar, you might get a little warm, so just plan accordingly, take your time, and make sure you sign up for metro alerts so you know exactly how much time you need to get where you’re going.
 
So sometimes, winter weather, as we know, can escalate unexpectedly, to the point where it’s not safe to be outdoors at times. In this situation, what would WMATA recommend to travelers who are in the middle of their commute?  
Well, obviously, the best piece of advice we can say is, if you have the option and can get to where you are going before the worst of the weather hits and you have enough warning that is something we would encourage. However, we do understand that weather can hit unexpectedly or perhaps more fiercely than anticipated. So, again, the best piece of advice is to take your time, make sure you are aware of any delays or disruptions that may be occurring as a result of that weather ahead of time so you can plan accordingly. We’re always in close contact with the local jurisdictions, as well as the Office of Personnel Management in the region, seeing as the federal government is a major employer in Washington. So that if any of our major employers here decide “maybe we should let our folks go home early,” we’re in coordination with them so that we can start ramping up our rail service in order to meet an early rush hour, or any other demands that may be coming on the system as people start to leave work early.

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Posted: March 12, 2014