Exodus of inaugural watchers jams DC subway stops
Crowded subway stations and a disabled train caused major headaches Monday for thousands of rail riders trying to get home from President Barack Obama's second inauguration.
Despite handling fewer passengers than in 2009, the District of Columbia's mass transit system decided to temporarily close four stations near the National Mall because of crowding. The problem was exacerbated by a disabled train in northern Virginia that caused extensive delays for passengers trying to get out of city.
Lines around stations snaked for blocks in some cases, as stranded and frustrated passengers congregated outside entrances.
"People were trying to enter the station faster than trains were taking them out," Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
The four stations - Federal Center SW, Metro Center, Foggy Bottom and L'Enfant Plaza - closed and reopened during the course of Monday afternoon. But transit officials dealt with residual delays caused by the train that broke down, and frustrated passengers lamented how longer-than-expected waits put them at risk of missing their connections out of town.
Barbara Means and Shekita Lee were among a group of people, some of them elderly, who rode a bus from Atlanta to the inauguration. The inbound trip went smoothly, Means said. But after the ceremony, they were forced to wait for more than an hour outside the L'Enfant Plaza station, making them late for their bus's scheduled departure.
At the entrance where Means waited, police officers would occasionally open the doors and allow a few people inside. A crowd of several hundred thinned to dozens shortly before 3 p.m. as people sought different options. Some of those who remained weren't sure where else to go.
"The biggest travesty is we don't have anyone out here providing information and directions," Means said. "We live in Atlanta. This would never happen there. ... This is inexcusable. We don't know what to do, and our bus leaves at 3 o'clock."
Lee said the group was staying in the line because there seemed to be no better option.
"The disappointment is there's no alternative. Nobody seems to know what's going on. We're from out of town," she said.
The problems occurred even though Metro was handling far fewer passengers than during Obama's first swearing-in in January 2009. As of 8 p.m., 719,000 people had entered the subway system, down from just over 1 million at the same point in 2009. The total was consistent with Metro's projections and was roughly the same as the number of people who ride the rail network on a normal business day.
Stessel said the mechanical problem that caused the train to break down was a random occurrence, and that Metro had adequate staff and responded quickly. But it took time to disable the brake lines on a fully loaded 8-car train and move it off the track, he said.
"It just happened at a bad time and a bad place," Stessel said. The resulting delays, he said, were "one of the challenges of operating on what is a two-track railroad."
Stessel said transit officials occasionally close stations to cope with crowding, as they did in August 2011, when a rare earthquake caused a sudden mass exodus from downtown Washington.
"It's something that we're prepared to do, based on crowd conditions, on any day," Stessel said.
Even stations that remained open grappled with major crowding. At Farragut West, crowds lined up to buy fare cards, clogging the entry to the platforms.
Earlier Monday, there were long lines to get out of Federal Center SW, a small station with a single point of entry. More than 100,000 tickets to the ceremony listed that station as the closest one. That went against Metro's advice for passengers to be flexible about which stops to use. Some trains didn't stop there because there wasn't enough room on the platform for more passengers to disembark.
The experience was frustrating to Thia Golson of Alexandria, Va., who had to double back after her train bypassed the station without warning.
"There was no announcement on the train," she said.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Richard Lardner and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.