Washington DC's Metro line.

Washington DC’s Metro line.

When we moved from Southern Illinois to the National Capital Region in 1981 and settled into a condo in the Virginia Square area of Arlington County, Amy and I fell in love with the then-new Metro subway system of Washington, DC.

It took me about 20 minutes to ride from the Virginia Square Metro Station a block from our condo on the Orange Line to the Capitol South exit that deposited me just across the street from the Longworth House Office Building, which meant just a short walk through the Capitol Hill tunnels to where I worked in a first floor office at the Rayburn House Office Building.

The cost: $1.70 round trip.

Although I had a parking spot in one of the underground offices that served the Capitol Buildings, I only drove when necessary to to somewhere out of reach of the Metro line.

The cars were clean, free of graffiti and reasonably quiet and efficient.  We learned that the notes sounded from speakers to signal closing of doors were the first notes of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Over the 23 years we spent living in Arlington as I worked in Washington and spent many days (and nights) running around the country and world, we remained regular passengers of the Metro, even though cars got more and more crowded, one way fares rose to more than $2 for costs during rush hours and the cars broke down more often and were dirty and shopworn.

The Metro has grown to 91 stations that travel 115 miles of routes in Washington, DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland.  It caries an average of 751,358 riders a day or 209 million a year.

According to The Washington Post, today’s Metro system, the second largest subway system in the nation, is in trouble.

Reports Paul Dugan at The Post:

As former Maryland transit executive Paul J. Wiedefeld prepares to become Metro’s new general manager next week, a host of problems awaits him at the beleaguered agency, including a severe budget crunch, daily operational breakdowns and a long list of costly, safety-related infrastructure upgrades that federal officials say are urgently needed.

Among the latest issues to arise are design flaws in Metro’s new 7000 series trains, involving brittle door bolts and loose seats, which have slowed production of the high-tech rolling stock, exacerbating a chronic shortage of rail cars during rush hours and putting the transit agency behind schedule in the long-term modernization of its fleet.

Besides making it harder for Metro to solve an existing problem of not being able to operate enough cars during rush hours — which has contributed to especially poor subway performance recently — the production slowdown could delay one of the agency’s most important and long-awaited safety measures: the scrapping of 270 cars that date to the birth of Metrorail in 1976 and are not considered “crashworthy” by current standards.

The trouble with the 7000s, and the broader issue of a shortage of working rail cars at peak travel times, illustrate the difficulties Wiedefeld will face in trying to improve Metro and restore public confidence in the nation’s second-busiest subway.

On a recent trip to Washington to speak to the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, I parked my car at the outermost lot of the Orange Line west of Fairfax and took the train to downtown DC.  The one-way fare was more than double what a round-trip used to cost and the train lurched and came to a stop several times because of construction delays on the tracks. It took nearly an hour to get to downtown DC and I was almost late for my appearance.

On the trip back that afternoon, the cars were crowded (standing room only) and stunk.  We were told to leave the car at the Roslyn Station because of a mechanical problem with the train and the next Orange Line to come through was even more crowded, more smelly and more of a hassle.

“The old gray Metro ain’t what it she used to be,” said a man standing next to me as we finally neared our stop.

No it isn’t.  Let’s hope it can become what once was.