Doors on the D.C. Metro Can Take 15 Seconds to Open After the Train Stops. Why?

Victoria Zelvin
Photo by Matt 📸 on Unsplash

The train stops. People shuffle to the door, crowding around it. The doors stay shut. The announcement overhead declares what station it is and what the next stop is. The doors stay shut. People shuffle a bit more, pressing the people in front a little more against the glass.

The doors eventually open, but not before impatient sighs, tapped feet, and questions from tourists about if the doors will open at all.

This delay is what is known as dwell time or “the time a train stands at the platform usually for the purpose of allowing passengers to board.”

Dwell time is something that ideally should be minimized — after all, dwell time affects travel time and that affects scheduling. But there’s an important balance that must be struck between time and safety, and in that calculation safety is of course always the more important consideration.

All the same, dwell time adds up, and needless dwell time is a major frustration for commuters as it causes annoying delays. So as WMATA works its way Back 2 Good, why do Metro trains have doors that take so long to open?

What causes delays in transit

Before we get into the question of whether or not the Washington D.C. Metro is better or worse than other transit systems in terms of delays, let’s first briefly get into what can cause delays in transit. Outside of catastrophic safety failures and unusual accidents, there are a few things that commonly cause delays.

The whole of any transit system is a balance of time. Adding in human controlled and dependent elements — ranging from human drivers to the humans boarding and exiting the train — add in variables that are not always resolved in the expected time. Without fail, offloading and onboarding passengers is the main cause for delays.

For one example of a type of passenger caused dwell time, someone running to get to the train slams their whole body between the closing doors despite being reminded that the doors don’t work like elevator doors. The doors open. The person boards. But, there’s another person behind them, running, and when the doors try to close again, that person slams their body between the closing doors, delaying the train so they won’t have to wait a few minutes for the next one.

On and on that goes, throughout the whole system, few second delays adding up and up. Dwell time is only one part of the whole system that can cause delays and frustrations for passengers.

There are also schedule adjustments when the train holds for a few minutes at a station, usually with the doors open. This is done when the train gets too close to the train in front of it. This is another safety measure that is also meant to cut delays for those waiting on the platform, but can be very frustrating for passengers already on the train who feel as though they are stuck or delayed when they are in actuality on time. It can also cause overcrowding if the doors are left open during this time, and is why sometimes during rush hours a train will wait for a schedule adjustment with the doors shut so no other passenger can cram on.

An additional variable in the time it takes to offload and onboard passengers is, of course, how long the doors take to open.

Why do the Washington Metro doors take so long to open?

Many transit systems across the world have computer systems that can open the doors automatically. The Washington Metro has those too, but there’s a catch.

In 2008, there were a few incidents where the automatic doors opened when they shouldn’t have. Since then, WMATA instituted a 5-second wait policy where the operators are supposed to look around and verify that all the train cars are in the station and which side to open them on. This has continued since the introduction of the new 7000 series trains, which are cleaner and more efficient than the old trains, but which also come standard with always on automatic detection software that verifies that all the train cars are in the station before allowing the doors to open. When operating in manual mode, as all Washington Metro cars do, this software does not run unless the operator initiates it.

What this means is that an operator will have to press a button to initiate the check, wait five seconds for the check to complete, then hit the button to open the doors. If the operator forgets or is slow to push the check button, it will beep to remind them. The five second added delay is always in play, however, so even a few seconds of waiting after the train comes to a complete stop will add +5 seconds, which is how people can record dwell times of up to 15 to 20 seconds, sometimes at every stop. The newer trains are more prone to the door opening delay than the old ones.

Again, all of these delays can add up, as WUSA9 notes:

Let’s say you commuted 15 stops every day from Shady Grove to Gallery Place. Fifteen extra seconds at each stop means an extra three minutes and 45 seconds for your commute in. Round trip that’s 6 minutes and 30 seconds a day; 37 and a half minutes in a 5-day work week; and two hours and 30 minutes a month, wasted waiting for the doors to open. (WUSA9)

This delay period is touted as a safety measure, but it feels like a stop-gap — little more than a bandaid slapped over a more complex problem at the expense of faster, more efficient commutes. It is a small, but annoying thing that should be on Metro’s Back 2 Good radar as stop-gap, bandaid measures over complex problems is part of what got Metro into so much trouble not too long ago.

This is a national problem

So then, stands to reason that the next question to ask is: do the Washington Metro doors take the longest to open in the nation?

Short answer, probably not.

The longer answer is that this type of dwell time is not really tracked in any kind of comparable way to produce meaningful results. In 2018, Smart Asset ranked the best rail transit systems in the country and the Metro came out on top for the average commute time of riders, among other things including delays. Dwell time did not make the top five of their considerations in the study, which is fair. While certainly a visible and noticeable effect, it is certainly more anecdotal and annoying than a major safety issue. It does affect efficiency, however, and can lead to needing things such as schedule adjustments to avoid bunching or when a train doesn’t come for a very long time and then several come one right after the other.

The issues with our train systems (from the DC Metro to the NYC subway to commuter rail across the country) do not exist in isolation. They are part of our nation’s aging and in many cases failing infrastructure.

A brief glance at news headlines over the past couple years paint a picture of frustrated commuters often showing a perverse sort of civic pride in deriding their own home transit systems. DC does appear to have a good deal of them and as a Washingtonian, my favorite are of course the heavily derisive ones about the DC:

Call it Metro schadenfreude: As New York’s subway woes worsen, Washingtonians offer sympathy (Washington Post)

Is Washington’s Metro Improving? After $150 Million, Maybe (New York Times)

D.C.’s Metro is the №1 transit system in the nation. Yes, you read that right (Washington Post)

To be entirely fair to Metro, they are getting better. Much needed track work has lead to annoying single tracking, but construction is far preferable to train derailments or worse. I take the DC Metro every single workday and have for years. I will continue to take Metro. It has been heartening to see it improve, but there is a long way to go to the finish line and a lot of little annoying stumbling blocks, like annoying dwell time waiting for the doors to open, along the path.

Victoria Zelvin

Written by

Freelance and speculative fiction writer, as well as a lifelong book, video game, and movie hoarder.

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