Since the dawn of time, especially since Alex Ovechkin and friends have turned the team into a consistent playoff team, fans from opposing NHL teams have constantly questioned and insulted Washington Capitals fans whenever they have the chance. Some say we are a bunch of band-wagoners who never rooted for the team during the dark ages (2003-2007) or any other time during the team’s 40-year title drought and the city’s 23-year title drought. Some say that since we are too far south of the Mason-Dixon Line, that loses any form of legitimacy of knowledge for the sport of hockey. I can’t fully counter these two points today, but I can easily counter one that opposing fans consistently shoot down on us: we don’t show up to games on time or we leave games too early.
As a soon to be 28-year-old that has lived in Montgomery County, Maryland almost all my life, I can tell you that the one thing that has gradually deteriorated and frustrated the livelihood of many Washingtonians, let alone Capitals fans: the Washington Metrorail system. By estimation, the vast majority of those planning to attend Capitals games at the still sparkling Verizon Center in Chinatown, especially from Maryland and Virginia, almost always rely on the almost 40-year-old railroad system.
Now there have been plenty of incidents in the past, but no incident has forced a change so much in the system’s history than what happened on June 22nd, 2009. That was when two red line train cars collided during afternoon rush hour in between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations. Nine people, including one train conductor, were killed and over 80 people were injured that day. An investigation was issued after that fateful event and it lead to the National Transportation Safety Board to issue major changes towards the Metrorail.
All trains were temporarily forced to be run manually instead of automatic via a computer system. Along with that, construction work was implemented every weekend starting Friday night and forced trains to only operate every 20-30 minutes instead of the usual five to ten. This was because some trains had to go through one railroad track instead of the usual two for some metro stations that had were being repaired from these weekend constructions. Some metro stations would have to be closed as well.
Last week, I went to three consecutive sporting events at the Verizon Center by Metrorail to record just how bad the system has become. Surely enough, it was a pretty stressful experience every night.
Thursday – Winnipeg Jets vs. Washington Capitals
The first of a three day journey should have been the easiest of the three days. However, when entering the Verizon Center, my train stopped every time from the Grovesnor-Strathmore to the Gallery Place Chinatown station where the Verizon Center was located. Now the delays were not terrible enough to make me run late and miss watching the Capitals and Jets players warm-up, but waiting for five to ten minutes every time it stops at a station or halfway through one station to the next can really frustrate plenty of people hoping to get home from a long day’s work at the Nation’s Capital, let alone fans that are hoping to make it to a hockey game at an exact point in time.
To add the additional misery, anytime you get the entrance of the Verizon Center, you are greeted by security guards telling you to remove every single item (including crumbs) from your pockets and then use handheld metal detectors to scan you before having your ticket approved to get into your seats. Each guard is inconveniently placed within ten feet of every Verizon Center entrance and result in having lines of people starting outside during the coldest days of the year. This week was very chilly for Washingtonians as they had to brave temperatures in the teens and Thursday was a day where the wind chill would easily hit below 0.
I have nothing to say about how the ride back home was because I caught the train home after 11pm, but you really don’t have a grasp of how a train system that is so relied upon to so many outside of the District of Columbia until it is at it’s most chaotic. Thank goodness I got to witness that firsthand last Friday.
Friday – Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Washington Wizards
Now for almost all of you, there is a great chance that you would like to completely ignore this part of the story; because basketball is a dumb sport. I won’t judge you, but I am enough of an NBA fan to know that Lebron James, one of the greatest athletes of my generation, was in my city and I would not miss one of the fewer opportunities to see him at the peak of his sporting powers. When I hit the metro this evening, I pleasantly surprised at how smooth and fast the ride was over to Chinatown was. I arrived just in time to grab a quick bite outside the Verizon Center before heading to my seats.
A disgraceful blowout and an even worse performance by the Wizards fan base later, I hoped to hop onto the Metro station for the safe ride home along with the other 20,000+ attendees. Unfortunately, that was not the case. After going down the 7th and G street escalator, I was greeted to ten electronic fare-gates, with seven of them allowing me to lead me to my train stop via my SmarTrip card. This night, three of those fare-gates failed to work and one poor soul of a metro worker had to tell thousands of people to use the remaining four available. Lines that were already expected to be long to start with got even longer, and this was just the beginning of all the problems.
Once I got through one of the fare-gates, metro patrons were greeted by others that could not move an inch for hours; whether they were on the top floor where you were hoping to get the escalator down the red line platform or even further down to get the green line or yellow line platform. Single tracking was enforced and a new train would only come in every 20 minutes because of how much time it took to fill each ride to the brim and then have metro workers control the crowd as humanly possible. People were greeted signs surrounding the metro station that the reason behind all this was due to “late night events” and would be enforced for late Friday and late Saturday. Good one!
Instead of waiting for the rest of my life, I decided to head my way out the station and try to catch a train an eight minute walk later at the Metro Center Station. If it wasn’t for walking through frozen winters during my undergraduate years at Penn State and the comfort of my Capitals Winter Classic hat, walking in such a frigid night would be nothing short of disgusting. Instead, it wasn’t awful, and I was able to catch a train instantly at Metro Center: even if I had to origami my way into the car.
Still, I warned Caps fans on twitter of what was to come for Saturday afternoon’s crucial game against one of the best teams in the NHL.
Saturday – New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals
Knowing what I have went through the last couple of days and considering that I had to drive 20 miles-an-hour in the middle of a snowstorm that produced up to eight inches from my Gaithersburg neighborhood to my starting point at the Rockville Metro, I entered today expecting the worst. In the beginning, things were going smoothly once I got on my train considering the treacherous conditions outside (all red line stations from Rockville to Grovesnor-Strathmore are outdoor train stations). Then the Metrorail remembered that it was the Metrorail. In other words, my train had to stop at Woodley Park for over ten minutes, waiting for other trains ahead to move in order for the coast to be clear for my train to keep moving forward. Before that could ever happen, I heard a bang that was equivalent to the sound of a bodycheck along the boards of a hockey game followed by a calm but confused train conductor blurting out “What in the…?” going through the intercom. Next, I heard a fire alarm go off in the metro station as smoke came from the back of the train and began to cover the platform of the station.
Every metro rider was forced to evacuate from the station and find other means to get to their destination. Roughly 60-75% of those on that train were hoping to get to Chinatown and avoid missing any action for today’s game. Instead, we missed most or all of the first period. I was fortunate to get on the first Metrobus I saw and ride with others to from Woodley Park to Capitol Heights and take the green line down to the Verizon Center. I made it to the game, but I was rattled like no one’s business. It wasn’t until Eric Fehr’s goal in the third period that I was able to relax in any capacity but the snowstorm outside didn’t die down until after 8pm. So I waited until late in the evening to return home as a result.
Do you think I would trust a train system that is expected to be counted upon the vast majority (and that’s an understatement) of those living in Washington metropolitan area injured or killed so many from not so long ago, failed time and again any common sense approach for how to get large crowds back home safely and smoothly and has been involved in so many dangerous incidents within the last month? To all those that ever question the loyalty of a very large portion Capitals fans, take note of my three day experience before you jump to conclusions and state that Capitals fans “are not loyal” or “too lazy”.
Ben covers the Washington Capitals at the hockey writers. He has been blogging about the NHL since March 2013. Follow him @DCSportsDork