Metro wobbly in weekend debut

A lack of information and technical glitches lead to huge queues, delays and grumbling customers, but the RTA says such stumbling blocks were to be expected.

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Long before the first train of the day, it was clear that the Dubai Metro's debut weekend would provide the biggest challenge of its short history.

Crowds of would-be passengers descended on stations beginning early in the morning, unaware that no train would run until 2pm. The crush threatened to overwhelm both staff and the system, with officials estimating that 30,000 passengers passed through the turnstiles in the first two hours of operation yesterday. Last night, several stations were briefly closed and service was suspended after reports that some passengers had been hitting the emergency stop buttons on the crowded trains.

At the Mall of the Emirates station, where some of the biggest crowds congregated, Metro employees used a megaphone to urge passengers to stay calm and not push. Workers were later joined by transport police after the queuing system threatened to break down as dozens of men tried to push their way through to platforms. Nakheel Station was also closed for a while in the evening, with staff saying that a train had broken down, halting service for at least an hour. Trains were stationary at Al Rashidiya as well, at the end of the Red Line, for more than an hour, forcing some passengers to abandon their journeys.

Mohammed Sageer said he boarded a train with his family at 6pm and was still waiting to leave an hour later. There was no air conditioning and lights were flickering on and off at the station. "There was no information, people were getting very confused and women and children were getting upset," he said, adding that Metro staff were unable to offer refunds. Services were due to be extended past the official closing time of midnight to 2am so passengers could return home.

Ben Pimentel of the Philippines said: "I have been waiting for over an hour for a train in Al Riga on the platform. I was told a train had broken down on the line. I waited because I wanted to see what it was like." Atis Arnel said the situation at the Mall of the Emirates was "chaotic - I've never seen anything like this before." He was trying to make his way home to Karama. Petra Zvacova, a cabin crew member for Emirates Airline, said she spent an hour getting onto the Mall of the Emirates platform. It took her an hour and 15 minutes to get from the mall to the Financial Centre, a journey that should have taken 15 minutes. But, she added, "I really enjoyed it and would use it again."

Peyman Younes Parham, director of marketing and corporate communications for the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), said the size and complexity of the Metro meant there would inevitably be what he called "little problems". Carriage doors and those on the platforms had not been synchronising properly, he said, "and people were getting stuck on the train for 15 to 30 minutes." He added: "There has been a major issue with people misusing the Metro, pushing the emergency buttons on the train. Possibly they were panicking when stuck at a platform unable to get out, or if a train has stopped."

When the button is pushed, the train is put into emergency mode, shutting down the entire system, Mr Parham said. Trains automatically go to the nearest station. He added there were Dh2,000 (US$544) fines for misusing the emergency button. Several hours before trains began running on Friday, security guards at one station were overrun by eager passengers. One guard watching escalators at the Al Rashidiya station's park-and-ride centre, after attempting to block four dozen people from using them, was shoved aside by a group of teenage boys.

At the Mall of the Emirates, hundreds of families arrived to take the Metro by mid-morning, but found the station closed. Elsewhere, scores of motorists were denied entry into park-and-ride facilities yesterday, causing queues up to half a kilometre long. The situation was exacerbated by contradictory information distributed by RTA, the government entity in charge of the Metro project. Many complained that the RTA website was difficult to use and unclear, with local media reporting incorrect opening times for the Metro's 10 operating stations.

At Mall of the Emirates and Deira City Centre, for instance, advertisements for the Metro did not display the Friday time schedule. Blue signs at entrances and banners streaming down rafters, however, said the system would operate at the regular weekday hours: 8am to 1am. Callers to the RTA customer service hotline were given conflicting advice, with some phone operators saying the service would stay open to 2am, while others insisting that the system would shut down at midnight,

Roni Abraham, 25, of India, said he was given faulty advice by security personnel yesterday morning. His parents drove in from Ras al Khaimah at 10.30am to meet him for a ride, but were told to wait outside the Rashidiya station's car park until 12.30pm. When they returned, he said, they were told to wait again until 2pm. "I guess it's no big deal; we'll just wait here," said Mr Abraham, an employee at Emirates, who waited several hours in his Toyota Fortuner in a nearby KFC car park.

"Even if it's Ramadan, it would still make sense to communicate when it's opening," said Anne, 33, a Briton who went to Mall of the Emirates with her husband and five-year-old son, Alex. Anne, who declined to give her last name, said she and her husband woke their son early to catch a glimpse of the Metro. "You go to the RTA's website, but you can't find any of the information you need," she said.

A similar scenario presented itself to Fraser Lindsay, 30, and his wife and two infant children, who said they would have stayed at home had they known it was closed for the morning. "If you look around, there aren't any signs telling you it's closed," Mr Lindsay, a Briton who works in the health industry, said as he pushed his children in a double-decker stroller. "They just say 'open from 8am to 1am'."

Among those prevented from parking at Nakheel Harbour and Tower was Reema Refai of Lebanon, who drove her family early yesterday morning from their home in Jumeirah Lake Towers. Neither RTA employees nor security guards were available to instruct confused drivers at Nakheel Harbour and Tower, Mrs Refai said, and its park-and-ride facilities were cordoned off. "The kids are really disappointed," she said after she was turned away. "I knew it was open today, but I presumed it would be open all day. There was not even anybody here to tell me. I didn't see anything in the papers or hear anything on the radio."

For those hoping to park early at Rashidiya Station, it was similar situation. Queues of vehicles stretched half a kilometre from its entrance, an annoying wait for Dharmaraj Acharya, 33, and his pregnant wife Shakchi, 27. "We've been waiting here for 20 minutes. I don't see why they don't let us just park the cars," said Mrs Shakchi. "If they're not going to open until 2pm, at least they could let us park."

* The National with additional reporting by Praveen Menon