Metro’s renovations never seem to end: Is it getting any better?


Starting Feb. 1, Metro will close the Dupont Circle south entrance to replace all three escalators leading into and out of the station. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)
January 27, 2012

Metro is like a homeowner who decides to remodel the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, basement and dining room — all at the same time — and not only lives in the place while the work is underway but also invites the neighbors to drop by anytime.

This weekend, posters abound at Dupont Circle warning riders about the next big maintenance project in what will be another year of disruptions for Metrorail. The transit authority is about to shut one of the station’s two entrances, take out the three crummy escalators and replace them.

But riders who see the signs about the south exit closing for 81 / 2 months want to know whether the north exit can handle the extra traffic. You can’t blame them for worrying. Last week, a Red Line rider heading into the station saw one of the three big northside escalators under repair, then walked down a turned-off escalator to the Shady Grove platform. That platform escalator was a walker because another one was under repair.

The transit authority says riders who normally use the south entrance at Dupont Circle might try the north entrance at nearby Farragut North.

Wait until they see Farragut North. That station looks like an old house where the upstairs toilet tank broke open when nobody was home, ruining the downstairs ceiling and soaking the floor.

How did transit riders get caught in never-ending reruns of “Extreme Makeover: Metro Edition”?

I have a copy of Metro’s evil plan. It’s called the capital budget for fiscal years 2013-2018. Let’s take a look at what’s in store for us.

Dupont Circle

Dave Kubicek, the deputy general manager for operations, pledges that the escalators on the north side of the station will be working when the south side is closed for the $13 million renovation. The closing is scheduled for Wednesday, and Kubicek said that if there’s any delay in fixing the north escalators, he will postpone the shutdown. After that, Metro says it will have mechanics on call to quickly fix problems.

Farragut North’s entrance at L Street and Connecticut Avenue NW is about a seven-minute walk from Dupont Circle’s southern entrance and a reasonable alternative for travelers south of the circle.

The big wooden box that severely restricted platform access was taken down, revealing a platform-to-ceiling support pillar. Heavy construction equipment has been removed. Kubicek says work will continue on the ceiling but only overnight.

Maintenance, 2012

Because of a maintenance project, an important segment of the Red Line is a bus route this weekend. Shuttle buses have replaced trains between Dupont Circle and Van Ness. Through June, parts of the line will experience five similar disruptions.

Parts of the Orange Line are scheduled for seven such breaks through June. Many of the weekend disruptions involve work connecting the new Silver Line to the Orange Line between East Falls Church and West Falls Church. The Blue and Green lines also will experience several disruptions through June.

The track switch replacements recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board — major projects that often require station shutdowns — are scheduled to be completed this year. But that won’t end the shutdowns, which allow workers full access to the tracks and stations, so they can combine several projects.

The heavy schedule of single-tracking around work zones at off-peak hours on weekdays and weekends also will continue through the year.

Trains, buses, escalators

Metro’s capital budget report for the current fiscal year lists achievements that include the purchase of more than 100 new buses and the rehabilitation of 100 older ones; 21 miles of new running rail, for smoother and more reliable rides; and the rehabilitation or replacement of 43 escalators and three elevators.

The capital budget for fiscal years 2013-2018 includes 300 new rail cars to replace the oldest ones in the fleet; restoration of the automated train controls, which also would contribute to smoother rides; rehabilitation of 32 miles of track; and replacement of 550 buses and refurbishment of 600 others.

Significant changes from previous plans include the decision to replace, rather than rehabilitate, 94 escalators and 18 elevators. Metro has come to the conclusion long accepted by many riders that this problem-plagued equipment isn’t worth rehabilitating. Similarly, Metro now wants to replace the 100 rail cars that make up the 4000 series, rather than have them go through a midlife rehabilitation.

Both the capital and operating budgets reflect preparations for the Silver Line in Northern Virginia. Construction is scheduled for completion in summer 2013. Metro is buying the 128 rail cars and setting up the staff to operate the first segment of the line out to Reston.

General Manager Richard Sarles said that, with the exception of the preparations for the Silver Line, most of his budget is about restoring and upgrading the system rather than expanding its capacity. Beyond the Silver Line acquisitions, the rail car program replaces parts of the fleet. It doesn’t expand the number of eight-car trains but maintains the current goal of 50 percent eight-car trains overall.

That doesn’t mean half the trains on your line are eight cars long, as you’ve probably noticed. The morning peak schedule on the Red Line calls for 20 six-car trains and 21 eight-car trains. On the Orange Line, it’s 18 sixes and 12 eights. On the Green Line, it calls for 10 sixes and 10 eights. On the Blue and Yellow lines, there are no eights scheduled. The Blue has 23 sixes, and the Yellow has 10 sixes.

The total during the morning peak is 81 sixes and 43 eights.

Is it getting better?

Sarles said yes. For example, on-time performance is getting better. But riders will see the improvements in “incremental, small steps,” he said in an interview. When he presented his spending proposal to Metro board members this month, he said: “This budget is one step along the way of rebuilding Washington Metro.”

It’s a long view that riders have difficulty seeing. To them, Metro’s effort doesn’t break down into a phased effort to fix this, then fix that, then the ride gets better. To them, it’s just one problem ride after another.

A D.C. rider named Andrew Holtz put it to me this way.

“A day doesn’t pass without some form of Metro headache,” he wrote. “It can be any of the following unacceptable occurrences: train delays, track work, elevator/escalator down, no information posted on train arrivals, broken fare gates, trains that stop and sit on the track for no reason, trains that can’t seem to brake without tossing riders into each other, overcrowded weekend trains, the 20-minute wait for a train when it isn’t 6 to 8 a.m. or 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and the non-stop fare increases.”

What’s your view? Can you wait for a better ride?

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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