Metro rethinks strategy for weekend rail work

Metro said Thursday that it plans to change the way it does repair and maintenance work on weekends by closing down some stations along rail lines instead of doing work and single-tracking along the line.

Officials made a presentation to the board of directors, making a pitch that the change would help its crews work safer and faster in its $5 billion capital improvement effort to try to boost safety and repair the rail system.

“You’re always grappling with minimizing the impact to customers and increasing the productivity of doing work on the system,” Richard Sarles, Metro’s general manager, said after the board’s committees met Thursday. “Shutting down stations on weekends in an isolated section is safer because we don’t have to worry about running a train on the adjacent track.”

Dave Kubicek, Metro’s deputy general manager, said, “We will become more efficient because we can do more work faster rather than dragging things out.”

There will still be some single-tracking in the system on weekends, but it will be reduced, officials said. And more than half of the rail system’s 86 stations are going to be affected over the next 18 months as Metro rolls out its plans to increase repair and track work on weekends.

Under the new plan, Metro would temporarily close individual stations or clusters of stations along a line for about two of every three weekends and use shuttle buses for riders in the affected area.

Officials said the new plan would allow workers to tackle more extensive projects, as they did over Memorial Day weekend when four stations on the Blue and Orange lines were closed for rail work rather than doing single-tracking through a work zone. The repair work would be confined to one area of a line, and riders would be bused around that part instead of having to run trains on a single track through a station, which can heighten safety concerns, and cause work interruptions.

Closing stations would allow the system to speed up its schedule to replace track circuits on the Red Line, for example. The work, with an initial target date of late 2013, would be done 18 months sooner, officials said. Sarles said more details of when and where the track work will start would be presented to the full board at its next meeting June 23.

At its finance committee meeting on Thursday, the Metro board also took up its $2.5 billion fiscal 2012 budget and agreed to not increase the wait times on weekends to do repair and maintenance work and adjust some bus routes — changes that had been proposed as cost-cutting measures in next year’s budget. The board is expected to approve Metro’s budget June 23.

This year, Metro proposed no fare increases after last year’s move to implement the largest fare increase ever. The board decided to keep the E6 bus line that runs in the Chevy Chase area and make some changes to bus lines in Southwest Washington and Arlington County areas.

The three jurisdictions are expected to come up with the $66 million shortfall the transit system faces for next year’s budget.

Metro’s chief financial officer also presented to the board a plan to eventually phase out SmarTrip cards. Seven vendors, including ACS, Accenture, CSC, Cubic, FIS, IBM and Revere Group, have submitted proposals to build Metro a fare system that would replace SmarTrip. Cubic makes the SmarTrip technology that Metro uses.

The idea is to have the vendors design a system that allows riders to use debit and credit cards or smartphones to pay for rail and bus services. Customers without those tools would have a different payment option.

“People want a simplified way to use their fare, a simplified way to pay,” Carol Kissal, Metro’s chief financial officer, told the board.

Kissal noted that Cubic’s contract for providing SmarTrip to Metro is not performance-based and that the transit system has had trouble with the software.

Metro has plans to start phasing in a new system in 2014. It costs about $48 million a year to maintain and collect revenue with the SmarTrip system, officials said, but that cost could go down with more efficient equipment.

“If we reinvest in new hardware, new software, you minimize the operating cost and move out investing in old technology,” she said. “Those are all good things that make good business sense.”

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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