Metro rebuilding program shows progress, but in some ways, it will never be completely done


Bethesda Metro station. (Jeffrey MacMillan)
Robert Thomson
Columnist November 2, 2013

The ceiling at Farragut North looks like a ceiling again. The Red Line platform at Takoma is in better shape thanks to new tiling. The mezzanine at Bethesda is bright enough to read by.

As Metrorail’s long rebuilding continues, midday track work is no longer scheduled. Nighttime work delays begin no earlier than 10 p.m., and the weekend reconstruction program has become somewhat less disruptive thanks to modified train schedules and more accurate information about the schedules.

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. View Archive

In 2014, Metrorail may cut back somewhat on the use of three-day holiday weekends for extended track work.

So have we turned a corner on the long road to 2017, when Metro General Manager Richard Sarles says the aggressive phase of the rebuilding program will diminish into routine maintenance?

That would be too aggressive a statement. Let’s look at it from the Metro operations’ side and the rider’s point of view.

Rob Troup, the deputy general manager in charge of Metrorail operations, offered a good explanation about the track work program when he spoke to Metro board members in October.

Troup said he’s often asked, “When will you be done?”

The answer, he said: “We will never be done, nor should we.”

Transit managers divide their projects into categories. Some visible projects, such as the Bethesda staircase and the new lighting, have start and end dates, just as roadwork projects that add lanes or rebuild interchanges do. (And like the roadwork projects, the timetables are not always met.)

But Metro managers also talk about a seemingly endless set of projects to maintain what they often call “a steady state of good repair.”

To Troup, they really are endless.

“This railroad will never be new again,” he said. Therefore, disruptions will always be necessary.

Many of the safety improvements — like the ones that replace insulators, rails and track ties — are difficult to spot. The effects of the replacements also can be difficult to see. Commuters will continue to experience delays and disruptions, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said, but because of these replacement projects on the system’s infrastructure, the disruptions are more likely to be caused by mechanical problems with aging rail cars than by the tracks beneath them.

Here again, riders are unlikely to sense a turning point, at least not yet. If you’re late for work because of Metrorail delays, you’re probably not keeping score on precisely which piece of the system was the culprit.

This also applies to the most visible improvements, such as the Farragut North ceiling or the lighting upgrades at stations such as Bethesda. One such improvement can make other things look kind of crummy by comparison.

At Farragut North, the smooth whiteness of the new ceiling highlights the cavelike quality of the tunnel walls. At Bethesda, the warm glow around the station kiosk makes the darkness around the fare vending machines more noticeable.

Because riders may have trouble determining how things are trending, it was encouraging to hear Troup say this regarding the progress of specific rebuilding projects: “We are currently developing schedules on a per station basis.”

Riders often see Metrorail not as one system or even one line, but rather as a set of stations — the ones they use each day. Progress reports for individual stations “will enable them to see what work is to be done, when it is to be done and. more importantly, when it is to be completed,” Troup said.

Metro managers tend to speak about “the railroad environment,” which encompasses “guarded No. 8 switches,” “joint bars” and “track geometry,” among many other things you’re unlikely to notice. To riders, the environment consists of an escalator, a fare gate, a platform, a train, another platform and another escalator.

So telling them, as Metro does in its quarterly “vital signs” report, that the overall percentage of Metro escalators in service has increased isn’t as meaningful as telling them that escalator upgrades at their stations are about to begin or are wrapping up.

Give them an idea how things stand with that localized experience, and you’re giving them a vital statistic with which they can relate.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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