Thousands of riders were delayed on Metro's most heavily used line yesterday morning after officials discovered three separate cracks in the tracks between the Bethesda and Friendship Heights stations.
Rail cracks have been discovered five times this year, all in the last two months and all on the Red Line. Steven A. Feil, chief operating officer for rail, said the line is particularly vulnerable to cracks because of the number of cars that use it, the weight of the packed trains and the frequency of service.
Red Line Troubles|
It has been a tough year for riders of the Red Line, the most heavily traveled in the Metro system.
Yesterday: Three cracks are discovered in rails between Bethesda and Friendship Heights, slowing morning rush service as crews make repairs.
Nov. 6: Service is suspended for the weekend at Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland-CUA in preparation for the opening of the New York Avenue Station.
Nov. 3: A train rolls backward into a second train picking up passengers at Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan. The accident injures 20 people, none seriously, and cripples service for several days.
Oct. 22: A rail cracks in the tunnel at Judiciary Square at the peak of the morning rush, delaying thousands of commuters.
Aug. 19: A train derails during a routine turnaround at Silver Spring, creating delays along the line.
Aug. 2: A train operator gets off at Van Ness-UDC during the evening rush hour and boards a train going in the opposite direction, leaving behind hundreds of bewildered riders.
July 27: Flooding in a sub-basement at Silver Spring destroys electronics crucial to computerized operation of trains between Forest Glen and Takoma, slowing service for nine days.
March 18: An electrical fire cuts service between Van Ness and Farragut North and forces thousands of passengers onto city streets during the morning rush.
The Red Line carries an average of 240,000 riders on a typical weekday, compared with 165,000 on the Orange Line, the second most heavily used one. Also, all Red Line trains have six cars during rush periods, unlike other lines, and arrive at stations about every 2.5 minutes, compared with four to six minutes on other lines.
Feil said cracks like the ones found yesterday sometimes can be caused by dampness inside tunnels. If not fixed, they can cause rails to split and lead to train derailments.
Nonetheless, Feil said that the discovery of defects is not uncommon and that the tracks are safe. "If you check the amount of potential rail flaws that we have, it probably is routine," Feil said. "It's not unsafe to ride over the Red Line, trust me."
In early October, a cracked rail at Fort Totten delayed service for about a half-hour. On Oct. 22, a 54-inch horizontal break at Judiciary Square forced a shutdown of the Red Line for 40 minutes during the morning rush while workers searched for other problems.
Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that, if undetected, a 48-inch horizontal crack -- the largest of the three found yesterday -- could result in a break like the one at Judiciary Square. "That's the worst-case scenario," she said.
The Red Line, Metro's oldest, has been plagued with problems this year. In the last several months, a train has derailed at Silver Spring; part of a ceiling collapsed at Farragut North; a fire chased morning commuters onto the street at the height of rush hour; and a runaway train crashed into a stopped train at Woodley Park.
Metro officials said the fractures found yesterday were inside the rails near their tops on the outbound track between Bethesda and Friendship Heights. They were detected at 2:37 a.m. during routine ultrasonic tests on the tracks.
Officials said the second-largest of the fractures was three inches long and the smallest was less than that, though they did not know the exact size. They said the rail in the area where the cracks were found was installed in 1993.
Workers repaired the two largest cracks by cutting out 19-foot segments of track and replacing them yesterday morning, officials said. They said the third crack would be fixed overnight because it posed no danger and they did not want to further disrupt service.
Red Line trains in both directions shared a single track between Van Ness-UDC and Medical Center from 5 a.m. until shortly after 6:30. Officials said that caused major delays until 7:30 and minor delays until 8.
Metro has increased the frequency of track inspections with ultrasonic equipment because of concerns about cracks. The equipment is designed to detect weaknesses and flaws not visible to humans, officials said. It is normal for the ultrasonic tests to expose 40 to 60 rail defects during each check, they said. Feil said the current ultrasonic check would be completed in about 10 days. Rails are also visually inspected twice a week by track walkers.
Greg Hull, a safety expert at the American Public Transportation Association, said "it's normal in the rail industry in the course of inspections to find rail fractures."
Metro officials pledged this month to improve customer service and ease the impact of disruptions, including offering reduced fares, to win back the trust of riders.
Officials said they did not offer reduced fares yesterday because the situation was not extreme enough. They said that they arranged for shuttle buses but that the buses arrived too late to be of help.