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Correction to This Article
A graphic based on Metro budget documents and accompanying a June 5 article on the Metro system showed that Montgomery and Prince George's counties had paid operating subsidies for Metro service. The funding came from the state of Maryland and flowed through the counties.

Efforts to Repair Aging System Compound Metro's Problems

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By Lyndsey Layton and Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 5, 2005

First of four articles

Washington's world-class subway system, which for three decades has shaped the metropolitan region and delivered thousands of commuters to work on time, has fallen into a decline -- and mismanagement has been a key factor, records show.

Trains break down 64 percent more often than they did three years ago, and the number of daily delays has nearly doubled since 2000. Although the vast majority of trains are on time, more than 14,400 subway riders a day are inconvenienced by a delay or a mechanical problem that forces them off broken trains.

Metro officials have spent nearly $1 billion in recent years to turn around the nation's second busiest subway system, but internal records show that the projects have created new problems.

To ease chronic crowding, Metro purchased 192 rail cars at a cost of $383 million. But the agency tried to rush the cars through production and often missed mistakes made on the assembly line. And on average, the new cars need major repairs almost as often as the oldest ones in the fleet.

Metro is spending an additional $382 million to rebuild rail cars bought in the 1980s. Officials failed to closely monitor the repair work, didn't catch mistakes and ignored warnings from auditors about the lack of supervision. The refurbished cars are now breaking down far more often than those that haven't been overhauled.

And a $93 million project to renovate 178 escalators has managed to make many of them worse. More than a third have been breaking down more often than they did before, a Washington Post analysis of Metro statistics shows. The project follows an earlier failed attempt, also costing millions, to improve the aging machinery.

The performance of Metro carries extraordinarily high stakes, both for the system and the metropolitan area. The public invested more than $10 billion to build the subway. As its lines have spread across Washington and its suburbs, the system has fueled population growth, revitalized neighborhoods and stitched together a diverse region. Businesses select locations and families buy homes based on proximity to a Metro station. The subway is critical to the federal workforce. People increasingly depend on it; since 2000, ridership is up 18 percent to nearly 660,000 passengers daily.

And in a region with some of the worst traffic in the country, access to reliable mass transit could determine whether the area continues to attract businesses and residents.

Christened in 1976 as "America's subway," Metro can claim real accomplishments. It created cathedral stations lauded by architects and built a technically challenging, 106-mile subway with few construction problems. It remains popular among commuters and tourists. And on Sept. 11, 2001, it proved critical to evacuating Washington.

Now, managers are grappling with problems ranging from train delays to bad publicity over rude customer service to a federal investigation into a November train crash. The agency is struggling to make the transition from a young rail system focused on constructing lines to a mature system that must maintain what it has built.

"It's a shame," Brian Graff, an economist who rides regularly, said as he stood on a Red Line platform at the Metro Center Station. "I think this was once the best subway system in the country, but you can't say that anymore."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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