A Transit System That Feels Its Age

With power out at the Dupont Circle Station, Metro riders make the long walk up non-working escalators. The Dupont Circle Station is on the Red Line, the highest-ridership line in the aging system, which is the second busiest in the country.
With power out at the Dupont Circle Station, Metro riders make the long walk up non-working escalators. The Dupont Circle Station is on the Red Line, the highest-ridership line in the aging system, which is the second busiest in the country. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008

Four major Metro disruptions in 10 days underscore the strains facing the region's largest transit agency as the system ages. Its infrastructure is old and needs to be replaced. It is the nation's only major transit system without a significant source of dedicated funding. And its two-track design, comparable to a two-lane road instead of multi-lane superhighway, gives transit officials little flexibility when trains and other systems break down, as they are doing with greater frequency.

Two track fires yesterday in the heart of downtown Washington, on Metro's highest-ridership Red Line, and blackouts at several key downtown stations from a Pepco power failure ended a difficult week for Metro. The fires and blackouts yesterday followed a derailment and a heat-related track problem that caused disruptions and delays earlier in the week.

The latest breakdowns come at a time when soaring gasoline prices have caused some commuters to ditch cars for public transit, the industry group American Public Transportation Association said in a recent report. Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has also cautioned that trains could be overwhelmed if gas prices reach $5 a gallon.

"Any problem now is qualitatively more complex than in the past," said Chris Zimmerman, chairman of the Metro board. When there were fewer riders, having trains share a track around a problem might have solved backups quickly. With more demand, however, the system's ability to recover from delays takes longer and requires better coordination within the agency, with local governments, and with Metro riders, he said.

Several of the recent events were out of Metro's control. Severe thunderstorms that caused downed power lines and debris on tracks between the East Falls Church and West Falls Church stations last week caused Metro to suspend service. The power failure yesterday occurred after a Pepco substation failed.

Rail chief Dave Kubicek said the Pepco failure resulted in sudden power fluctuations in Metro's grid, which caused two stud bolts to fail, triggering the fires. Stud bolts and other components hold the track in place. The studs can overheat, causing the surrounding rubber material to smoke and burn.

Old stud bolts and track fasteners are among the millionsof pieces of infrastructure the 32-year-old transit agency needs to replace, but cannot afford. In August, after a series of track fires shut down 11 stations on all five lines over two days, power and equipment failure were the culprits.

The rail system, which opened in 1976, has reached the point where many components must be refurbished or replaced, and the strains are showing. As of yesterday, Metro reported 1,729 incidents that resulted in service disruption this year, compared with 1,564 for the same period last year, agency statistics show.

"It's not brand-new anymore," said Metro board member Peter Benjamin, a former longtime Metro planner and executive. "We need to be replacing track, we need to be replacing power and propulsion systems in the trains, and we're reaching a point where we have to replace our oldest cars.

"We're already in the middle of doing all these things, including escalators and station platforms, but the investment is enormous," he said.

Metro officials recently identified $489 million in urgent unfunded capital repairs, including track fasteners, stud bolts and station platforms, that must be made over the next six years. Metro said $157 million in projects must be done in the next two years. Some of that money will come from delaying previously planned upgrades; Metro officials have said they want to borrow the remaining $48 million.

About one-third of Metro's more than 1,100 rail cars are 30 years old and have reached the end of their use.

Despite fare and fee increases, funding needs have become more critical as ridership has surged. Metro's average weekday ridership in April, 771,811, was 4 percent higher than a year ago. Metro is the second-busiest transit system in the country, after New York. On several days, when no special events were scheduled, ridership exceeded 800,000 trips.

Metro is the only major transit system in the country without a significant reliable stream of funding. While transit systems that include those in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Philadelphia are guaranteed a portion of a gasoline tax, sales tax or other revenue to help pay costs, Metro must seek financial aid each year from the District, Virginia and Maryland.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) to authorize $1.5 billion over 10 years to Metro for capital improvements and maintenance was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this week as an amendment to a bill authorizing funding for Amtrak. The Metro measure is to be matched by the District, Virginia and Maryland; all three jurisdictions have pledged matching funds. Similar legislation has stalled in the Senate because of opposition by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

Even if Congress passed a measure authorizing funding for Metro this year, it would still need to appropriate the money. In the most optimistic scenario, the earliest that funds would be available to Metro would be fiscal 2011, for capital improvements only.

No amount of funding is going to change the limits imposed by Metro's two-track system.

"Each one of those lanes carries as many people as go down the Beltway," board member Benjamin said. When trains share one track, "it's like bringing the Beltway to a halt. Except there aren't any side streets to go on."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company