Metro Maintenance Crews Take Pride in Remaining Behind the Scenes

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Cleveland Park Metro station is looking a lot cleaner, thanks to the station enhancement crew, which enters after the rail system shuts down each night and departs before the trains start running a few hours later. The team is part of the Office of Plant Maintenance, the people who work behind the scenes to maintain the small city that comprises Metro. Here's a look at some of what they do.

Plant Maintenance

Paul C. Gillum Jr., Metro's director of plant maintenance, defines the mission this way: "Our main goal is never to be known." If riders are not aware of a problem -- if the stations are clean, the newspapers hauled away, the snow cleared, the platform tiles in decent shape -- then the office has done its job.

With an authorized 585 positions and an annual operating budget of $58 million, the office is organized into branches that deal with equipment maintenance, building maintenance, station enhancement, grounds maintenance and custodial services, among other tasks. They make signs; fix chiller units that cool train stations; remove trash, snow and ice; clean stations; and ensure that the standpipes in subway tunnels are working properly in case of emergency.

If the transit authority changes a sign -- raising a fee, renaming a station, highlighting a rule -- it can have an effect 10,000 times over throughout the Metro system. Plant Maintenance makes the signs and installs them. New parking rules recently required placement of 5,000 signs.

In planning for a winter storm, Plant Maintenance deals with many difficulties that highway departments confront. What's the track of the storm, when will it get here and how long will it stay? Metro can't bring its storm team in too early in the morning, because it'll have to be around for the evening rush as well. Crews can work up to 12 hours.

If the storm follows a typical course, Vienna and Shady Grove will be hard hit, but the impact can vary. Metro must clear more than 55,000 parking spaces, plus the sidewalks, entrances and outdoor station platforms. The garages are tough because heavy equipment can't get in.

Also trouble: the outdoor platforms. The crews can't just dump the snow onto the tracks, unless there's a diesel plow coming along. Clearing snow may turn out to be the relatively easy part of the cleanup. It's the ice that develops over the next couple of days that can be most difficult to remove.

When it's 91 degrees outside, Plant Maintenance works to keep indoor stations no hotter than 85 degrees. It's like trying to cool your house with the doors and windows open.

The capacity of the chillers, which pump cold water into the station and transfer out heat, will vary with the age and location of the station. Inbound trains push hot air into the portal stations, such as Union Station, where the rail line transitions between underground and above ground. Plant Maintenance also has to keep beavers, bees and rats away.

The crews also take care of 800 acres of concrete and asphalt. Then there are those brown tiles riders see eroding on outdoor station platforms. When that happens, Plant Maintenance has to replace them. But while the tiles look the same to casual observer, the fact is the transit authority has used many different styles over the years. To replace them, workers must match size and thickness, something they often cannot determine until they pull the tiles up. The way of the future: concrete tile with the same look, but much sturdier and easier to walk on without slipping.

Plant Maintenance is losing nine positions because of budget cuts. For Gillum and his staff, the problem is that the size and scope of the duties remain unchanged.

"What are people expecting less of?" Gillum asks. "We invite a million of our closest friends over every day."

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