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Metro could speed track work by cutting late service on weekends, report finds

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 6:57 PM

Metro could significantly accelerate critical track and safety work by shutting down its midnight to 3 a.m. rail service on weekends, according to a transit authority staff report, but two members of the board of directors said they would kill such a proposal.

The 10-page presentation, prepared by Deputy General Manager David Kubicek for a board committee meeting Thursday, lays out several benefits of closing the rail system in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Metro could cut in half - from 30 months to about a year - the time required to complete a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to replace hundreds of potentially faulty track circuits like those that malfunctioned in the June 2009 Red Line crash, the report estimates.

It would also provide more time to replace rails, weld tracks and make other safety improvements. The track work, part of Metro's largest capital improvement program since the system was built 35 years ago, would mean fewer cracked rails and fires from old insulators, less frequent speed restrictions and the ability to sustain more eight-car trains, according to the presentation. That could translate to fewer delays.

However, two board members from the District, Tommy Wells and Michael A. Brown, said they would fight such plans, vetoing a proposal if necessary.

"It would be injurious to the city, the region, to have the [nation's ] second-largest train system [by ridership] not be able to serve the city and the region after midnight," Wells said. He called the idea "an embarrassment."

Wells and Brown said the lack of service would hurt restaurant and hotel employees working in the city and making it more likely that people would drive while intoxicated.

"I'm beyond opposed to it," Brown said.

The two members said that curtailing service would be a move backward and that as an international city, the District should be expanding toward 24-hour rail service.

Reducing late-night hours "would be essentially the general manager and staff saying the rail system can only handle its commuter responsibilities," Brown said.

General Manager Richard Sarles raised the option of trimming the late-night service in the 2012 budget proposal he presented to the board in January. Sarles's budget did not propose fare increases or service cuts. Instead, it called for additional jurisdictional contributions to make up Metro's estimated $72 million operating budget gap for the fiscal year that begins in July.

Other board members - including Mary Hynes of Arlington County and federal member Mortimer Downey - said they were open to discussing the service reduction.

"Everything is on the table," said William D. Euille, a board member from Alexandria. He said that although he wants to minimize service cuts, Alexandria would face difficulty increasing its jurisdictional contribution by $1.2 million to meet its share of the budget gap. "We are going to have to bite the bullet," he said.

The presentation is scheduled to be delivered to the board's Customer Service and Operations Committee during a meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday at Metro headquarters, 600 Fifth St. in Northwest Washington. The board is not scheduled to take any action on the report.

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