How many Metro employees does it take to screw in a light bulb? More than they've got in the relamping division at the transit agency, where the dozen people responsible for maintaining lighting throughout the subway system have been overwhelmed by the task and are in need of reinforcements.
Metro officials have said the agency needs more help to properly maintain the 250,000 light bulbs on platforms, on rail beds and in and around parking garages at its 86 stations.
The transit system's $1.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes $400,000 for six additional "relampers" and their equipment.
Steven A. Feil, Metro's chief operating officer for rail, said the new hires will be licensed electricians who can replace light bulbs as well as rewire and troubleshoot problems associated with lighting.
Lighting throughout Metro is a complicated affair because the cathedral design of the stations calls for indirect illumination.
Eight-foot-long fluorescent tubes run down the center of the track bed, parallel to the electrified third rail, casting light upward to the ceiling. Each track bed has 150 of those tubular bulbs.
Tubular bulbs also hang beneath the platform railings in the space between the platforms and the arched walls, making the walls glow.
Perhaps the most visible bulbs are the 40-watt numbers embedded in the granite platform edges that blink when a train is approaching.
All those spots are difficult to reach, making bulb replacement hard, Feil said. The only way to install new bulbs in the track bed, for instance, is to wait until subway service has ceased for the day and the third rail is turned off.
Each station is checked every three months for burned-out bulbs, Feil said. But the current number of relampers can't keep up with the work, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.
A stroll down the Orange and Blue line platform at Metro Center last week revealed that 51 of the 144 bulbs embedded along the Vienna/Franconia- Springfield platform were burned out. Another several dozen were dimmed by lenses that were covered in thick dirt and steel dust from the trains.
One section of bulbs along the Orange and Blue line track bed was dark, casting a heavy black shadow against the wall.
Several of the tubular fluorescent bulbs that illuminate the walkway between the Red Line platform and the entrance to Hecht's were also burned out.
Of the 47 Metro stations that are underground, 24 appear especially dim, Feil said.
"Lighting, it's a subjective thing, but it definitely seems that some stations are darker than others," he said. Among them are Benning Road, Capitol Heights, Potomac Avenue, Stadium-Armory and Navy Yard, Metro officials said.
Add Farragut West to the list, said Susan Nichols, a 59-year-old museum educator who commutes daily on the Orange Line between Clarendon and Metro Center. Nichols and four friends walked into Farragut West at midday Wednesday and commented on the dimness of the station.
"We all noticed it and remarked on how it seemed so dark," she said.
The agency is considering installing high-intensity bulbs in the darker stations and power-washing the walls and ceilings to remove dark dust, Feil said.