The Washington Post

Metro riders need to see results

After encountering train delays Tuesday afternoon, Red Line riders could see this evidence of long-term work on the Fort Totten platform. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Since early 2010, Metro has been repairing the ceiling at the Farragut North station.

Since early 2011, I’ve repeatedly described Metro’s rebuilding program as “aggressive.”

Now, I have dreams in which Inigo Montoya and I are standing on the Farragut North platform.

You keep using that word,” he mutters, as he did to Vizzini on the Cliffs of Insanity. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Metro managers say they’re in a flat-out rush to fix things. Riders who have spent two years in scheduled delays for maintenance and then unscheduled ones for third rail problems and train breakdowns find it inconceivable that the rebuilding program hasn’t produced more visible results.

With almost four left to go in the “aggressive” program, all the riders know is that they’re getting battered on both sides. Metro should have enough experience with the work’s progress to tell riders when they should expect some things — like the Fort Totten platform in the picture above — to be done.

“We are looking at ways to do this,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said in an e-mail. “We do it for escalators and elevators (and take the hits when some of the dates slip for various reasons), because these projects are easy to define.

“Other projects, or elements of projects, are harder to define. Farragut North’s ceiling tiles are a good example. If all we were doing was changing the ceiling tiles, that would be easy. But, in reality, those ceiling tiles were down to allow access for at least three other projects that I know of.”

He cited the installation of new lighting and electrical conduit, installation of high-definition closed-circuit cameras and — most difficult of all — the shoring up of structurally deficient water and sewer mains that run across the station at mezzanine-level.

So over several years, he said, the project has required construction of a new concrete column from the platform to the main enclosure, re-encasing the mains in concrete and other structural reinforcement work that required track shutdowns.

Because each of these projects has its own schedule, with separate contractors, and is subject to the juggling of track access times to meet the needs of a variety of programs, projecting when the ceiling tiles can go back in was challenging, he said.

(There also was a pause in work to keep the platform as clear as possible for any additional riders diverted from Dupont Circle while the south entrance escalators were rebuilt.)

Now that the cameras and lights are installed and the initial phase of structural work is done, the ceiling tiles should all be up by the end of summer, Stessel said. Later, workers will need to return to Farragut North to do more structural work, but it will be less invasive than what we’ve seen during the past two years, he said.

This wasn’t the only example he gave me to illustrate the complexity of the rebuilding projects. On station reconstruction: Metro could tell riders that a station platform would be done by a certain time, but would that be meaningful to riders who also would see work continuing on other station projects, such as new lighting or escalator replacement.

Station repairs are highly visible. Many less-visible projects fall within the short-hand definition of “track work.”  Those include tie replacement, track circuit replacement, rail replacement, tamping, insulator renewal, leak mitigation, third rail renewal, rail polishing, floating slab rehabilitation and rail fastener replacement or renewal.

Sometimes, you just can’t do two things at once. You can’t replace ties or rail and do signal work at the same time, Stessel said. So it might be possible to say the rail fastener replacement on the Red Line will be done on a certain timetable, but would that matter to riders who will be going through a single-tracking zone a weekend later for some other type of replacement project?

“We do wrestle with these questions, and we’re aware of the public’s interest in knowing more about progress and timelines. As we have done over the past two years, we will continue to adapt, evolve and hopefully improve,” Stessel said.

In fact, Metro has evolved in sharing information with the public on disruptions. You can see that reflected in the way it presents the schedule information for this coming weekend on the Metro Web site.

It could evolve further by thinking of each segment of the rebuilding program from the point of view of the riders who experience it. That would include thinking of the work areas on the Fort Totten platform from the point of view of riders who were making their way through Tuesday afternoon’s disruptions.

Metro managers understand what it means to be on an “aggressive” rebuilding schedule. They know they are trying to fix the things on the tracks and in the stations that make transit travel unreliable and unpleasant.

Riders understand that their trips are aggressively disrupted. They get the unreliable and unpleasant part. Most have been very patient with the rebuilding program, but they deserve something in return — today, not four years from now when the most disruptive work is likely to be done.

Sure, rebuilding a major transit system is complicated. So was rebuilding the Potomac River bridge for the main East Coast Interstate highway. It was a $2.5 billion job that included not only rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge but also the four nearest interchanges.

Engineers and contractors had to come up with a multi-year plan to do all that construction while maintaining both the commuter and the long-distance traffic on Interstate 95. They had to build one span, take down the old one, build another new span, rebuild the Maryland interchange, then rebuild the Virginia interchanges, rebuild Maryland and Virginia portions of the Capital Beltway to include local and express lanes.

The daunting nature of these tasks did not prevent the planners from putting out a schedule letting travelers know when each span, each interchange and each ramp was likely to be done. They didn’t tell us the exact date till they got very close, but even at the start, they predicted the year and the season.

Same with Virginia’s Beltway express lanes. Same with the District’s 11th Street Bridge. Same with Maryland’s Intercounty Connector. All these are big jobs done in phases, yet planners set timetables that let travelers know what to look for, as in, “Next spring, we expect to open this ramp, and over the summer, we’ll close this one.”

Metro riders can tell the difference between elevators and platform tiles just as drivers can tell the difference between ramps and bridges. The transit riders should have as much information as the drivers get.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.



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