The Washington Post

Metro making improvements, but they may be hard to spot

A long-awaited fix for the Farragut North ceiling highlights the cave-like quality of the tunnel wall. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

No question about it: The ceiling at Farragut North hasn’t looked this good in years. Red Line platforms are in better shape. The mezzanine at Bethesda is brighter and the new staircase is a good alternative to escalator lines.

Meanwhile, as the long rebuilding program continues on Metrorail, midday track work is no longer scheduled. Nighttime work delays begin no earlier than 10 p.m. And the weekend program, the main time for track work disruptions, has become somewhat less disruptive for riders as Metro modified the train schedules and improved the schedule information available on its Trip Planner. In 2014, Metrorail may cut back somewhat on the use of three-day holiday weekends it has used for extended track work, at least on the ones where so many private employees have to work on the Mondays.

So have we turned a corner on the long road to 2017, when Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has said the aggressive phase of the rebuilding program is scheduled to diminish into routine maintenance?

Bethesda station staircase A stairway at Bethesda creates an alternative to lining up for escalators. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

That would be too aggressive a statement. Let’s look at it from the Metro operations side and the rider’s point of view.

Rob Troup, who’s in charge of Metrorail operations, gave one of the best explanations I’ve heard about the rebuilding program when he spoke earlier in October to Metro board members.

Troup said the question he’s often asked is, “When will you be done?” And he wanted to explain why “that’s a hard question.”

The answer, he said, is that “We will never be done, nor should we.”

That’s a transit manager talking. To riders, the repair program just looks like one thing after another. The managers divide the projects into categories. On some projects, like the upgrades to the wireless communications system, Metro is the host for contractors who need time and space to install equipment. Other projects upgrade the system — adding the staircase and the new lighting at Bethesda, for example — and they have planned start and end dates, just as road work projects that add lanes or rebuild interchanges. (And like the road work projects, the timetables are not always met.)

But Metro managers also talk about a seemingly endless set of projects meant to maintain what they often call “a steady state of good repair.”  To Troup, they really are endless.

“This railroad will never be new again,” he said. Therefore, disruption — while undesirable — will always be necessary.

The closest road work equivalent I can think of is bridge painting. Painting a bridge takes so long, the painters get to one end, and pretty soon, they have to go back to the other and start over. Drivers don’t see much. They don’t define the bridge as “better” after a paint job. But the bridge will last longer and be safer.

With Metro, many of the safety improvements — like the ones that replace insulators, rails and track ties — are difficult to spot. The effects of the replacements also can be difficult to spot. Commuters continue to experience delays and disruptions, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said, but because of these replacement projects on the system’s infrastructure, the disruptions are more likely to be caused by mechanical problems with aging rail cars than by the track infrastructure. (For more about rail car replacement, see Paul Duggan’s story about the new 7000 series.)

Here again, the rider is unlikely to sense a turning point, at least not yet. If you’re late for work because of Metrorail delays, you’re probably not keeping score on which piece of the system was the culprit.

This also applies to the most visible improvements, such as the Farragut North ceiling or the lighting improvements at stations such as Bethesda.

As with so many aspects of an urban environment, one visible improvement can make other things look kind of crummy by comparison.

In the distance, riders see the positive effect of new station lighting, after they walk past the relative darkness of the vending machine area. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

At Farragut North, the whiteness of the new ceiling highlights the cave-like quality of the tunnel walls. At Bethesda, the warm glow around the station kiosk makes the darkness around the fare vending machines more noticeable.

Because riders experience the bad along with the good, and may have trouble determining how things are trending, it was encouraging to hear Troup say this regarding the progress of specific rebuilding projects: “We are currently developing schedules on a per station basis.” He noted that riders often see Metrorail not as  one system or even one line, but rather as a set of stations — the ones they use each day.

So from the viewpoint of riders, improvement schedules for individual stations “will enable them to see what work is to be done, when it is to be done, and more importantly, when it is to be completed,” Troup said.

Metro managers like Troup tend to speak about “the railroad environment,” which encompasses “Guarded No. 8 switches,” “joint bars” and “track geometry,” among many other things you’re unlikely to spot. To riders, the environment consists of an escalator, a fare gate, a platform, a train, another platform and another escalator. Give them an idea how things stand with that localized experience, and you’re giving them a vital statistic with which they can relate.

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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Luz Lazo · October 31, 2013

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