Metro on Thursday released a revised final schedule for its long-term subway maintenance blitz, including changes demanded by federal safety officials, with three sections of the failure-prone rail system now set to be shut down temporarily, one at a time, for a total of 30 days starting in mid-June.
Before that series of closures, the updated plan calls for 13 days of nonstop single-tracking, beginning June 4, on the Orange and Silver lines between the Ballston and East Falls Church stations. With trains in that area having to share one track while Metro completes a maintenance “surge,” commuters there will be the first to endure disruptions as nearly a year of systemwide maintenance work gets underway.
The next project, starting June 18, will force a 16-day shutdown of service along the Orange, Blue and Silver lines from the Eastern Market station to the Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue stations. Blue Line service will be limited to Virginia during that project, and the two other lines will have reduced service, with buses replacing trains.
Then, beginning at 8 p.m. July 5 and lasting through July 11, service on the Yellow and Blue lines will be shut down between the Reagan National Airport and Pentagon City stations. Another shutdown will occur in that area for a week starting July 12, with no service between the airport and the Braddock Road station.
The two shutdowns near National had been part of Metro’s original schedule for the maintenance blitz, dubbed “SafeTrack,” announced two weeks ago.
However, the work to be done close to Eastern Market initially had been scheduled for August. Metro moved that project to near the top of the list after the Federal Transit Administration last week deemed the planned work in that area to be urgent and ordered Metro to give it priority. That also was the case with the work to be done between Ballston and East Falls Church, which originally had been set for November.
The FTA, which has safety oversight responsibility for Metro, said in a statement Thursday that it approved of the revised schedule. But the 11-month SafeTrack program, which includes 15 projects, should not be viewed as a cure-all for the beleaguered transit system, the FTA said, emphasizing that more work will be needed in future years.
Although the new schedule “gives first priority to the FTA-identified track locations where urgent repairs are required to reduce the risk of smoke and fire events,” that work “is just one piece of the much larger [Metro] safety puzzle,” the FTA said.
“Once repairs are made, they must be sustained with a long-term preventative maintenance plan as well as a strong safety culture or else [Metro] will fall right back to where they are today,” the federal agency said.
The 15 projects— or surges— in the SafeTrack plan are intended to make up for decades of neglected maintenance that has left the 118-mile rail system in a state of dangerous disrepair. Electrical fires and other infrastructure-related breakdowns have become common, often causing hours of aggravation for riders.
Metro intends to replace, repair or refurbish almost every type of subway infrastructure during the 15 projects, which will be carried out one after another, with the last one scheduled to be completed March 19, 2017.
In addition to the three shutdowns starting in June, two more are scheduled for later: From Oct. 10 to Nov. 1 along the Red Line between the NoMa-Gallaudet and Fort Totten stations and from Dec. 7 to Dec. 24 (except for Dec. 17) along the Blue Line between the Rosslyn and Pentagon stations.
And the single-tracking between Ballston and East Falls Church in June will be just the first of 10 periods of sustained single-tracking in various parts of the rail system throughout the SafeTrack maintenance program.
“Many of the surges will severely reduce the frequency of trains, resulting in crowding and extended wait times,” Metro said in a statement Thursday, repeating what it has been saying since the SafeTrack plan was unveiled May 6. “When a surge is underway on a particular line, Metro riders who have the ability to do so may be asked to use alternate travel options and avoid Metro until the project is complete.”
The transit disruptions will have ripple effects across the region as local governments and employers will be asked to make adjustments — whether it be changing HOV-lane restrictions to ease the expected increase in road traffic or allowing employees to work from home or modify their schedules.
“The plan as revised is still a very significant disruption,” said Jim Dinegar, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, one of the region’s largest business groups. “People’s heads are going to pop if they don’t pay attention to this.”
Dinegar said his group will distribute a “preparedness plan” to help businesses manage the impact of Metro’s SafeTrack program on employees. The goal will be to connect businesses with resources that can help reduce the likely disruptions.
Of the five planned rail closures, the two in July will affect travel in the vicinity of National Airport, including on the day after the Fourth of July.
Jack Potter, chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages National, said airport and Metro officials have been discussing ways to help workers and air travelers get to and from the airport during the shutdowns.
Samuel Schumach, spokesman for the federal Office of Personnel Management, said the agency is still working to finalize guidance for other federal agencies on how to deal with workers who commute on Metro. Schumach said managers probably will be given flexibility to determine how to structure their workforces.
“Given the scope, duration and nature of the disruptions, the impact to agencies . . . will differ,” he said. “That means individual agencies are best positioned to determine the impact that the SafeTrack project will have on their workforce, and therefore agencies should make decisions regarding how to adjust.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a longtime Metro supporter and one of its toughest critics on Capitol Hill, said in a statement Thursday that the finalized schedule “will present significant and sustained challenges to riders, especially my constituents along the Orange and Silver Lines.
“While this bold and aggressive proposal is undoubtedly necessary to reverse decades-long neglect of basic maintenance and safety, our riders’ patience ultimately must be rewarded with a world-class, safe, and reliable transit system.” Connolly said.
“We cannot focus only on track and infrastructure repairs; a complete systemwide change in culture is necessary at all levels of Metro.”