Federal officials on Wednesday ordered Metro to immediately begin maintenance work on three long stretches of tracks to eliminate the threat of fires, forcing the transit agency to make last-minute scheduling changes in an extensive subway-rebuilding plan that it had hoped to finalize by early next week.
One of the trouble spots targeted by the Federal Transit Administration is a section of the Orange, Blue and Silver lines from the Potomac Avenue station to a point just east of the Stadium-Armory station. A track fire in that area early Monday crippled the morning commute for riders on the three lines. There were problems near the same stretch again Wednesday.
Carolyn Flowers, the FTA’s acting administrator, said the required fixes are so significant that they cannot wait to be completed under the tentative schedule set for Metro’s year-long “SafeTrack” maintenance blitz. Metro last week released a draft schedule for 15 projects included in the plan and had hoped to finalize the schedule Monday.
Flowers noted that in some cases, federal inspectors will watch as Metro crews do the work.
Of the three sections of tracks specified for immediate work by the FTA, two are part of the SafeTrack program, including the Stadium-Armory area and a segment of the Orange and Silver lines between the Ballston and East Falls Church Metro stations.
But under the draft schedule, the Stadium-Armory work was to be done in late August and the work near Ballston was to be completed in the fall.
“While the draft SafeTrack plan . . . was based on the professional judgment of engineers with a priority on safety, the FTA has directed Metro to make changes,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said in a statement Wednesday. “As such, the draft plan will be modified. The final SafeTrack plan will be released as soon as possible, but likely will not be ready by the original target date of May 16.”
The 15 SafeTrack projects are to be conducted one after another, with work commencing June 4. It is unclear whether the rescheduling will lead to a delay in the start.
In the period between April 23 and May 10, federal safety inspectors have investigated 15 safety events, including nine that involved smoke and/or fire. Those incidents included last week’s arcing insulator explosion at Federal Center SW that sprayed “fiery metal and ceramic projectiles” onto the station platform. No one was injured, but a video of the incident was widely circulated. At a meeting with reporters Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx described the video as “very scary.”
In the two-page letter, Flowers also directed Metro to focus on repairing a segment of the Red Line between Medical Center and Van Ness stations.
The draft SafeTrack plans called for Metro to address the issues at Stadium-Armory as part of a 16-day rail shutdown stretching from Eastern Market, which serves the Blue, Orange and Silver lines, to Benning Road on the Blue and Silver lines, and Minnesota Avenue, which serves the Orange Line. However, work was not slated to begin until Aug. 20.
Work on the Ballston to East Falls Church stretch of the Orange and Silver lines was scheduled to begin Nov. 12, in the draft released Friday by Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld.
The span of the Red Line singled out in Flower’s letter was not part of SafeTrack, though work had been done on a portion of that area following a smoke incident in a tunnel at Friendship Heights in late April.
Flowers was specific about the type of maintenance Metro must do. Work on the Red, Blue, Orange and Silver lines must include everything from clearing drains to replacing insulators and third-rail cover boards as well as corroded rail.
On the Orange and Silver line segment in Virginia, Metro crews are to focus on the system that powers the trains as well as inspecting the tunnel drainage system.
Stessel, the Metro spokesman, noted that Metro has moved quickly to address safety problems in the system.
“It is important for riders to know that Metro GM Wiedefeld is not waiting on safety items,” he said. Stessel said Wiedefeld already has directed that all porcelain insulators be removed from all underground stations over the next month. (A porcelain insulator was tied to the May 5 explosion at Federal Center SW.)
Stessel added that, as recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board, sealing sleeves will be installed on all underground power cables by the end of May. He said that the agency also is responding to an FTA safety directive issued over the weekend regarding power and has imposed operating restrictions in the system’s core to limit how fast trains travel and how quickly trains accelerate.
Earlier Wednesday, Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans addressed the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) repeating what he has said many times in recent weeks: that the federal government should offer greater financial help to the transit agency and that officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District should adopt a dedicated source of regional funding for Metro, such as a new tax or fee imposed on the public.
Unlike other big transit systems in the country, Metro does not have a predictable source of operating revenue. Instead, the agency must annually go to the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. governments, seeking subsidies from three jurisdictions with differing priorities and budget constraints.
COG Chairman Roger Berliner and others on the regional council said they strongly back Evans.
“One of our tasks that I hope we will complete before the end of the year is achieving consensus on a regional dedicated source of funding for this organization,” said Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), a Montgomery County Council member. “Because it is at least my goal to give our various legislatures the opportunity to take that matter up. . . . We will work very hard with our business community, with all of us, and with our legislators to come up with a funding mechanism.”
COG member Christian Dorsey echoed Berliner’s support for Evans. He also took a shot at federal officials, apparently because of the Metro shutdown threats from Foxx that have accompanied some of the FTA’s inspection findings.
“This is a matter of utmost importance, and our fixing it has to start with not piling on,” said Dorsey, a Democrat who serves on the Arlington County Board. “We have seen how the FTA likes to pile on instead of being helpful. We, as contributing jurisdictions, should not take that approach. We should look at every way that we can possibly be helpful.”