Metro board members appear resigned to accepting the agency’s proposal to cancel late-night service to provide crews more nighttime track access despite ongoing concerns about whether the time will be used efficiently.
During a meeting of the panel’s finance committee Thursday, senior staff made their best case to convince the board that adding nighttime work hours would help reshape the agency’s maintenance program and allow crews to perform more preventive work instead of constantly addressing critical breakdowns.
“At some point, we need to get away from just fixing stuff that’s already broken,” said Andrew Off, assistant general manager for transit infrastructure and engineering services.
Off said that Metro needs nighttime repair windows to avoid a potential “SafeTrack 2.0,” referring to the agency’s year-long maintenance blitz aimed at cramming three years of work into one. The program is an attempt to make a dent in 40 years of neglect and help bring the system to a “state of good repair.”
When late-night service was implemented in 1999 and expanded in 2007, Metro stopped performing non-emergency track work on Friday and Saturday nights because the maintenance window left after midnight-to-3 a.m. service was too small. In the process, managers abandoned a preventive maintenance schedule and instead focused on repairing things that were already near a breaking point.
By restoring the Friday and Saturday night hours, Off said, Metro would be able to jump-start a new preventive maintenance plan.
But the proposal was met with skepticism from board members, who asked whether alternatives were considered, why Metro needed more work time than peer systems and whether there was data to back up claims that more time is needed.
Why couldn’t crews work on one side of the tracks at one time?
“Our system — electrically, Track 1 and Track 2 are connected,” Off responded.
Why couldn’t they perform work in one region of the system at a time?
“If you go to a preventive maintenance cycle, single-tracking is moving every day,” said Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader. It would be confusing for workers and riders, he said.
How about adding more crews to the tracks each night?
There are already 60 crews out every night, Off said. It would be difficult to transport even more to work sites during limited maintenance windows.
But, again, why can’t crews work while trains are single-tracking?
“There’s a practical limit to the number of areas where you can single-track at the same time after 8 p.m., in terms of the number of work crews,” SafeTrack director Laura Mason said. To be able to keep up 20-minute headways, she said, only about 15 crews can be spread out on the tracks. “The math just doesn’t work,” she added.
Tensions escalated as Off, Leader and Mason outlined all the work that had not been performed in recent years and allowed the system to deteriorate over the past decade.
Board member Tom Bulger said he was outraged and disappointed at the idea that vital preventive practices were dropped from the maintenance schedule, among them testing for stray electrical current on cables, a means of preventing tunnel fires.
“You just startled me by saying that we used to do X, Y with power and we used to do something else, we don’t do it anymore,” Bulger said. “How does that happen? That we used to do stuff that was necessary and now we don’t and the board . . . just finds out about it this morning?”
“Time,” Leader responded, referring to the diminished number of nighttime maintenance hours crews can use.
But board member Catherine Hudgins jumped in, saying some of the blame lies with the board for approving late-night service years ago while knowing it would cut into maintenance time.
“When you say you want longer hours and you got longer hours, you also got less maintenance,” Hudgins said. “That is the answer to the question.”
Board member Malcolm Augustine, who had expressed opposition to eliminating late-night service because of the impact on late-shift and low-income workers, said he was heartened by Thursday’s presentation — and somewhat persuaded. The cuts would result in a 1 percent decrease in ridership, he noted, but double the productive work time on the tracks and likely result in a significant reduction in service interruptions.
“It’s just so stark to me . . . that we’d be able to gain that much in productivity,” Augustine said. “This will help us get the program turned around, get more reliable . . . so we can start seeing people come back.”
The discussion about late-night service and work hours came during a meeting at which board members faced an array of unpleasant prospects for the future of Metro, many related to General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposed budget.
Board members will soon have to decide on potential fare increase, service cuts and layoffs — among a backdrop of plummeting ridership.
On Thursday, board members — except for Chairman Jack Evans — didn’t give much indication of what they thought about Wiedefeld’s proposals.
Evans said the District would be willing to double its subsidy to the agency to prevent fare increases and service cuts, as long as the other jurisdictions did the same. After the meeting, he acknowledged that neither D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) nor other members of the D.C. Council had explicitly said they supported the idea.