Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Tuesday that he has no plans to close any rail lines for months at a time to do maintenance work, saying that targeted repairs can be done by shutting down segments of track temporarily.
“I don’t see any need for a long closure of any part of the system,” Wiedefeld told reporters after a lunch meeting in Rockville with the Montgomery County Council.
Tracks, for example, could be shut down between a couple of stations, he said. In that case, bus bridges would carry passengers between stations. He said he’s also considering the possibility of limiting the train schedule to allow more time for overnight work. Wiedefeld said he will announce a plan in the next few weeks, specifying which lines or other parts of the system need attention first.
Wiedefeld was responding to a public outcry last week after the Metro board’s chairman, Jack Evans, told regional leaders that Metro required such extensive maintenance work that “it may come to the point where we have to close the entire Blue Line for six months.” Although Evans singled out the Blue Line as a candidate for closure, he said any of Metro’s six lines could be shut down in full or in part. Evans said limiting repair work to weekends and a few hours overnight was no longer enough.
After Evans raised the possibility, Wiedefeld told reporters last week that he wouldn’t rule out lengthy closures because he was “keeping all my options open.” Doing maintenance “piecemeal,” he said, had “alienated everyone.”
But after protests from many public officials and exasperated Metro riders, who were still reeling from the unprecedented March 16 weekday shutdown of the entire system for emergency track inspections, Wiedefeld backed off the idea.
Asked Tuesday about the possibility of lengthy shutdowns, Wiedefeld said that Evans is “very passionate about the system” and “wants to make sure people understand what we’re up against, which is positive.”
In looking at the details, Wiedefeld said he believes the work can get done in less-disruptive ways.
“Clearly, if we had more time in the evening through the morning hours, that would help tremendously,” Wiedefeld told reporters. “And even the weekends. . . . Is that the smartest way to do it? Are there other things we can do on that end? I’ve got to balance that, obviously, with any safety issues.”
Wiedefeld didn’t specify the duration for which a segment of a line might be closed, but a Metro official said earlier this week that “there’s nothing that [Wiedefeld] is considering right now that would prompt a line to close for anything measured in months, much less six months.”
That official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no decision has been made, offered three likely scenarios. The first would shut down parts of tracks “for something like a week, two weeks.”
The second would single-track trains for longer periods, including during the morning and evening rush. The third would shut down part of a line for eight to 10 consecutive weekends.
Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who chairs the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said he was relieved to hear that long-term shutdowns of entire lines were no longer a possibility.
“The public obviously has been totally consumed by the prospect of a shutdown for six months,” Berliner said after the meeting. “The general manager is making it as clear as he can that that’s not something he’s considering. I think that’s very helpful for the public to understand.”
Wiedefeld said that workers still must address “pinch points,” such as elevated tracks, that are difficult to reach safely unless both tracks are shut down. He said repairs will include the tracks, power and signaling systems, lighting and station platforms. Some of the needed fixes are safety-related, he said.
“We’ve laid out a two-year time frame,” Wiedefeld told the council. “To me, it’s like, you know, maybe we’ve got to tighten that up and get that done as quickly as we can and just reduce those risks even further.”
In addition to safety-related work, Wiedefeld told the council, Metro is focusing on making parking garages and stations safer and preventing water from leaking into the system.
During the 45-minute meeting, council members praised Wiedefeld’s willingness to openly address Metro’s safety and reliability problems. However, several asked that he give the public more warning than the 12 hours that preceded the March 16 shutdown.
“Next time you shut the whole system down, maybe give a bit more notice?” said Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large).
Wiedefeld told the council that he’s trying to avoid another systemwide shutdown. Even so, he said, Metro’s two-track system doesn’t allow for many repairs to be done while trains are running on a full schedule.
He said he’s balancing non-emergency maintenance work with “the fact that [Metro] is the lifeblood of this region.”
“We have to be very careful how we do that,” Wiedefeld said of any shutdowns. He said Metro would give passengers “as much notice as possible.”
He added: “But on the other hand, I don’t think we just keep pushing this further and further and further down the road here, where we’re just not showing the progress for people. So that’s what I’m trying to wrestle with. That’s what I’m trying to balance here.”