Twenty days from the anticipated conclusion of SafeTrack, Metro is hailing the year-long program as a success, saying the aggressive, round-the-clock maintenance has shrunk the proportion of defective track, reduced instances of smoke and fire, and cut service disruptions in the troubled subway system.
But for riders, tangible benefits from the repair regimen remain unseen, officials and experts say, with on-time performance and customer satisfaction still lagging well below target at 69 percent, according to the latest figures.
SafeTrack’s built-in disruptions have fueled the perception of decreased reliability, but continuing unrelated chronic breakdowns also contributed to a trend that has driven away customers in record numbers over the past year.
In a new report to be presented to Metro’s board of directors Thursday, Metro says SafeTrack was successful in its effort to collapse three years of repair work into one, an overarching goal of the program that launched last June. As a result, the percentage of defective wooden crossties, which secure the running rails at the proper spacing in the system, has dropped from 22 percent to 2 percent, the agency said. Smoke and fire incidents have been reduced 16 percent, and rail service disruptions have decreased, meaning there were nearly a third fewer emergency shuttle bridges required than before, the agency said.
(Metro has also run less service than in years past, with 16 rounds of extended shutdowns or single-tracking as part of SafeTrack. The program has affected 5,800 of the 7,000 hours Metro was in service since SafeTrack’s launch, according to the report.)
“Overall, the SafeTrack program has been very successful in terms of the safety performance, the work completed and the schedule achieved,” Metro says in its presentation. “The past year has been the most aggressive renewal program of [Metro’s] history and it was achieved through tremendous hard work and cooperation across the region — from our employees, our riders and our stakeholders.”
The program cost an estimated $150 million to $160 million, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Monday.
The crosstie repairs are particularly significant, officials said, as SafeTrack primarily focused on those rail components, 47,500 of which will be repaired by the program’s conclusion — compared with 15,000 in a typical year.
Deterioration of the long wooden beams was cited in the July 2016 derailment outside East Falls Church, which led to a slew of firings after an investigation revealed a pattern of employees in the agency’s track inspection department falsifying reports.
As a result of its aggressive SafeTrack regimen, Metro said, the agency performed 3.7 times the usual amount of track repairs at roughly 2 1/2 times the cost of its usual annual track repair budget, improving “cost efficiency” by 50 percent.
Metro did not immediately respond to a request for an interview on the SafeTrack overview Monday.
The Federal Transit Administration, which assumed safety oversight of the rail system in October 2015, in a statement Monday night called SafeTrack a “necessary and important first step” in tackling Metro’s backlog of infrastructural issues. Still, the FTA said, there was significant work to do.
Metro “must do much more to further reduce this backlog and improve its maintenance program to better ensure the safety of the Metrorail system for passengers and workers and restore the system to a state of good repair,” FTA said.
The agency did not directly respond to a reporter’s question about whether it accepted Metro’s findings or agreed with its assessment that SafeTrack was “very successful.”
Although supportive of SafeTrack overall, the FTA has raised concerns over the quality of work being performed through the course of the program. Federal inspectors noted in initial inspection reports that SafeTrack repairs weren’t being conducted as effectively as possible and some problems, such as loose fasteners, were being overlooked. A later report from the Government Accountability Office concluded that Metro had rushed into the planning of SafeTrack, leaving the year-long program less effective than it could have been — in part because advance inspections were “not comprehensive and did not collect detailed data on the condition of all track infrastructure.”
Metro officials defended the program at the time, however, saying the dilapidated state of the system’s tracks warranted urgent action. It is unknown whether the FTA is conducting its own comprehensive analysis of SafeTrack.
Rob Puentes, president of the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation, said that compared with a year ago, Metro’s problems have stabilized. He hailed the SafeTrack findings as a beacon for the system.
“The system is not up to a state of good repair or anything — they’ve cleared this backlog of some degree out,” he said. “But we no longer have this crisis of confidence — that’s clearly a win for Metro.”
Still, he said, the agency has significant work ahead to repair its public perception. Pressed on how the average rider should respond to news that significantly fewer rail ties are rotted out compared with a year ago, for example, he said Metro has to earn back trust by improving service.
“It’s going to take more, and the proof is going to be in the pudding. If delays and safety are palpably and tangibly improved, that’ll take care of itself,” Puentes said.
Further, an independent, rather than internal, overview would buoy Metro’s case that SafeTrack was a success, he said.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said he was pleased to see the agency’s report, but he plans to press officials at Thursday’s board meeting on when reliability will improve.
“It’s really basic here; you got to fix the tracks. Those statistics would indicate that we’ve made substantial progress,” Evans said.
But he went on to say that with safety under control, the focus is now on when the breakdowns will end.
“The thing . . . that riders are concerned about, I’m concerned about, everyone is concerned about — on a very basic level — is reliability,” he said.
SafeTrack is scheduled to conclude with its 16th surge on June 25, following a nine-day shutdown from Shady Grove to Twinbrook on the Red Line. Then, beginning in August, Metro will conduct three work blitzes over the next year to rehabilitate crossovers, where trains switch tracks. The work will involve shutting down portions of the Yellow, Green and Red lines for 10 weekdays at a time. And the agency will launch a preventive maintenance program, bolstered by a reduction in service hours, that aims to keep the system in a state of good repair.
“The most important lesson of all from SafeTrack is how vital it is to maintain a proactive capital renewal and maintenance program,” Metro concludes in its report.