Metro officials will step up efforts to keep tunnels clear of dust and grime and clean the electrical equipment that helps move rail cars through the system after another smoke incident that shut down service to three lines during Monday’s busy morning commute.
Speaking to board members Thursday, Rob Troup, Metro’s deputy general manager of operations, said that crews will resume washing down the tunnels in the rail system, a practice that was halted in the early 1990s. The hope is that keeping the system’s 100 miles of tunnel free of dust and buildup, combined with other efforts, will help Metro prevent other electrical malfunctions like the one that occurred in the tunnel between the Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom stations and left thousands of commuters stranded.
“I want to get to a point where we are so proactive that these incidents don’t happen,” Troup said.
Although there was no fire, the electricity — which is supposed to be safely contained within insulation — generated heat and smoke as it escaped into the tunnel. Metro workers had to shut down power so they could investigate and make repairs, which cut service to the Blue, Orange and Silver lines.
The disruption lasted more than three hours and was similar to the Jan. 12 smoke incident at the L’Enfant Plaza station, which left one person dead.
Troup said that Monday’s incident involved eight insulators, which are designed to contain electricity that powers the third rail. Five were in an outbound tunnel, and three were in an inbound tunnel. The insulators, which were about 20 to 25 years old, had been scheduled for cleaning next month.
Metro officials also again apologized to riders, some of whom reported being stuck in the system for as long as two hours while the transit authority scrambled to restore service. A survey has been sent to 10,000 riders asking them for feedback on Metro’s response to the incident.
Troup acknowledged that apologies may mean little to customers, “unless they are followed by action.”
“In many ways, it was the worst place at the worst time,” added Lynn Bowersox, Metro’s assistant general manager for customer service, noting that the incident happened during the morning rush in a section of tunnel that was difficult for crews to access quickly. “We understand the frustration.”
But several members of Metro’s Customer Service and Operations Committee seemed dissatisfied with the official explanation and the promises that there would be improvement — both in the transit authority’s response and how it communicates with riders.
After Metro officials wrapped up their presentation, Corbett Price, who represents the District on the system’s board, had a simple question: “How is it going to be better?”
“These incidents are becoming too numerous,” added a clearly frustrated William Euille, who represents Alexandria on the board. “It’s a blemish to WMATA,” the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “We’ve got to find solutions,” he added.
Euille said he is tired of apologizing to his constituents in Alexandria, where he is mayor. He said he was particularly irked that after numerous incidents, customer communication is still an issue.
Board Chairman Mortimer L. Downey said that inconsistent messaging further frustrated riders. In some stations, gates were left open, allowing riders to leave without paying. At others, riders had to swipe their Farecards before they could exit.
“Someone has to be a quarterback of information going out to the customer,” he said.
Also Thursday, the Finance and Administration Committee met and approved a slimmed-down version of the fiscal 2016 budget with none of the fare increases and service cuts that were originally proposed. Those increases and reductions were tabled after pushback from local jurisdictions, which had also been asked to increase the amount they contribute to Metro’s operations. Instead, operating shortfalls were closed using a number of strategies, including cuts to administration, which will reduce expenses by $10 million by eliminating 50 positions and reducing its use of consultants, among other strategies.
The fireworks of the day came during discussion of Metro’s six-year capital program. Maryland representative Michael Goldman proposed several amendments, including one that would do away with the subsidy of roughly $600,000 the state pays Metro for the 5A Metrobus route that runs between the District and Dulles International Airport. Goldman said that Maryland shouldn’t have to pay to maintain the route since it serves only the District and Virginia.
Board members from other jurisdictions, particularly Virginia, appeared stunned at the suggestion. The ensuing discussion was polite but grew heated after Goldman made it clear that if he did not win concessions on the bus subsidy, Maryland would pull its $6 million contribution to fund power upgrades in the rail system — a move that would essentially kill the project.
“Maryland is holding hostage their residents from getting to work at Dulles,” snapped Jim Corcoran, a Virginia board member.
“We thought we’d be able to show we’re saving our residents money,” Goldman responded .
Goldman won the concessions. But it was clear that the spirit of “regionalism” — the belief that all jurisdictions contribute because it’s for the broader good of the region — that has long dominated funding decisions among Metro board members will be tested in coming days.
Said Goldman: “This is a small down payment on a bigger discussion.”