After shutting down the region’s mass-transit system for the weekend, Metro trains and buses emerged from storm-induced hiberation Monday but with sharply limited service.
With the federal and D.C. governments closed Monday, demand for public transportation will be far lighter than normal. Still, tens of thousands of people trying to get to work in parts of the Washington region were left pondering Metro maps and scaled-down timetables.
Trains will run Monday on the Orange, Red and Green lines from 7 a.m. until midnight serving only underground stops. Bus service for Metro in the region is also on a limited basis.
While other big subways in the snowed-under cities of New York and Philadelphia were able to maintain more service than that of Washington, Metro officials said Sunday that they were pleased with the transit agency’s storm performance and that their decision not to operate during the blizzard was the proper one.
“Oh, my gosh, if we had tried to do that, we’d be nowhere right now,” General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Sunday as Metro announced that the weekend inconvenience of no public transit will continue Monday for thousands of people. They system is set to creak back to life, but only for some underground service on three lines.
Idling the subway while near record amounts of snow fell in the region gave work crews unrestricted access to outdoor tracks, allowing them to get a big head start on plowing and de-icing, Wiedefeld said. In addition, running the subway and buses during the storm would have jeopardized the safety of riders.
“This would have been exponentially worse if we had tried to run service” Saturday and Sunday, Wiedefeld said. “We simply wouldn’t have been able to keep up” with the foul weather. “We’d have been in the mode of rescuing people and pulling out cars. That would have been our focus. And it’s tough enough as it is, what we’re wrestling with.”
But the sentiment was not universal.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he was disappointed that Metro did not stay open through the weekend and planned to offer only partial underground rail service Monday, while running buses on just 22 major routes. He said the transit system’s storm performance reinforces its reputation for being undependable.
“As a city, and as a region, we have to be able to rely on rail, and the advantage should be that it can keep functioning when the road network cannot,” Mendelson said. “But that’ll have to be the goal. . . . Metro needs to recover from the mess it has gotten itself into over the last couple decades. Metro has to do better.”
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents the District on Metro’s governing board, called Mendelson’s criticism “irresponsible.”
Evans said passenger safety had to be the prime concern and “far outweighed” the inconvenience of riders for the Monday workday.
“It’s an inconvenience for some, no doubt about it, but the big issue is getting the third rail de-iced,” Evans said.
“We want to make sure that whatever trains we send out there we can get back without any problems.” He said it also is not clear how safe it would be for passengers to traverse steep stairs, escalators and potentially icy station platforms.
As for the limited bus service, Evans said: “We don’t want to send them out and get them stuck in the neighborhoods.”
In snow-buried New York, the subway continued running underground during the blizzard. Aboveground service, suspended Saturday afternoon, was back in operation Sunday, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said.
In Philadelphia, which also was plastered by the storm, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said the city’s subway, which is largely underground, “has been running on or close to normal schedules, and is expected to continue” doing so.
Six years ago, as the storm that became known as “Snowmageddon” bore down on the Washington area, Metro halted rail service at 11 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 5, but resumed operating underground on a limited basis at 7 a.m. the next day as the storm continued to howl.
That weekend, as Metro crews cleared snow and ice from tracks, aboveground service in many places remained suspended. Full service was restored on Tuesday, Feb. 9.
When pressed about whether Metro had done everything possible to get more of the system open, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) expressed no dissatisfaction with the transit agency’s performance.
“I think they’re dealing with the same things we’re dealing with,” Bowser said, referring to the cleanup task. “While I would love to have the system up and running, I know they are working hard to safely do so.”
D.C. Department of Transportation Director Leif A. Dormsjo also expressed understanding.
“This is unlike anything many of us have seen in our lifetimes,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said of the blizzard’s impact on Metro. “It’s going to take days to fully recover.”
Wiedefeld said that if the subway had not shut down Friday night for the weekend, and instead had kept underground service operating Saturday and Sunday, work crews would have been severely limited in their weekend snow-removal and de-icing efforts, meaning they would be “days” behind where they are now.
“I’m definitely satisfied because, again, I think this was a logical approach, in terms of not putting our customers at risk over the weekend, and then beginning to rebuild the service,” Wiedefeld said. “It’s huge what we are up against. And just to get to the point where we’re able to provide limited service on bus and rail, I think, is very good.”
Headways, meaning the time between trains — which can be as short as three minutes in some places during rush hours — will be 20 to 25 minutes at the start of the day.
“We’ll try to ramp that up as the day goes along,” Stessel said. “Maybe as the day unfolds, we’ll try to get it to 15 minute headways.”
In making the extraordinary decision Thursday, a day before the storm arrived, to shut down Metro subway and bus service for the weekend, Wiedefeld cited safety as the paramount reason. He said roads and train tracks almost certainly would be impassable, or at least dangerous to travel on, during the snowfall — which, at the time, had been predicted to possibly last well into Sunday.
The other big advantage to shutting down the subway, Wiedefeld said, was that snow-removal crews would have uninterrupted access to Metro’s outdoor rails, totaling 60-plus route-miles, or about 130 miles of tracks running in two directions.
At the same time, officials said, about 900 of Metro’s approximately 1,135 rail cars could be sheltered in the idle tunnels and would not have to be dug out from heavy snow after the blizzard. But the agency wound up sheltering only about 350 cars, Stessel said.
In order to make room for snow-clearing equipment and other apparatus to move freely through about 50 route-miles of tunnels, he said, the agency limited the number of rail cars that were parked underground. As a result, work crews in rail yards have been laboring to dig out hundreds of other cars that were exposed to the elements.
“Just to be clear, if anyone thinks Metro just took the weekend off, that’s not the case,” Stessel said. “The system is closed to passengers. There have been hundreds and hundreds of employees and contractors working in the most extreme conditions on 12-hour shifts around the clock just to get us where we are now.”
In removing snow, a major focus has been on parts of the rail system known as “interlockings.” These are groups of rail switches located at outdoor points where rail lines divide or converge. There are three big interlockings: near the Stadium-Armory, East Falls Church and King Street-Old Town stations.
The outdoor groups of switches at those locations are almost constantly in operation as trains pass every few minutes from different directions, Stessel said. There are scores of other switches all along the rails that are used less frequently — for example, when a train needs to be moved from one track to a parallel track to avoid an unexpected obstacle.
Although the switches are equipped with heaters, “they’re really not designed for two feet of snow,” Stessel said. Not only do workers with tools have to remove the snow and ice, he said, they have to clear a wide area, to prevent snow from blowing back.
De-icing outdoor third rails also has been difficult, he said.
“It’s physically scraping the third rails” with devices that are attached to large rail cards known as “prime movers,” Stessel said. “And we’re spraying the third rails” with a de-icing liquid. “Even then, in some cases, we make four, five, six passes, and we’re still seeing the ice building back up.”
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) spent more than an hour Sunday shoveling a path from his front door on Capitol Hill to Metro’s nearby D6 bus stop, where he begins his commute to his office at the District Building.
After he came back inside, he learned that the route would not be running on Monday. Allen said he wasn’t surprised. One lane of plowed roadway was common on Capitol Hill on Sunday afternoon, and bus stops were still buried.
“Roads are down to a single lane and even if the buses are running, there’s no place to stand” but in the street, Allen said.
“It is fairly dangerous, and I’m not entirely surprised with the decision,” he said.