Metro will determine in the coming months how to fix leaks near the Medical Center station on the Red Line, and among the possibilities is a long-term shutdown of the heavily traveled line or other shorter-duration solutions.
Transit officials cautioned that they were about a year away from deciding how to make the fix, and they did not yet know whether a shutdown would be needed.
“There is no shutdown announced or planned at this time,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “We are exploring our options for a long-term repair, which is, at the earliest, months — if not more than a year — away.”
Late Friday evening, Metro issued a statement from Rob Troup, deputy general manager, in which he stressed that “we have not yet made any decision on the nature of the repairs, nor the timeline or possible effects on service.”
Stessel said the leaking water creates a maintenance issue but no safety concerns.
The leaks are in the tunnel between the Medical Center and Friendship Heights stations, where water is infiltrating and can cause corrosion of the tracks and switches, officials said.In the statement, Troup said the water is causing a “muddy buildup on the tunnel floor that must be constantly dredged and pumped to allow switches to move freely.”
Stessel said the leaks lead to “ongoing replacement of sections” of the track. Also, the combination of water and the electricity going through the third rail can cause arcing insulators, he said. If insulators catch fire, that leads to service problems for riders.
Stessel said the problem isn’t new and Metro has been pumping out the water “for years now.”
“It requires constant effort, along with single-tracking during evenings and weekends, just to maintain the status quo,” he said. “That’s why we are considering long-term solutions to resolve it and improve reliability over the long haul.”
He said it is “too early to know” if Metro will shut down a portion of the Red Line. “It will depend on the engineering plans,” he said.
“Nothing is even close to being imminent,” he said.
Problems with groundwater leaking into Metro’s system are not new. The subway is one of the deepest in the world, with tunnels and underground stations at or below the water table. One of the most troubled areas is a nine-mile portion of the Red Line that goes from Farragut North to Medical Center, according to engineering experts. Because of the geology of that area, which goes in part beneath Rock Creek, and because the Metro in that area was built without a protective, waterproof liner in the tunnel, water has seeped in through cracks.
One option for a long-term fix, Stessel said, is to reline the tunnel to stop the water infiltration. That solution might require a shutdown of the line, which Stessel said could not be “achieved in a single weekend.”
Metro uses an $8 million machine known as a track geometry vehicle, which looks like a rail car painted green, to help it find problems along the tracks. It has used the machine, which it recently bought, to uncover issues with water and other potential defects.
The TGV has cameras and equipment that allow it to measure the temperature of the tracks and take video of the track beds and tunnels.
Metro officials showed off the TGV months ago in a tour of a portion of the Red Line and pointed out how areas of the tunnel near Medical Center were better than they had been in the past.
On that tour, Troup said that water can harm the rails and other parts on the tracks.
“You don’t get as much life out of them,” Troup said.
At the time of the tour with Troup, Richard Sarles — the head of Metro — and other technicians, the tunnel was fairly dry.
“This isn’t bad,” Troup said, as the TGV was driven through the area and bright spotlights shined on relatively dry walls of the tunnel. “This looks good.”
The possibility of shutting down a busy section of the Red Line, which was first reported by WRC (Channel 4), sends fear through many riders. The Medical Center station in Bethesda has an estimated 6,200 riders boarding there each weekday. Friendship Heights has about 9,700.
Metro would likely have to provide shuttle buses for people to get around if it shuts down part of the line — a move similar to what it now does when it has major weekend track work that closes parts of lines.
Susan Hanes, a 53-year-old accountant who commutes from Shady Grove to Farragut North daily, said Friday afternoon that she wouldn’t be a fan of a possible shutdown.
“I won’t like that,” she said. “There are enough problems on the Red Line.”
Other riders thought a possible shutdown wouldn’t be too bad.
“If it’s only for a few months it won’t be impossible to do,” said Romet Majumdar, 40, a lawyer who commutes from Farragut North to Bethesda. “At the end, it would benefit us. “The distance between those stations is not a lot; a bus service would suffice.”
Other transit agencies have made the decision to shut down portions of their lines for major work. In Chicago, officials shut down a 10-mile portion to fix tracks and other problems.
“That would be the extreme,” said Metro spokesman Philip Stewart about possibly shutting down part of the Red Line to fix the water problems.
Mark Berman, Nicole Chavez and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.