On Monday, the Washington region marks the first weekday of what is likely to be Metro’s most challenging SafeTrack project — a 25-day shutdown on a segment of the Red Line affecting about 200,000 peak trips daily on its oldest and busiest line.
This latest “safety surge” — the 10th of 15 — targets tracks from the Fort Totten to NoMa stations — meaning that no trains will pass through the area. The Brookland and Rhode Island Avenue stations will be closed, as will the Rhode Island Avenue Metro garage.
The project involves the same area affected by the Beach Drive closure in Northwest Washington, so officials are concerned that should Red Line riders return to their cars in large numbers, this surge could create a traffic nightmare unseen with previous ones.
As Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said at a news conference outlining the agency’s plans, this surge has “one of the largest rider impacts of all the surges we have done and will do.”
Unlike the previous two surges involving the Red Line, this one, which began Saturday and ends Nov. 22 — the Tuesday before Thanksgiving — is happening while schools are in session.
As transportation officials have been warning for months, Surge 10 is the big one.
“Major, major disruptions and delays,” said Al Roshdieh, director of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, as he described the potential effect of the shutdown.
He and other officials spent much of last week raising the alarm, warning commuters that roads already clogged because of the Beach Drive closure could degenerate into total gridlock come Monday morning.
Metro is providing shuttle buses to ferry riders between the four affected Red Line stations, but riders should be prepared for crowds and long waits.
Red Line riders headed to downtown Washington from Silver Spring can transfer to the Green and Yellow lines at Fort Totten, but Wiedefeld said he expects that those trains will be running at maximum capacity.
Because of the challenges of reversing trains in the middle of the line, capacity along the Red Line’s western end is expected to decrease by 40 percent. That means nearly a month of six-minute headways between trains during rush hour on the western stretch of the line.
“We will provide more eight-car trains on the Red and the Green lines to deal with as much traffic as we can,” Wiedefeld said. “But it’s important to note that that cannot handle all the traffic we anticipate.”
The best options, officials said: telecommute or travel during off-peak hours. If that’s not possible, they advise people to forgo Metro and find other forms of public transit.
Roshdieh’s advice for Maryland commuters: Take a MARC train to Union Station and bypass the Red Line entirely. To that end, Montgomery County distributed a limited number of free one-way tickets last week to encourage Red Line users to give the commuter rail system a try.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) encouraged District residents to consider using Metro buses or the D.C. Circulator as alternatives.
Last week, Metro staffers fanned out at Red Line stations to distribute fliers in English, Spanish, Chinese, Amharic and French warning students and parents to plan for some tough mornings.
Starting Monday, Metro employees will be outside affected stations after school and during peak travel periods to direct confused commuters and students. Metro also will add three empty buses outside the Rhode Island and Brookland stations around dismissal time to deal with the crush of students heading home. Those are in addition to the general buses Metro is running along the closed stretch of rail.
Bowser said parents and students must have a backup.
“Please make a plan to get to school, and think about the additional time that you’re going to need,” she said, encouraging people to experiment with the bus, even if they’re loyal to Metro. “You may even find a one-seat ride to get you to school instead of getting on the Red Line. But we need people to start thinking about that right now.”
Metro is adding buses on the 80 route, which travels from Fort Totten to Union Station to the Kennedy Center, and the P6, which ferries riders from the Rhode Island Avenue station through downtown and to Anacostia.
There also will be extra buses on the L2, which traces parts of the western side of the Red Line, as well as the S9, which shuttles riders from Silver Spring through Columbia Heights to Franklin Square in downtown Washington.
Montgomery County’s Ride On will run free “Red Line shuttles” from the Silver Spring and Takoma stations to the Fort Totten station, where commuters can take the Yellow or Green lines to head downtown and avoid the Red Line.
Since the beginning of October, several D.C. Circulator routes — the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square, Georgetown-Union Station and Dupont-Georgetown-Rosslyn lines — have started running at 6 a.m., an hour earlier than usual, to prepare for the Red Line surge.
Capital Bikeshare is offering $2 rides for nonmembers, and it is setting up a bike corral at Union Station.
“Driving yourself in your own car should be your Plan C,” said Leif A. Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation.
Even so, for those who do choose to drive, Dormsjo said DDOT is re-timing traffic signals to accommodate for extra congestion. Traffic control officers will be deployed to handle busy intersections.
There will be extended parking restrictions along busy corridors from 7 to 10 a.m., and from 4 to 7 p.m. DDOT also has suspended roadway construction on more than 20 blocks around the city, to prevent unnecessary barriers to traffic flow.
Although Metro plans to add buses to four major routes that augment Red Line service, the agency is limited in how much it can boost capacity on those bus lines. At the outset of SafeTrack, the agency dedicated a team of bus operators to provide extra service; because this surge involves a complete rail segment shutdown, most of the extra buses are already scheduled to be used to shuttle people between the Fort Totten, Brookland, Rhode Island Avenue and NoMa stations.
“Our ability to beef up existing routes service is greater on surges where we don’t also have to serve closed stations,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
Surge 10 is coming at a precarious time for SafeTrack. According to Metro officials, in recent weeks fewer riders have been heeding their warnings to avoid stations and segments of the system affected by the surges.
Ridership fell significantly at stations affected during the first five surges, with the number of diverted passengers exceeding Metro projections. But more recently, ridership in surge zones has crept back up. People appear to be tuning out the message and ignoring the warnings.
“I think there is a risk as people start to understand this work that they start being complacent,” SafeTrack Director Laura Mason said at a Metro board meeting this month. “We need people to do different things, because buses cannot replace a rail car full of people.”
Wiedefeld said he is optimistic that commuters are paying attention for this, the mother lode of all surges.
“When they see that it’s a total shutdown,” Wiedefeld said, “tens of thousands of people a day understand what that means.”
Dormsjo said it’s critical that people recognize that this shutdown is no run-of-the-mill episode of single-tracking.
“We’ve got an optimistic view that people are paying attention,” Dormsjo said. “But we need to get people’s focus on this.”
Despite the expected traffic woes, Wiedefeld appeared excited to get started. This project is addressing a critical and complex interlocking that lies along one of the oldest stretches of tracks in the system — and it’s a part of the rail network that has long been avoided because of the logistical difficulties involved in conducting maintenance.
For that reason, Wiedefeld said, “we can’t wait to get in to do this work any longer.”
And now that Metro’s round-the-clock maintenance crews have had five months of experience, officials say they’re better prepared to use their 25 days of unfettered access to complete as much work as possible.
“Over the course of the SafeTrack surges, [Metro] has become more efficient at mobilizing its workers to make the most of available track time,” Metro board member Kathryn Porter (Md.) said.
Even so, major concerns remain about the quantity and quality of work performed during SafeTrack. Inspection reports from the Federal Transit Administration have raised concerns that some of the work being done has been inadequate or required follow-up.
But last week, Wiedefeld argued that Metro has been learning from past surges, maintenance crews are more adept at performing high-quality repairs and that the scope of Surge 10 has evolved in recent months to address a wider range of issues.
Just as in other surges, crews will be racing to replace as many of the basic track components as possible — thousands of new fasteners, bolts and wooden rail ties.
But the work on the interlocking will be informed by similar maintenance performed on an interlocking near the Twinbrook station during Surge 7.
The plan to replace significant amounts of cable is a result of recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Contractors have been hired to perform some of the structural work on the Rhode Island Avenue station building — the necessity of which became apparent only two months ago, after falling concrete led to the closure of the station for a weekend.
“We pushed very hard to get this thing done very quickly,” Wiedefeld said. “In a perfect world, you would study it for a year and come up with this. We didn’t have that luxury.”
“So basically, we had to jump into this thing,” he said. “We’ve all learned along the way about how we can do this better.”
Michael Laris contributed to this report.