Metro riders aggravated by their trains crawling along some stretches of track at bicycle speeds in recent weeks shouldn’t expect relief any time soon.
Data shows that the transit agency has instituted dozens of “slow speed” limitations since a Silver Line train derailed in July, with the number of mandatory slowdowns issued because of track conditions jumping from 10 that month to 87 in August.
Since then, speed restrictions — a sign of degraded tracks and worn equipment in need of urgent repair — have cropped up across the system at a steady clip, addressing all manner of issues: rotten rail ties that pose a derailment risk, worn concrete that raises structural concerns, cracked rail joints, broken fasteners and defective studs that further threaten safety.
A log of the active restrictions in place on Oct. 27 offers a snapshot: Nine of the 15 restrictions were on the Red Line for stretches ranging from 700 feet to three-quarters of a mile. Glenmont-bound trains were slowed to 15 mph for 1,500 feet outside the Takoma station because of defective crossties. Elsewhere on the Red Line, downtown-bound trains were slowed to 15 mph near the Rhode Island Avenue station, where falling concrete raised structural concerns in August. Those repairs are part of SafeTrack Surge 10, now underway.
By Thursday, after a stretch of the Red Line from NoMa to Fort Totten was taken out of service for SafeTrack repairs, the list of track-related restrictions had shortened considerably — though seasonal slowdowns to prevent trains from slipping on leaves were present in much of the system. Other restrictions were in place on the Orange, Red and Green lines for various reasons.
Riders have noticed. In its latest “vital signs” report, Metro identified speed restrictions as one factor in a steady decline in “on-time performance” in the most recent quarter — a measure of how often customers were delivered to stations on time — from 71 percent in July to 64 percent in September.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said the new restrictions are the result of more aggressive inspections and a bolstered emphasis on safety after the July 29 derailment. Metro also has instituted software changes aimed at slowing down trains on straightaways and stretches of the system designed for higher speeds in an effort to prevent another chronic problem: red-light overruns.
Translation: Slow-going is the new normal. Pressed on when riders can expect advertised travel times to return across the system — in areas not undergoing SafeTrack surges — Wiedefeld responded, “When it’s safe.”
“If we think it’s safe, we’ll have the advertised speed limit,” he said. “If we feel there’s an issue, then we’re not going to have it there. That’s a change of approach. If we are to be serious about safety, and to have safety trump service as we’ve said, that has to play out.”
Riders, those on the Blue and Yellow lines in particular, are feeling the pain and take issue not so much with the need for slowdowns but with the lack of published information about them. They are especially critical of a speed restriction between the Reagan National Airport and Braddock Road stations, a stretch where a SafeTrack surge disrupted service in July.
“I timed it . . . took 10 minutes to get from Braddock to Reagan. Would feel better if I knew why speed restrictions necessary,” one rider tweeted last week.
Late last month, Diane Owen, a 54-year-old federal employee who rides the Yellow Line from Huntington to Gallery Place every day, began to note the stop-and-go rides near National Airport. She was aggrieved that Metro did not post a clear notice about the restriction, even though it began adding 15 minutes to her commute each way, in her recollection, and made her late enough to one meeting that she had to email in.
“I’d feel somewhat less frustrated if I hear information because it tells me that someone notices that it affects us,” she said. “It just seems odd to me that when I check online for rail advisories or rail alerts that I couldn’t find anything.”
Wiedefeld said recently that the agency has no problem being transparent about the restrictions, saying it has nothing to hide. Metro says the restriction outside the National Airport station was imposed for safety purposes after two Federal Transit Administration inspectors had to jump out of the way of a speeding train in a close call Oct. 20.
Although it initially stretched for about two miles, the restriction was cut back last week to about three-quarters of a mile.
The problem: An S-curve and a large tree create a blind spot on an aerial structure where inspection and maintenance crews perform work, the agency said. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the agency has contacted the National Park Service to gauge whether the tree can be removed.
Systemwide, the temporary speed restrictions limit speeds through hazardous areas to 15 mph in some places and 35 mph in others. In other parts of the system, Metro has capped maximum speeds permanently.
At a recent safety subcommittee meeting, chief safety officer Patrick Lavin told board members that on stretches of the Silver Line, trains had been observed going 75 mph on straightaways.
There are stretches of the Green Line designed to handle speeds up to 79 mph — from Georgia Avenue to Greenbelt and from Anacostia to Branch Avenue — where trains are allowed to travel 65 mph. Otherwise, the speed limit in the system is 59 mph. A Metro spokeswoman said the operators of the Silver Line trains were disciplined for the speeding, which was occurring from McLean to East Falls Church and from Wiehle-Reston East to Spring Hill.
Software changes being made over the next two years will prevent trains from exceeding 60 mph, Lavin said. He told the board that the change probably would add a “few minutes” in travel time but was part of a renewed emphasis on safety. In an interview Friday, Lavin cited the increased prevalence of slowdowns as evidence of a changing culture.
“We’re turning the corner in having people actually going out there, reporting defects, recognizing that they’re not going to be challenged or suffer any negative consequences for reporting,” he said.
Metro’s inspection practices before the derailment remain under investigation, officials said.
Meanwhile, a day after Metro’s chief operating officer, Joe Leader, drew parallels to the New York City subway system’s decline of the 1980s in making his case to the board for more track-repair time for Metro, Lavin offered further insight. Conditions in New York were far worse, Lavin said — but it was clear how the state of that system informed his thinking about Metro.
“We had train operators operating at full speed over tracks that were known to be bad, so pretty much we implemented systemwide slow speeds,” said Lavin, formerly a top safety investigator for the New York subway system, where he worked for 33 years before joining Metro. At one point, he said, derailments were occurring in the New York system every 28 days.
Board member Robert Lauby, who is chief safety officer for the Federal Railroad Administration, said speed restrictions are one of several tough choices that Metro has to make to restore its system to a state of good repair, even if rider satisfaction suffers.
“Speed restrictions are inconvenient for service, certainly,” he said. “The whole idea is in the past, customer service was king and safety just took a lower priority. So now that we’re putting an emphasis on safety, customer service is going to suffer a little bit until you get to the point where the state of good repair is in place and both customer service and safety can come up at the same time — it’s almost like a balancing act.”