Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Metro would be offering free shuttle bus service between East Falls Church and West Falls Church. Metro will offer free shuttle bus service from Ballston station to Virginia Square, Clarendon, Court House and Pentagon stations. This version has been corrected.
The good news: For beleaguered Orange and Silver line riders in Northern Virginia, the pain and hardship of SafeTrack may soon come to an end.
The 11th repair “surge” starts Monday, and the 24-day stretch of single-tracking between West Falls Church and East Falls Church is scheduled to be the last time that Metro’s year-long track maintenance program targets that portion of the rail system.
After this one, Metro is taking a break. In anticipation of winter weather, work crews will focus on track repairs inside tunnels and underground, and they don’t plan to begin the next surge until February, Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader said.
But here’s the bad news: Because this surge will involve a spot where the Orange and Silver lines meet, the service disruptions will have an outsize effect on riders throughout the system.
“The first two weeks of this surge will be the worst of anything our riders have experienced so far since we started SafeTrack,” Leader said. “There will be a severe reduction in train service.”
Leader said the agency needs about half of all riders who use the lines to stay away — and not just Virginia users. The work will affect riders on both lines, end to end.
“Our message to our riders on the Orange and Silver line[s] is find another way to get to where you have to go,” Leader said.
This is the fourth time that SafeTrack has tackled the tracks west of Ballston, considered to be among the most dilapidated of Metro’s infrastructure before SafeTrack. The first and fifth surges fanned out work crews between East Falls Church and Ballston. The ninth focused on the area between Vienna and West Falls Church.
In all, Orange and Silver line riders have been affected by 91 days of track work over the past six months, Leader said.
But, by the end of the 11th surge on Dec. 21, 12,000 rail ties will have been replaced and there will be 25,000 feet of new running rail, he said, adding that the western end of the system will be unrecognizable.
“This is the best condition the track has been in since it was installed over 30 years ago. You can literally feel the difference — a smoother, more reliable ride, like driving on a newly paved road,” he said.
Chilly weather will increase the pain for riders this surge, particularly with headways between trains as long as 20 minutes during rush hour. Capacity west of Rosslyn will drop by more than 60 percent during peak-travel periods, while capacity between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory will be cut by slightly more than half. East of Stadium-Armory, the Orange Line will have 66 percent fewer trains, and the Silver and Blue lines will have 42 percent fewer.
“The service level is going to be horrific,” said Metro board member Christian Dorsey, who also serves on the Arlington County Board. But, he added, “I’m grateful that this is going to be the last one, at least for Orange and Silver line riders.”
Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey offered similar words of encouragement to Metro customers.
“As we’ve said before, this is work that’s got to be done. It’s difficult, but it’s short-term pain for a lot of gain,” Garvey said.
Metro officials warned that Rosslyn will be especially choked with passengers. Inbound Blue Line riders should consider riding to the Pentagon station and switching to the Yellow Line to bypass Rosslyn on the way into the District.
Officials also said that riders shouldn’t assume they’ll be able to rely on the same commuting options that they used during previous surges. For example, some commuters headed into the District may see several trains pass before encountering one with space for more passengers, they said.
“We really want people to reassess the options they may have used during previous surges,” said Tom Biesiadny, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. “In the past, some people may have said, ‘Well, it’s 18-minute headways, maybe I’ll just wait.’ . . . This surge, we want people to not just assume that what worked for them in prior surges will work for them now.”
Garvey said that she has been encouraging employers to make it easier for their employees to telework through December.
For those who can’t work from home, Metro will offer free shuttle bus service from Ballston station to Virginia Square, Clarendon, Court House and Pentagon stations.
The Fairfax Connector is providing supplemental service from Reston and Vienna stations to the Pentagon.
Metrobus will add extra peak-period service on four routes: 5A, which runs from L’Enfant Plaza through Rosslyn to Dulles International Airport; the 3Y from East Falls Church to McPherson Square; the 2A from Ballston to Dunn Loring Metro; and the 38B from Ballston to Farragut West station.
Officials also are encouraging people to take Virginia Railway Express to Crystal City, L’Enfant Plaza or Union Station rather than driving on Interstate 66. Riders who are coming from northeast of the District should consider using MARC commuter rail instead of crowding onto the limited number of Orange Line trains leaving from New Carrollton.
While many residents have opted to drive during surges, Biesiadny urged would-be Metro passengers to think twice before commuting solo in their cars.
“For people who are driving alone on the I-66 corridor, this is going to affect them too,” he said. “We would encourage them to look at their commuting options as well, because there are going to be more people competing for that space.”
Despite the dire warnings, leaders agree that the 11th surge has a significant upside. In the original SafeTrack schedule released earlier this year, the 18 days leading up to Christmas featured a planned shutdown of the Blue Line between Rosslyn and the Pentagon — a disruption that could have had a major impact on holiday shopping revenue for Springfield Town Center shopping mall.
Because of delays and reshuffling in the schedule, that work is now planned to take place sometime early next year.
“We were concerned about what impact that would have had,” Biesiadny said. “So we’re actually okay with the fact that we’ve moved this one to the Orange Line. We actually think this is probably a better fit.”