[This post has been updated to include a statement from Metro’s general manager.]

When Metro’s leaders were organizing the rebuilding of the rail system in early 2011, there were several strategies they could have adopted. They could have curtailed the night-owl service on weekends to get more time for overnight maintenance. They could have completely shut entire lines or segments of lines. Either choice would have hastened the rebuilding, but it would have marked a retreat on service.

Still, there was some interest in the more aggressive approach. “In Chicago, we made a very difficult decision to shut down an entire rail line for two years,” said Marcel Acosta, who in 2011 was a Metro board member representing the federal government. Earlier in his career, he was senior vice president for planning and development at the Chicago Transit Authority

Then-Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, while arguing that in the wake of the 2009 Red Line crash the system needed a dramatic upgrade, said closing a rail line would be “the last place I want to go.” Other subways such as those in Chicago and Philadelphia had opted for such drastic action to overhaul deteriorating systems, but “We’re not that old,” he said.

Metro passengers balk at potential six-month shutdown. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

As Metro marks its 40th anniversary amid widespread concern about the reliability of the train service, it’s starting to feel very, very old, despite the years-long rebuilding program that has affected service at midday, late at night and on weekends since 2011.

On Wednesday, comments by Metro board Chairman Jack Evans focused attention on the possibility that Metro would revisit the strategy adopted in 2011 and instead opt for more drastic closings that potentially could affect many thousands of commuters each day.

If the idea is worth considering in 2016, why didn’t it sound so good in 2011?

Back then, Sarles noted how disruptive it would be to shut a line or a line segment in the D.C. region. Some older subways — New York, for example — have a more tightly knit network of rail lines. A months-long closing of a line segment in Manhattan would be a big inconvenience, but many people could walk or take a short bus trip to a station on another line.

Shut down the west side of the Red Line in Maryland — just hypothetically — and transit riders are pretty much stuck for a Metrorail alternative. Any other transit option they chose would overwhelm existing services.

Neither Metro board Chairman Jack Evans nor General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said anything like this was set to happen when they talked to business and political leaders gathered at the Mayflower Hotel on Tuesday. But they did confirm that Metro was considering more drastic action, including lengthy closings, than anything we’ve seen during the rebuilding. Wiedefeld said he expected to decide on a new plan within a month to six weeks. The main takeaway from their statements is that top transit officials are so dissatisfied with the history of the rebuilding that they’re considering more dramatic, and potentially more unpopular programs.

[Update] He issued a new statement on Thursday:

In response to questions I have seen from many of you, I want to let you know that I am working on a long-range maintenance plan for the rail system to ensure safe and reliable service. The plan is in development now, and I expect to have it ready in four to six weeks. I want to reassure you that, while I am keeping options open on how to proceed, no decisions have been made. Moreover, any service change in the plan that could affect your commute will receive ample notice to customers, businesses, stakeholders and the region as a whole.
You have my commitment that I will keep you informed once the plan is ready. In the meantime, I will advise you if there are any steps that must be taken on a priority basis to keep the rail system running safely and reliably.

It’s tough to speculate on what Wiedefeld might come up with. When considering what it would mean to shutdown a line, look at a system map. Only the Red Line runs independently of other lines. Evans referred speculatively to the idea of closing the Blue Line temporarily. But the only part of the Blue Line that doesn’t share track with another line is the part through Arlington Cemetery. On the south end in Virginia, the Blue shares track with the Rush Plus Yellow Line and the regular Yellow Line. From Rosslyn to Stadium-Armory, it joins the Orange and Silver lines, and then from Stadium-Armory to Largo, it shares track with the Silver Line.

If Metro were to close a segment of track, that would in many cases affect several lines.

Some riders commented that if Metro went ahead with a significant shutdown, they at least wanted more notice than they got for the one-day closing for the power cable check. Organizing the shutdown and reconstruction of any line or track segment would be an enormous undertaking and would likely involve many months of planning before the closing began. Notification to riders about such a disruption would be the least of their worries.

Like Evans, Wiedefeld clearly thinks that what Metro has been doing to rebuild hasn’t been working out as planned and wants to make changes that would allow work crews more time and space. But he has options short of closing an entire line or even a segment of a line. He could, for example, do what some transit staffers advocated years ago and cutback the late-night service on weekends. The Boston subway, commonly called the T, made a similar move, eliminating a pilot program that had extended service hours on weekends. He could close a line segment after the evening rush, or make weekend shutdowns of line segments more frequent.

For every option that Wiedefeld considers, he will have to weigh the transportation network’s ability to ameliorate the impact on traveling and on the local economy. The D.C. region showed it could handle a one-day shutdown of the entire rail system. Could it handle a months-long closing that included the National Airport station? If a shutdown did include peak periods, what alternative service could be provided? There’s not a lot of excess capacity in the region’s bus systems. And any bus bridge around closed stations in the region’s core would delay commuters well beyond what they’ve grown used to experiencing with Metrorail.

Wiedefeld, like the riders, also must consider whether there would be a big benefit from a big shutdown. Wiedefeld generally got good marks from riders and from local leaders for the one-day shutdown, which was based on a clear threat to rider safety and resulted in specific fixes to deal with that threat. More typical Metro projects during the rebuilding have involved replacement of rails, rail ties and rail fasteners. While such work is important in rebuilding the system, Monday morning riders generally don’t notice that anything got better.

Also, many of the common problems that disrupt the daily commute don’t involve the stations, the tracks or the tunnels. They involve failures of the rail cars, especially the brakes and doors. One of Wiedefeld’s top goals is to ensure the regular delivery of the new rail cars. That may be a tough job, but he doesn’t have to shut down any rail lines to do it.