Riders on the Silver and Orange lines who listened to two week’s worth of warnings about the slow rides that started Saturday may have fully prepared for the first thing, but not the second. And similar things could happen at any point during the 15 maintenance surges. Nothing about the special maintenance plan known as SafeTrack comes with a guarantee that other sections of track will be free of problems, or that train brakes and doors will function properly. Plus, all of Metro’s other track maintenance programs for weekends, middays and weeknights will continue.
On Saturday, I did a midday trip from Silver Spring to Wiehle-Reston East and back, riding on the Red, Orange and Silver lines and experiencing the planned and unplanned revisions in their schedules.
The special track work between East Falls Church and Ballston actually does look like something special, even to Metro riders who are familiar with the weekend work zones. Crews and equipment are spread out all along the route. From a passing train, riders will see loads of rail ties, insulators, fasteners and rails, as well as the yellow locomotives, known as prime movers, that provide support for the dozens of workers along the line.
The physical experience was, unfortunately, quite traditional. Trains hold to await their turn entering single-tracking zones. Despite extra wide gaps between each train, the ones behind the lead train catch up. I noticed this on my outbound trip from my transfer point at Metro Center. I would have preferred to wait for a Silver Line train, to do the entire route to Wiehle-Reston East, but the platform message board showed the next Silver Line train was more than 10 minutes away. Instead, I boarded an Orange Line train, figuring I would transfer at East Falls Church. (Metro Center was very warm. There’s a problem with the chiller there.)
By the time my Orange Line train went through the two single-tracking zones and reached East Falls Church, that Silver Line train had caught up and was just a minute behind us.
Note the next train information sign at Metro Center in the photo at the top of the posting. You might say that looks like pretty good service, with gaps of just a couple of minutes between trains. Those trains had just taken their turns through the single-tracking zones. When it was time for trains in the other direction to take their turn on the single track, then the message board would display much larger gaps on this side of the platform.
It’s difficult to plan a trip under these circumstances, even if you use the navigation aids that Metro provides. Trip Planner was accurate about the time my Red Line train would reach Silver Spring. That was a good start. Trip Planner also gave me an accurate departure time from Wiehle-Reston East for the return trip. But no other phases of the trips matched Trip Planner’s predictions. The “NextTrain” feature on Metro’s mobile website, which is supposed to show real-time arrivals, was all messed up by the single-tracking and displayed little useful information.
There are billboards in the stations offering details of the first maintenance blitz, a continuous 13 days of disruptions. Also, the platform message boards display information about SafeTrack plans. Announcements were made in the stations and aboard trains, but they’re made over those not-very-loud-speakers. So unless the rail car has a library hush, it’s easy to miss the details. (The word “delay” is quite recognizable. Perhaps it’s the familiarity.) I didn’t see anyone on the platforms who looked like a transit staffer ready to answer questions, but on the mezzanines that I saw, there were station managers available to help.
The overall experience convinced me that the region’s transportation officials were quite right in not predicting how long your weekday commutes will take under SafeTrack. When the work week starts, you will be able to ride the trains as you normally do, even on the disrupted portions of the Silver and Orange lines. But you will certainly need to build in a buffer to account for the travel time uncertainties. And you should be prepared for extra crowding. Even the rail cars on these Saturday trains were quite crowded coming in toward downtown Washington, especially when they reached the single-tracking zone.