Metro officials say they will expedite repairs on a downtown stretch of the Red Line after a piece of smoking rail equipment shut down stations between Gallery Place and Dupont Circle on Thursday, crippling the morning commute.
Stray electrical current overheated a rail fastener, causing the rush-hour mess — the third such incident in the past two weeks, Chief Safety Officer Pat Lavin said. The problem was caused by aging rail fasteners, metal components that secure the rails to the ground. The rubber on those fasteners has deteriorated over time, Lavin said, and they have lost insulation from electricity.
Lavin said the fasteners in question stretch roughly from Metro Center to Judiciary Square, though similar conditions may be present elsewhere in the underground portions of the system. The components are roughly 30 to 40 years old, he said, and are more prone to smoke and fire because of the deteriorated insulation.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said the deteriorated components further highlight the need for the preventive maintenance program that will start July 1. But repairs on that critical stretch of the Red Line will begin overnight.
“What we’re doing there is to go after what we’re seeing out there in the system. We have very old fasteners,” Wiedefeld said. “And there’s gaskets in there that have deteriorated. … that’s what we have found to date. That does not mean we won’t find other things going forward. It goes back to an aging system that hasn’t been maintained.”
The fasteners themselves are not the root cause of the issue, however. Stray current testing is the focus of the new overnight preventive maintenance program. Fastener replacement is also one of the goals of the SafeTrack maintenance program.
Meanwhile, Lavin said, Metro is also imposing speed restrictions to reduce the amount of electricity emitted by passing trains in an attempt to prevent a similar incident from occurring again soon.
Wiedefeld said the arcing issues are tied to “ongoing preventive maintenance” needs. He said the agency will let riders know a timeline of the repairs “as soon as we know.” Crews were making track repairs in the area again late Thursday morning. Engineers and high-level managers were expected to return to the area overnight to evaluate the track conditions.
Service was restored about 11 a.m., Metro said.
As Metro continues to grapple with electrical issues in the downtown core, some riders said their commute Thursday morning was one of their worst experiences ever on Metro.
“Honestly, it was a bit scary,” said Alex Cronin, a 46-year-old federal worker who had his son and daughter in tow for Take Your Child to Work Day.
After 90 minutes on a packed Red Line train — the 11- and 12-year-olds sat on their father’s lap — they had only reached the NoMa station, four stops from where they started at Takoma. Cronin decided to get the kids off the train — his daughter said she was starting to feel ill because of the cramped quarters.
But by that point, there was a backup of people crowding to get off the train — and as the doors were closing, Cronin’s son had slipped off the train and onto the platform, while his daughter was still stuck in the mass of passengers on board. Cronin jammed open the door of the new 7000-series train, tugged his daughter free of the crowd, thrust her out onto the platform and staggered out after her just as the doors closed shut.
“Today was one of our worst trips ever,” Cronin reflected after the trio had exited the station. They planned to take a taxi the rest of the way to Arlington.
The issue started around 7:30 a.m. That’s when Philip Taylor, 58, arrived at Metro Center to find passengers packing the platform. He waited there for about 10 minutes, with no information from the station manager or the speaker system. Then, suddenly, passengers were told to evacuate immediately. Outside, police and firefighters had gathered.
“I could smell something — it smelled electrical,” Taylor said. “It was scary. We didn’t know if it was a terrorist attack or a fire or what was going on.”
Riders were told to walk to Gallery Place to continue on his route. But when Taylor got to Gallery Place, people were being evacuated there, too.
Taylor said the crowds were told that bus shuttles were en route, but he waited for a few minutes and none showed up. There was no indication of when the tracks would be back in service, or what stations were unaffected and provided options. So he walked. It was 45 minutes from downtown to his office in NoMa.
“I need a shower now,” he said.
Taylor expressed the concern held by many Metro riders.
“There are always delays on the Red Line,” Taylor said. “But I would’ve thought with all the SafeTrack work that’s been done for months and months, problems like this would have been alleviated by now.”
Others, too, expressed confusion about how and why Metro continues to experience problems with electricity that regularly cause rush-hour commute meltdowns.
“I could have walked to Federal Triangle in the time that I’ve been here,” said Maya Hughes, 35, a Trinidad resident standing on the NoMa platform. “I can never get to work. It’s ridiculous. It’s like trying to control the space-time continuum.”
Hughes, a contractor for the federal government, said she used to work at the National Institutes of Health near Rockville station, but she had to quit that job because her commute was too unreliable. She said she decided this week that she will sit down and look at maps to identify “two alternative routes that are nothing but buses.”
“I don’t want to depend on Metro anymore,” Hughes said. “It’s like an abusive relationship.”
A few feet away from her on the platform, 24-year-old Jin Rui leaned against a railing, headphones jammed in her ears. She had been waiting on the platform for 20 minutes, and a train had been sitting on the platform the entire time — but it was so crowded that there was no room for her to board.
After a long wait, the doors shut and the packed train began to proceed toward Union Station. Another train tooted its approach. This one looked pleasingly devoid of passengers.
“Finally!” Rui muttered, as the empty train arrived.
But then, the train began to accelerate and continue past the platform without stopping — probably part an effort to reposition trains throughout the system after the service interruption. But that was no help to Rui, who works as an engineer near Farragut North. She sighed.
“I’m so late right now,” Rui said. “But I’m trying not to freak out about it.”
Justin Wm. Moyer contributed to this report.