Metro will shut down parts of the Green, Red and Yellow lines for extended track work over the next year once SafeTrack ends, the transit agency announced Thursday, in a move that surprised many who believed the extended disruptions would conclude along with the yearlong maintenance program.
The projects will be similar to the “surges” riders experienced during SafeTrack, but will target more specific sections of rail, Metro said.
Each of the upcoming projects will last 10 “commuting days,” Metro said, and shift the focus to crossovers in various parts of the system — the network of switches and signals that allow trains to switch from one track to another. Crossovers became a point of concern following the July 2016 derailment outside East Falls Church, when rotting ties caused a condition known as “wide gauge”, where the tracks are spaced too far apart to support a train.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld had already announced he would institute an aggressive preventive maintenance plan once SafeTrack ended, and did not rule out additional rush-hour disruptions at a recent news briefing, but to riders, word of more upcoming daytime track work struck them as a kind of “SafeTrack 2.0.”
Metro however, pushed back against the idea that the new work was an extension of the aggressive track rehabilitation program. The transit agency said the shutdowns will affect small segments of track outside of the system’s core, and won’t have the ripple effects on train service that SafeTrack surges did. A news release announcing the changes said “rush-hour service will be normal 99 percent of the time.”
“This should come as a surprise to no one,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “This is nothing like SafeTrack. This is the anti-Safetrack, this is doing work when it’s supposed to be done. Not on an emergent basis, but in a planned, programmatic way to replace components as they age out.”
Asked if he could recall Metro shutting down stretches of track for 10 days at a time prior to SafeTrack, however, Stessel said “No.”
“But the system was much younger,” he said. “I mean frankly the whole concept of doing any kind of maintenance work while the system was open in the ’90s and earlier was unheard of here.”
SafeTrack is scheduled to conclude June 25, following a rail segment shutdown on the Red Line from Twinbrook to Shady Grove.
Then, the first round of post-SafeTrack work — stretching from Aug. 5-20 — will close Branch Avenue and Suitland stations on the Green Line, as track workers rebuild an interlocking and replace grout pads outside Branch Avenue, Metro said. Green Line trains are expected to run from Naylor Road to Greenbelt. Metro said doing the same work during weekend windows would necessitate 12 consecutive weekend shutdowns.
In the fall, from Nov. 25 through Dec. 10, Takoma Metro station will close so workers can rebuild an interlocking outside that station. Trains will run every eight minutes from Glenmont to Silver Spring and Shady Grove to Fort Totten, with service every four minutes in the core — from Grosvenor to NoMA, Metro said.
In an interview, SafeTrack director Laura Mason compared the project to SafeTrack surge 10, where Metro replaced a critical interlocking outside Rhode Island Avenue station at a cost of about $14 million. For that project, roughly 2,000 crossties had to be replaced. The double crossover outside Takoma will require a similar amount of work, she said.
Finally in the spring, Huntington and Eisenhower Avenue stations on the Yellow Line will close as workers rebuild an interlocking and lay grout pads. Trains will run between Franconia-Springfield and and Mt. Vernon Square. The project is expected to stretch from May 12-27, 2018.
Metro will adopt new operating hours later this month as part of the preventive maintenance plan. Starting June 25, the transit system will open at 5 a.m. weekdays and close at 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 1 a.m. Friday. The system will be open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays. Train service will be significantly reduced on five of six lines, with trains arriving every eight minutes on most of the system, with more frequent service in the core.
“SafeTrack was the most aggressive track renewal program in Metro’s history, and it achieved its primary goals – but it all came with the cost of great inconvenience to our riders,” Wiedefeld said in a statement. “Now, like every other mature transit system, we must do everything in our power to prevent another SafeTrack through a healthy program of preventive maintenance combined with planned capital projects.”
Riders and some officials said the news of more extended track work was unexpected, especially so soon after the yearlong program’s conclusion.
“Fine. But why are we saying SafeTrack is over, then?,” asked Twitter user @BeyondDC, responding to word of new rush-hour track work. “What’s the [difference] btwn doing this ‘after SafeTrack’ vs as part of it? Just the name?”
That Twitter user, transportation planner Dan Malouff, said he was more satisfied Thursday after examining the track work plans in more detail.
“When the 3 post-SafeTrack surges happen, they’re going to feel exactly like a SafeTrack surge to riders,” he said. “But SafeTrack was a ‘surge of surges’ … whereas what we’ll see post-SafeTrack is many fewer surges, much more rarely.”
Metro board member Christian Dorsey said the agency’s announcement ran counter to messaging that the extended disruptions were nearing their end. But he said the track work — in more limited stretches, in shorter timespans –is comparable to what other transit systems across the country are doing. He planned to press Metro officials for more information at an upcoming board meeting June 8.
“What we’ve been trying to tell all of our riders is that even though the system is not perfect come July, we’ll be back to normal and we hope that you will embrace Metro, and this — while not being contrary to that [message] — it dilutes it a bit,” Dorsey said.
Still, he said, the track work Metro has in mind isn’t sufficient to constitute another yearlong repair program.
“This is part of what all transit properties need to do in order to maintain themselves,” he said. “Absent the experience we’ve had over the past year I think we’d look at this a bit differently.”
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans pointed to his own frequent characterization of the maintenance program, saying the conclusion of SafeTrack was simply the “end of the beginning.”
“We’ve stopped the 15 areas that would have killed the patient, so the patient is now stabilized but still very, very sick,” he said. “Now what we will be doing forever — forever, for the rest of the existence – of mine at least – we will be repairing Metro. … It’ll probably be less inconvenient, certainly more reliable, but there will always be work going on on Metro of a substantial nature.”