Then, arcing insulators reported at the Medical Center station in Bethesda at 8:03 and at Dupont Circle at 9:15 during the Friday morning rush resulted in significant delays for thousands of riders as Metro shut down segments of the track for emergency inspections.
By 10:30 a.m., service was restored at both problem spots. But by that point, commuters already had ditched Metro and taken to buses, ride-share services, walking and — in a few cases — hitchhiking to reach their destination. Twitter was ablaze with photos posted by commuters packed onto trains or waiting for shuttle buses outside of closed stations with throngs of other riders.
All of this came just two days before Metro is set to raise fares and taper rail service — and on the last weekday of the SafeTrack maintenance program, the year-long track repair project that Metro has extolled as a significant achievement.
And as Metro begins to make the case to the region that the transit system has turned a corner on reliability issues, it’s a tough sell to jaded Metro riders who experienced the Friday morning Red Line meltdown.
For Ashley Westby, 33, the trip between Medical Center and L’Enfant Plaza typically takes 30 to 40 minutes. On Friday morning, it took two hours and 15 minutes.
“I usually try to keep pretty chill about Metro, because I appreciate having an alternative that doesn’t involve me paying $25 to park or walking 16 miles,” Westby said. “But, how WMATA has the nerve to say they are going to raise fares is beyond me.”
Nisreen Eadeh, 24, commutes daily from the Orange Line’s Dunn Loring station to Dupont Circle — and though she only rides the Red Line for two stops on the Red Line, from Metro Center to Dupont, the arcing incidents doubled the time of her Friday commute to 90 minutes. Her train was off-loaded at Farragut North. She waited for 20 minutes for another train, then watched as another offloaded onto the platform. Finally, she gave up and walked the rest of the way to her office. After a year of dealing with slow speeds and crowded conditions because of SafeTrack, Eadeh said, she was frustrated.
“We were supposed to deal with these crowded conditions and delays for a year so that the Metro could get fixed,” Eadeh said, “but if they’re catching fire then they sure didn’t do the job well.”
The outcry from angry riders was so intense, Metro officials took to Twitter on Friday afternoon to deliver a four-part apology, explaining that the two separate instances of arcing insulators were probably caused by water infiltration resulting from overnight rain.
But reducing tunnel leaks and water infiltration was one of the goals of SafeTrack, with workers traveling through the downtown subway tunnels on nights and weekends during the 13-month project to detect and repair leakage problems and clear out drains to reduce standing water. In part, officials have said, their efforts worked: In a recent presentation to the Metro board of directors, the agency reported a 16 percent reduction in the number of smoke and fire incidents since the start of SafeTrack.
And according to recent metrics provided by Metro, on-time performance has also improved slightly in recent months: In May, Metro met its goal of 90 percent punctuality, with 76 percent of trips concluding on time and 14 percent finishing within five minutes of their projected arrival time. Those improvements can be attributed in large part to rail-car repairs and the introduction of the 7000-series trains, which have become the most reliable in the fleet, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
But even as Metro praises these incremental improvements, officials say they understand the reality of their image problem: Each time a major meltdown strikes the downtown core during rush hour, it causes massive delays and prompts wrathful riders to wonder whether anything has changed on the embattled transit system.
Metro officials say they have a plan in place to help prevent such incidents in coming months: Starting next month, work crews are starting a preventive maintenance program aimed at performing more repairs that would help the agency avoid critical problems that can bring peak-hour service to a screeching halt. That program includes a specific pilot project aimed at mitigating leaks on the Red Line.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Thursday that he remains optimistic that Metro is starting to make progress on reliability and that the effects of SafeTrack and the preventive maintenance program could start winning back riders before the end of the year.
“In the fall, let’s see where we are,” Wiedefeld said.
But Jack Evans, the characteristically plain-spoken chairman of the Metro board, gave a much more matter-of-fact assessment of the SafeTrack achievements and the current state of the system. Evans argued that SafeTrack was never going to be a panacea for all of Metro’s problems, built up over the course of decades. As the system ages, he said, continued maintenance will always be necessary, but he’s hoping that Metro has begun to winnow down the backlog of problems to be addressed.
“We fixed the 13 or 15 worst parts of the system, and now we have a system that has a lot of bad parts but not the worst parts,” Evans said. “And so, the ongoing maintenance will continue for the rest of eternity … and every day, every week, every month it will get better.”
“It’s not where I want it to be with reliability,” Evans continued. “I still have qualms with Metro about myself and getting on and trying to get to work on time. But [Wiedefeld] will tell you — we have to continue to do better and make sure out customers know what we’re doing, and hopefully we’ll get some of them back.”