Half a year after completing SafeTrack, Metro’s quality-control review that found that the stretch of railway was in “marginal” condition, rated it below acceptable standards, and noted that it had logged 13 speed restrictions since the work was completed. Inspectors called it the most degraded stretch of track in the review and said it would require continued maintenance into 2019 “and beyond.”
Metro spokesman Richard L. Jordan said the assessment took into account some factors outside of SafeTrack’s scope, adding that the aerial structure, “widely regarded as the most challenging piece of infrastructure on the system,” requires ongoing maintenance because of its design and the high volume of trains it carries.
The review, which was included in a November quality-control report, is a departure from Metro’s initial assessment of the work.
Metro had closed the portion of the railway that extended from Eastern Market to Minnesota Avenue on the Orange Line and to Benning Road on the Blue and Silver lines during the second surge of SafeTrack. Shortly after the surge, Metro posted a progress report that said SafeTrack brought the “key junction” into what the transit industry calls “a state of good repair.”
Now Metro says that despite SafeTrack’s improvements, with 15 of 16 track segments brought into “adequate” condition or better, significant work remains to restore the overall rail system to health. Six months after SafeTrack concluded, many segments in or near SafeTrack surge zones have been subjected to mandatory slowdowns, an indication that track conditions remain insufficient to safely run trains at their intended speeds. Following the conclusion of SafeTrack, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld trimmed the agency’s operating hours and launched an aggressive preventive maintenance program aimed at ensuring the system doesn’t regress on safety and reliability.
“While remediation addressed immediate safety concerns, more work is required to achieve a system-wide state of good repair,” the internal review found. “Several Surge areas will require further mitigation to address new or remaining defects and mitigate the development of speed-restrictable conditions.”
Following SafeTrack, tracks in four of the 16 surge zones were brought into “good condition,” according to the quality-control review. In 11 other areas, from National Airport to Braddock Road and from Ballston to East Falls Church, for example, tracks were brought to “adequate” condition, indicating a basic measure of reliability that requires further near-term fixes to maintain. In each surge area, Metro has identified upkeep — including crossover rehabilitations, rail replacements and structural maintenance — that could entail further disruptions for commuters. Metro declined to say whether such track work would take place on nights and weekends, or during rush-hour periods — as many have grown accustomed to.
An internal review found 15 of 16 SafeTrack surge zones were restored to “adequate” condition or better, but significant work remains. (WMATA)
“If something is identified that is unsafe and needs to be addressed, then I would not preclude at all us shutting down places for days at a time,” said Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who channeled Winston Churchill, arguing SafeTrack was merely “the end of the beginning.”
“As far as fixing this system and making it back to a state of good repair, we’ve got a long way to go,” Evans said.
In the National Airport-to-Braddock stretch, for example, SafeTrack restored tracks to a condition rating of 3, according to Metro inspectors who conducted reviews using a Federal Transit Administration asset scoring scale of 1-5. That rating means tracks have reached “mid-life” condition, with “longer-lasting or more frequent reductions in performance” than other areas. The review noted that the 11 zones marked “adequate” may still require “occasional spot emergency corrective maintenance.”
Metro officials said the need for continued maintenance in these areas, even so soon after SafeTrack, is not unexpected for decades-old infrastructure.
“First, it’s important to understand that a ‘state of good repair’ is not a finish line that you cross,” Jordan said. “It is a state that must be continually maintained with ongoing work. So, in that regard, more work will always be required to maintain a state of good repair. ”
Still, Metro hailed SafeTrack as a significant leap forward for the system’s safety and reliability. The program cleared a backlog of 45,000 rotting crossties, the wooden beams that secure tracks at the proper spacing or “gauge.” In all, 64,000 new ties were installed as the agency compressed three years of work into one, the agency says.
Officials billed SafeTrack as an “emergency program” that targeted Metro’s most urgent needs. But the agency said the track work, which encompassed less than 40 percent of the system, was primarily geared toward replacing crossties. The work wasn’t limited to ties, however: Reports on the second and third surges reflected work on insulators, grout pads, fasteners, studs and power cables, among other components. Despite improved tie conditions, inspectors said the area around the Orange, Blue and Silver line junction requires critical renewals of other components: grout pads and fasteners.
Notably, track conditions were worst in the areas targeted by Metro’s three earliest surges — Ballston to East Falls Church rated a 3.3, the Minnesota Avenue/Benning Road junction rated a 2.8 and National Airport to Braddock Road rated a 3.0 — potentially a result of the severity of track problems in those stretches, or a reflection of federal auditors’ conclusion that Metro rushed critical planning for the year-long maintenance program. Early reports from the FTA Federal also pointed to concerns with the quality of repairs.
“A portion of that could be attributed to the fact that we were in our learning stage rather than our ‘having-learned’ stage,” Evans said. “I guess we’ll go back and do more work.”
Metro said the post-SafeTrack review, posted online among a series of quality-control reports from November, represented a check on its own work.
“This is what quality assurance looks like,” Jordan said. “We are not waiting for outside oversight. We want to identify and resolve issues ourselves. That’s new here. It’s important, and it’s transparent.”
The FTA, which handles safety oversight for the system, referred questions on the quality-control report to Metro.
After SafeTrack, Metro launched maintenance blitzes — focused on crossovers where trains switch tracks — that closed stretches of the Green and Red lines for 10 weekdays at a time. A third crossover replacement will close Huntington and Eisenhower Avenue Stations on the Yellow Line in May. Metro has yet to announce further shutdowns or extended single-tracking.
Evans praised Metro for a thorough review of its work through its quality-control unit. Meanwhile, he said, he understood the consternation from riders, who endured more than a year of SafeTrack and are likely face further extended disruptions going forward.
“All I can tell the riders is I certainly can appreciate the anger, inconvenience, frustration, all those factors, but we have to get this done right,” Evans said. “There’s no other option that we have.”