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On Thursday, the WMATA board heard about why Metro keeps catching on fire. Then on Friday, Metro caught on fire.

At the height of Friday afternoon rush, an insulator caught fire at Metro Center, kicking off a meltdown on the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines. A smaller but similar incident hit the Red Line Sunday evening as well. The day before, the WMATA board received a briefing on the power system that both issues were related to and how problems with it continue to plague the system.

Photo by John Grant.

Friday's fire right around 5 pm at Metro Center on the Orange/Silver/Blue lines caused trains to halt service for around 40 minutes and then single-track until the system closed, delaying thousands and adding an hour or more to some commutes. Sunday's issue happened at a time where delays were an inconvenience for fewer people, but it was certainly a problem nonetheless.

Issues can crop up at various points in any power system, which makes routine maintenance so important. Substations that receive power from the supplier (Dominion and PEPCO, primarily) have cables that run to the third rail, which runs alongside the tracks that trains run on and which supplies power to the trains. Trains use this power, which is then fed back through the rails through the "negative return" back to the substation.

The likely culprit in both incidents is what's called stray electrical current, which can happen when a power circuit is created through a path that isn't the one intended. Instead of making a circuit from the power substation through cabling to the train then back out through the rails, an alternate circuit path could be created across insulators or through the stud bolts that help secure the tracks.

This unexpected path can create arcing, smoke, and fires, which cause harm to the equipment and are dangerous for passengers. Dirt, dust, and other contaminants, all of which aren't exactly uncommon in Metro tunnels, can increase the severity of stray currents.

When these mixtures stick to the third rail insulators, the insulator's function starts to break down. Instead of preventing the current from "escaping" the third rail through the trackbed, the debris lets the current travel to unintended portions of the system not meant for it. These stray paths can case bolts to heat up and glow, smoke, or spark, or cause the insulators to arc or even catch fire if they've broken down far enough. These side-effects are just a few reasons why proper maintenance of a power system and making sure insulators, supply and return cables, transformers and other components is important.

The stray current and other power issues aren't new to Metro; a current issue across an insulator led to an explosion at Federal Center in May, and arcing insulators are almost a common occurrence, especially on the Red Line.

Metro's General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, requested an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) peer-review of portions of its third-rail power system back in June, and the report was made available after WMATA's September 22nd board meetings. The peer review request was part of Metro's safety department's larger holistic review of the power system to try and help pinpoint and solve its various power issues once and for all.

The APTA review provided a list of observations about Metro's third rail system that could potentially cause issues. One of the primary ones (which isn't a new idea, or even new to Metro) is that the reviewers found "insulators seemed to be excessively contaminated" both in the rail yard they visited as well as on open track. This contamination, a combination including brake dust from train brake pads, oils, and various other types of dust and debris, can stick to the insulators that hold up the third rail which provides power to the trains.

A cracked insulator, which the APTA peer review noted. Image from WMATA.

APTA gave Metro two recommendations for the contamination. One, Metro should analyze what the deposits on the third rail insulators are to figure out where they come from, and determine how to cut down on how much is generated. Second, they suggest Metro develop and maintain an insulator cleaning program. A tunnel cleaning program did exist at Metro up through the early 90's, but was terminated.

APTA reviewers also found that Metro staff are "constantly in a catch-up mode" when it comes to the power system, so they don't have much time for preventative maintenance that might also help cut down on smoke/fire incidents.

Metro's Board of Directors has heard about many of these issues before

The lack of an active cleaning program was one issue the NTSB found that contributed to the January 2015 smoke incident that killed one passenger and injured dozens others. Metro's deputy general manager in May of 2015 told the Board that the agency was to reinstate this program, and wanted to become "so proactive that these incidents don't happen."

Smoke and fire incidents, many caused by stray or imbalanced current, continue to occur in the system—more have happened in 2016 than had up to this point and last year.

Metro is certainly more active now than it has been in the past regarding tunnel cleaning (said to be part of SafeTrack and partially restarted after the L'Enfant incident) and insulator replacement from ceramic to fiberglass within underground station limits is complete (but still needs to be done for above-ground stations and in tunnels), and many power cables and equipment have been replaced in the meantime as well.

But becoming a proactive organization requires hard analysis to detect issues and get to the root causes before they become larger problems, not simply when an outside organization finds them or when somebody gets hurt. It's a long road to walk down, but with the proper management it's an achievable goal and results in a safer and more reliable transit system for riders to use.


Who needs Metro? Duck Rapid Transit is the answer to the Blue Line crunch

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Metro's total shutdown earlier this month forced many people to travel by other means for the day. But maybe that's just the way things should be. All the time. It would be much cheaper to get around using existing water infrastructure if the region built Duck Rapid Transit (DuRT).

Concept rendering of a possible Washington-area DuRT line from the from the Institute for Tub and Duck Policy (ITDP). Base duck photo by Jonathan Chen.

DuRT would be perfect for the Washington region, especially the overburdened Blue Line. With minimal investment, passengers could ride aboard a high-speed fleet of DC Duck Tours' amphibious boat/bus vehicles, running primarily on the Potomac River but also on dedicated Duck Occupancy/Toll (DOT) lanes in both Virginia and DC. Travel times would be competitive with Metro.

"Why isn't now the time to ask whether we should keep investing in the Metro system?" asked Thomas O. T. B. Fired, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "Any reasonable metric shows it's not a good form of transit compared to other ones."

If Fired had his way, he said he would close Metro. He was previously quoted by the Washington Post's Kendrick Bunkle saying he'd fill in the tunnels with dirt, but we now know Bunkle misheard him and he really meant DuRT.

Here's one possible transit line alignment, with stops at eight existing Metro stations: Franconia-Springfield, Van Dorn Street, Eisenhower Avenue, Pentagon, Rosslyn, Foggy Bottom-GWU, Dupont Circle, and U Street. A future stop could also be added at the Watergate complex.

The idea garners mixed reviews

The Georgetown Business Improvement District, which spearheaded a study of a gondola from Rosslyn, is eager to see an analysis. "I just want a feasibility study of DuRT," said BID director Stone Jerlieb. However, some residents immediately inveigled against the idea on the local listserv. In response to counter-arguments that this is far in the future, local neighborhood curmudgeon, Ima Ghenstytt, said she had to be opposed "just to be sure."

It's also unclear if Georgetown could even get a DuRT stop, but the BID isn't worried. "The line for Georgetown Cupcake starts in Foggy Bottom, anyway," said Bill Footsfield, BID Coordination Coordinator.

In addition to new Duck Loops at each of the stations, the route would require the construction of ramps to connect dedicated lanes along existing roads like I-95, Virginia 110, and New Hampshire Avenue to waterways like Backlick Run, Cameron Run, and the Potomac River, including a funicular ramp near Key Bridge.

Local transportation innovator Gabe Gross also roundly applauded the idea, saying, "This is a bold step towards having fully accountable public-private partnerships operate all of America's transit. Also, having more transportation options improves the region's resilience in the face of imminent disasters, like floods and electrical cable insulation."

DC Ducks could receive the same fares and public subsidy levels that the Blue Line currently receives, but DuRT operating costs would be lower than Metrorail, since the vehicles can be powered primarily by stale bread crumbs.

The DC government actually considered DuRT under former DDOT head Tan "Danger" Lini. That concept would have further extended the line to Columbia Heights by making the Meridian Hill Park fountain into a log flume. But that plan foundered after the National Park Service told DC it would require a public EIS process that would conclude, at the earliest, on April 1, 2036.

Some park advocates also opposed the idea at the time. Referring to the alignment near the Watergate, Ivana Park, co-chair of the Committee to Re-Engineer Extant Plans (CREEP), said, "The 1930 landscape plan for this area does not show the canal being used for boat transportation, so this use would plainly violate the historic nature of the C&O National Historical Park."

Will people ride it?

A major criticism of DuRT nationwide is whether riding on a duck boat carries a stigma as compared to more upscale-seeming vehicles. For that reason, some cities have tried using swan boats instead.

Miami politicians recently asked to replace a duck project, long in planning, to swans. "People don't like to take ducks," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, "unless they have no alternative."

But proponents like Yorick Yoffe of Citylab argue that these are myths, and if a good-quality DuRT line were built, people would ride it.

The US has not successfully built a DuRT line without it devolving to a bathtub-sized project through "DuRTy Creep," but proponents hope a Backlick Run/Potomac River line could be the one that finally succeeds.


Metro isn't running as many trains through Farragut West as it would like

Metro's schedules call for running 25 to 26 trains per hour in each direction through the Blue/Orange/Silver subway, but the actual number running has been closer to the low 20s. What's going on here?

Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr.

Complaints about long waits and late trains are just anecdotes. I wanted to see if there was anything we could learn from the actual data, so I collected it the same way I did for Glenmont-bound Red line trains during the morning rush hour earlier in the summer.

As with earlier data, I relied on the WMATA trip planner and real time arrivals page.

For the Blue/Orange/Silver lines, I recorded arrivals in both directions during peak morning hours as well as off-peak midday. I also kept track of delays or problems as reported on WMATA's website or on Twitter, including the time the information was sent out.

Over the course of 18 distinct days of morning rush hour observations, the data shows that Metro seldom met its goal of 25-26 trains per hour and instead averaged between three and four fewer trains in each direction. Service was also hampered by numerous instances of train malfunctions and track problems, including the train derailment outside Smithsonian station that severely affected service for two days.

Farragut West, AM peak. Click for the entire chart. Charts by the author.

For off-peak midday service, Metro often met or even exceeded its trip planner schedule, even when midday track work and inspections were taking place. However, trains had a tendency to bunch meaning that customer waits for a specific line varied dramatically, from less than five minutes to upwards of 15.

Farragut West, PM peak. Click for the entire chart.

My observations corroborate Metro's own assertion that it is not meeting its on-time performance goals on the BL/OR/SV lines. They also support Stephen Repetski's earlier article that showed a link between deteriorating train reliability and declining on-time performance.

I recorded at least 15 instances of train problems that led to inconveniences for customers during the morning rush hour. The delays resulting from these breakdowns only exacerbated the problems created by routing three lines through the same tunnel. For customers, it meant longer waits for already crowded trains.

As more 7000 series trains are put into service, we should begin to see the number of train problems diminish and a corresponding improvement in on-time performance along the BL/OR/SV lines. Metro is also looking at adjusting its service levels to improve performance along these lines, though it is debatable if there would be a tangible positive benefit for customers.


Metro might cut Green Line service because of worries about train spacing

Metro's proposal to improve the Blue Line by cutting the Yellow and Green Lines hinges on officials' insistence that Metro trains run "evenly spaced." What does that really mean, is it actually necessary, and will this change help or hurt most riders?

Photo by Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr.

The problem at hand is that if Metro runs the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines every eight minutes, but the Green and Yellow every six minutes, the Blue and Yellow Lines can't share the tracks evenly on the shared segment in Alexandria and South Arlington.

In 2012, in anticipation of the coming Silver Line, WMATA starting running Blue Line trains less frequently. Blue trains now run every 12 minutes during rush hour. The cuts have led to overcrowding on the Blue Line, which WMATA is hoping to resolve.

But since the shared Blue/Orange/Silver subway through DC is running at capacity, the only way to add Blue Line trains is to cut back the number of Orange and Silver Line trains. The agency has proposed reducing Orange and Silver Line train spacing from six minutes to eight and the Blue Line from 12 minutes to eight.

However, WMATA has also proposed cutting Green and Yellow Line trains from six to eight minute frequencies. As we pointed out last week, those cuts may be unnecessary, and will actually result in 50% less rail service north of Mount Vernon Square.

What's behind these cuts?

As it turns out, Metro is concerned about unbalanced headways in Alexandria and South Arlington if the Blue comes every eight minutes and the Yellow comes every six.

Graphic by the author.

If both lines run every eight minutes, Metro could easily space the trains at four-minute intervals. But with one line running every six and another every eight, the trains can't be evenly spaced. The time between trains will fluctuate between one and six minutes. And periodically, two Yellows will come through between Blues.

And if the Yellow has to run less to interface (share tracks) with the Blue, then so does the Green.

For a whole lot of people, spacing between lines isn't all that important

How important is balance between the Blue and Yellow, especially in comparison to the number of other riders inconvenienced by the unnecessary cuts?

On the shared Blue/Yellow line in Virginia, most riders are waiting for either the Blue or Yellow, not just for whichever comes first. That's because the lines serve different markets. Someone traveling from Braddock Road to Farragut West doesn't care about how the Yellow is spaced relative to the Blue, since the Yellow won't help her get to work.

In fact, during the morning peak, only 11.9% of the customers who board at one of the shared stations (about 2,600) stay within that segment. The other 88.1% of riders probably specifically want the Blue or the Yellow.

Over 56,000 customers use a Green Line train during the AM peak. Another 7,000 board or alight at Eisenhower Avenue or Huntington. Those 63,000 customers will see their train service cut so that the 2,600 customers traveling within the shared Blue/Yellow segment see even headways.

Metro's concerns are likely deeper than just customer convenience

As you can see from the graphic above, the Blue and Yellow trains come within one minute of each other repeatedly throughout the peak period. That's barely manageable, and it depends on things going smoothly.

With this schedule, even a slight delay can ripple through across the system. On the shared Blue/Yellow segment, for example, if a Blue misses its appropriated space, there might be a six-minute gap behind the Yellow. But when that Blue Line train gets to Rosslyn, it has to find a slot, and it might be hard to fit the train in smoothly if there's not one open.

Graphic by the author.

Since Metro is proposing to reduce the number of trains through Rosslyn, that will be easier than today, but it could still be problematic.

If the Orange and Silver Lines are spaced four minutes apart, a Blue can fit in between them, with two minutes on either side. That leaves the next gap at four minutes. So it's possible that if a Blue Line misses its slot, it can simply fit into the next gap.

Metro faces a difficult task in figuring out how to balance service on the four lines that share with the Blue Line. In the end, the only permanent solution is likely to be some form of a separated Blue Line. But a new subway across downtown is decades in the future. Even a separated Rosslyn station for Blue trains remains an unfunded dream.

Hopefully, WMATA will find a way to rebalance service on the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines without negatively impacting Green and Yellow Line riders unnecessarily.


Events roundup: Fare hikes and transit updates

Fares may rise on Virginia rail, and changes are coming to the Blue Line corridor in Prince George's County and the GW Parkway. Learn about federal transit funding and make sure to save the date for the Greater Greater Washington birthday party!

Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr

Virginia railway fare hike: The Virginia Railroad Express, Virginia's only commuter railroad, plans to raise its fares. If you didn't have a chance to weigh in last week, you have three more chances this week:

  • Tuesday, February 24, 7-8 pm at the Burke Centre Conservancy, 9837 Burke Pond Lane
  • Wednesday, February 25, 12-1 pm at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington
  • Thursday, February 25, 7-8 pm at Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street in Manassas
After the jump: Blue line corridor, GGW birthday bash, the GW Parkway and more.

Blue Line corridor: Do you live along the Blue Line in Maryland? Prince George's County is planning to improve pedestrian safety, foster transit-oriented development, and more along its Blue Line corridor. Join the planning department for an update on the project this Thursday, February 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Omega Room of St Margaret's Catholic Church at 410 Addison Road South in Seat Pleasant.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is turning seven and we want you to help us celebrate! Join us for cake and merriment on Wednesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Lost and Found at 1240 9th Street NW. See you there!

GW Parkway transit assessment: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle beween Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches of the area on Tuesday, March 3, from 5 to 8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's Build America Investment Initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at


Farragut Square's virtual tunnel saves Metro riders time and eases crowding. Should downtown get another one?

Metro lets riders transfer between Farragut West and Farragut North without paying because while the stations are on separate lines, they're only a block apart. New data on who uses the "virtual tunnel" gives us perspective on how useful additional free transfers could be.

Usage of the Virtual Tunnel.

Between 15,000 and 18,000 people use the "tunnel" each month, which alleviates crowding at the Metro Center station. According to PlanItMetro, the crossing's higher use comes in the warmer months of the year.

WMATA advertises the "tunnel," but after PlanItMetro asked about ways to make even more people aware of the unusual but time-saving transfer, commenters suggested adding an actual note to Metro maps. New York City does this with its Subway maps.

Commenters also suggested another potential site for a similar crossing: between Metro Center and Gallery Place. Like Farragut West and Farragut North, these two stations are only a few blocks apart and could save Orange, Blue, and Silver who want to reach the Yellow and Green lines (and vice versa) from having to either transfer twice or ride all the way to L'Enfant Plaza.


Did Rush Plus depress Blue Line ridership?

To make room for new Silver Line trains at the Rosslyn bottleneck, WMATA has reduced the number of Blue Line (and Orange Line) trains and added Yellow Line trains. A group calling itself Save the Blue Line claims that a similar change in 2012 caused riders to stop using Metro. Is that accurate?

Graph from Save The Blue Line.

In June of 2012, Metro started a new service pattern in Virginia. To make way for more Orange Line trains and more service in north Arlington and Fairfax, the agency started sending some "Blue" Line trains from Franconia over the Yellow Line bridge to Greenbelt, labeled "Rush Plus" Yellow Line trains.

In the two years since, has that lowered ridership?

It's hard to say with any certainty. Ridership at the stations south of Pentagon is lower than it was before Rush Plus. On the other hand, ridership was already dropping before Rush Plus started.

There's actually an error in the Save The Blue Line graph: while the arrow suggests Rush Plus started between the 2011 and 2012 data points, the 2012 data is actually from a count in May, before Rush Plus started. The arrow should actually point one more space to the right, and therefore the drop you can see on the graph began before Rush Plus.

Did Rush Plus contribute to the ridership drop?

We cannot prove causation from correlation, but perhaps we can glean some insight from the numbers.

If we look just at boardings from Van Dorn Street and Franconia/Springfield, we can see a noticeable dip starting in about 2010. It continues into 2013 before leveling off a bit.

This and all subsequent graphics by the author.

From 2011 to 2012 (one year before Rush Plus), ridership at Van Dorn and Franconia declined 3.94%. That drop contrasted with a systemwide increase in ridership of 0.13%. So before Rush Plus the Blue Line (the end at least) was already losing riders compared to the rest of the system.

The May 2013 number is the first data point after Rush Plus started. In the period from May 2012 to May 2013, ridership at Van Dorn and Franconia shrank 7.81%, significantly more than the systemwide decline of 2.57%.

The ridership decrease was somewhat attenuated between 2013 and 2014, where at Franconia and Van Dorn it dropped only 1.17% compared to 0.55% systemwide.

If we look at all the stations most affected by Rush Plus, from Pentagon south, we see similar trends, though they're less strong.

Prior to Rush Plus, average daily boardings at Pentagon and the stations to the south (to Huntington and Franconia/Springfield) declined 3.68% over the 12 months from May 2011 to May 2012. Following 11 months of Rush Plus, ridership on this section had dropped 4.49% (compared to 2.57% systemwide).

So the data do show that ridership on the Blue and Yellow lines south of Pentagon has been lower since Rush Plus was implemented. But the ridership was already shrinking before Rush Plus.

It's certainly possible that Rush Plus exacerbated the ridership loss, but there's no way to tell for sure with the data available.

Even if Rush Plus did cause a significant drop, there's little WMATA can do. The tracks between Rosslyn and Stadium/Armory are operating at their capacity of 26 trains per hour. With Silver Line service starting this weekend, something has to give. With higher ridership in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, WMATA has decided to shift some Blue Line trains onto the 7th Street subway.

The number of trains at Franconia and Van Dorn hasn't decreased. Passengers still have the same number of trains going downtown. But fewer of them go to Rosslyn. For getting to the western end of downtown, some riders will now be better off transferring at L'Enfant Plaza.

WMATA planners are hoping to relieve pressure in the future by upgrading the system to handle more 8-car trains and building new Blue Line platforms at Rosslyn. Future phases could take the line across downtown.

Without more railcars, power stations, and core capacity, WMATA has little alternative but to reduce Blue Line service. That's why riders frustrated at losing Blue Line trains can have the best impact by lobbying their elected officials to fund Metro's plans for 8-car trains, a second Rosslyn station, and eventually a new crossing into DC.

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