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The feds tell Metro to rearrange its maintenance plans

That SafeTrack plan of maintenance and shutdowns you learned about last week might be out the window, or at least significantly changed. The Federal Transit Administration just instructed Metro to do maintenance on three sections of track before starting on its SafeTrack maintenance plan.


Trash can image from Shutterstock.

In a letter the FTA just sent WMATA, FTA demands that Metro rearrange priorities to first focus on three sections of tracks:

  • Medical Center to Van Ness
  • Potomac Ave to the "D&G junction," where the tracks split toward Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road
  • East Falls Church to Ballston

All of these are among the 15 "surge" shutdowns, but just not scheduled first. The western Red Line segment was slated for single-tracking after 8 pm every day in January and February, 2017. Potomac Avenue to D&G was going to happen in August of this year. And East Falls Church to Ballston was slated for November into December.

As the FTA letter notes, Metro was mainly focusing on the Red Line tunnel from Friendship Heights to Medical Center, but the FTA believes there need to be more repairs between Friendship Heights and Van Ness as well.

A lot of this seems to be a response to the incident last week at Federal Center SW, where an insulator overheated and exploded near the platform. Metro shut down the station, but only once General Manager Paul Wiedefeld got involved personally. The FTA has said in an earlier letter that Metro's Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) wouldn't allow inspectors onto the tracks after that explosion.

Where's the coordination?

There's no doubt that Metro needs to fix its arcing insulators. What happened at Federal Center SW last week was scary. (The fact that some people inside Metro apparently refused to let inspectors on the tracks is another huge issue that we were about to write a post about, but this took precedence.)

However, having Metro spend months devising a plan and then having the FTA suddenly tell them to turn it upside down is not likely a good way to run a railroad. Metro and the FTA have to be working together, coordinating the best and most efficient ways to solve the system's many problems. Since the three areas mentioned are already part of SafeTrack, the FTA and WMATA could have worked together to prioritize the work needing to be done before the plan and this letter came out.

The FTA might need to demand Metro drop everything and obey an urgent directive, but that should be a rare exception, not a first step. The FTA might need to demand Metro be shut down completely, as Secretary Anthony Foxx threatened, but that should be a last resort - basically, ad admission of failure by BOTH Metro and the feds. The policy of dictating requirements to WMATA without similarly offering solutions doesn't seem to be the best way to go.

As WMATA General Manager/CEO Paul Wiedefeld said at his press conference last week, the 15 "surge" shutdowns aren't the extent of the maintenance. Metro is also going to be doing substantial maintenance during nights and weekends by shutting down earlier at night, in addition to making use of the typical overnight time available. As well, track work is not going away once SafeTrack concludes; the system always will need work.


Photo by Stephen Repetski.

Find the person who'll fix it and trust them

We don't know what's the right order to perform maintenance. We're not rail maintenance experts. But back when Metro was looking for a leader and facing problems of maintenance, finance, leadership, reputation, and more, the message from a lot of knowledgeable people was this: Find someone capable of fixing the problem, then hire them, and empower them to take action.

So far, it seems Paul Wiedefeld is that guy. We sure hope so. Since taking over, Wiedefeld has been open and vocal about the system's problems, not shying away from admitting how much work it will entail. It doesn't seem like he's shying away from doing what it will take.

If he proves for some reason he's not that guy, then he has to be replaced with someone who is. But unless and until that happens, the only real way forward is for everyone to work with Wiedefeld and stand behind him.

Ensure he has the best information. Try to persuade him. So far, he's been open to listening to everyone, from governors and federal transportation secretaries to regular riders. But then, once he takes in everyone's ideas, he has to be able to make a call on some of these specific details, like which week to fix which tracks.

The Board of Directors used to micromanage Metro, and this was one of the flaws a lot of people called to fix. Now it looks awfully like the FTA is trying to micromanage it instead. Even if FTA is right and Paul wrong about the relative priority, which isn't at all clear (and the FTA letter doesn't make the case), this just doesn't seem like a recipe for success.

Transit


Fifteen big shutdowns, and many smaller ones, will get Metro repairs on track

The plan is finally here. Metro is launching a plan it calls "SafeTrack" to replace significant portions of the system's rails, fix numerous safety problems, and bring the system closer to a state of good repair. Riders will face weeks-long periods of single-tracking and station shutdowns for the next year.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The Metro system is 40 years old and needs massive repairs. Today, trains run in service 135 to 168 hours each week, leaving little time for comprehensive maintenance. The SafeTrack plan will squeeze in work which would otherwise take three years to do at current rates, including clearing some urgent NTSB safety recommendations by the end of this month and others by the end of summer.

When the actual shutdowns will happen

There will be 15 work "surges." Some involve shutting segments of the system down entirely for a week or two. Others involve continuous single-tracking for multiple weeks (as much as 44 days), which means single-tracking even during rush hours.

WhenWhereColor(s)What
June 4-19Franconia to Van DornBlueSingle-tracking
June 20-July 3Greenbelt to College ParkGreenSingle-tracking
July 5 @ 10 pm - July 12Nat'l Airport to Braddock RoadBlue/YellowFull shutdown
July 12-19Nat'l Airport to Pentagon CityBlue/YellowFull shutdown
July 20-31Greenbelt to College ParkGreenSingle-tracking
August 1-8Takoma to Silver SpringRedSingle-tracking
August 9-19Shady Grove to TwinbrookRedSingle-tracking
Aug. 20-Sept. 6Eastern Market to Minnesota Ave/Benning RdYl/Or/BlFull shutdown
Sept. 9-Oct. 21Vienna to West Falls ChurchOrangeSingle-tracking
Oct. 9-Nov. 2NoMa to Fort TottenRedFull shutdown
November 2-12W. Falls Ch. to E. Falls Ch.OrangeSingle-tracking
Nov. 12-Dec. 5East Falls Church to BallstonOrange/SilverSingle-tracking
December 6-24Pentagon to RosslynBlueFull shutdown
Jan. 2-March 7Friendship Heights to Medical CenterRedSingle-tracking after 8 pm
March 6-14W. Falls Ch. to E. Falls Ch.OrangeSingle-tracking
April 16-May 8Braddock Road to Huntington/Van Dorn St.Blue/YellowSingle-tracking

These "surges" will affect riders beyond these zones. Outside the single-tracking or shutdown areas, the capacity of each line will still be reduced, so there will be fewer trains on any lines that run across that segment. You can see a detailed list of affected sections in the full presentation.

The "surges" also aren't the only piece. Metro will shut down at midnight instead of 3 am on weekends, and will do more work at nights. Right now, when a segment is shut down for a night, that starts at 10 pm or midnight; now, it will start at 8 pm, like on the Friendship Heights to Medical Center segment in early 2017.

Metro will stop doing maintenance during July 4, the Presidential inauguration in January, and next year's cherry blossom season, but nothing else. Even if there's a street festival or other special event in an area scheduled for maintenance, Metro will stick to its maintenance schedule.


Photo by Hannah Rosen on Flickr.

Why such long windows?

Shutting down a piece of track for weeks is the only way to do some maintenance that WMATA has never done since it opened. Metro will completely replace rails, ballast, and the substructure which the rails lay on top of.

A significant number of the wooden rail ties in the system are original from when the system opened. Some have been replaced here and there as they deteriorated too much, but the new program means the agency will be able to replace large numbers of the ties as well as fasteners, rail, and other track equipment.


WMATA prime mover. Image from WMATA.

The only way to fully rebuild a section of rail is to keep trains off it for a long time, which is why single-tracking would have to last for weeks.

Other maintenance will address NTSB findings that the "boots" on the power-supplying third rail aren't always properly fastened and that watertight seals need replacing.

How people can get around in the meantime

Metro plans to have a dedicated fleet of up to around 40-50 buses once the track work starts, in order to help move passengers around closure and single-tracking areas, to minimize impact on surrounding roads. Even still, passengers will certainly see delays.

Dedicated traffic control officers, dedicated bus lanes, and other changes to the traffic pattern could help keep the buses moving. Those are up to the state, county, and city departments of transportation. Metro will depend on jurisdictions to step up, said Barbara Richardson, Metro's chief of external relations, "because we need to think creative and differently about how to move people throughout the region."

What Wiedefeld announced today is just the draft plan. He's releasing it to the board, the local DOTs, and the public for input. He'll finalize it next week, and maintenance will start in June.


Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

In the long run

After the year, the system will be in better shape, but that doesn't mean no more shutdowns, said WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel. Riders got used to having no single-tracking and no shutdowns when it was brand new, but that's because the necessary maintenance wasn't being done.

What exactly the maintenance plan will look like beyond a year isn't certain, said Stessel, but riders shouldn't expect no shutdowns at all.

Addendum: Answers to a few of your questions

We'll try to post more information as we get it to various questions.

Several people asked why these shutdowns are mostly on above-ground segments. According to Stessel, they will indeed be doing considerable maintenance in the tunnels, but those are mostly tasks that can be done during weekend shutdowns and overnights.

The jobs that can't be done in a night or a weekend are the much bigger jobs such as the rail tie replacements. To fully tear down and rebuild a section of track is a bigger job. And rail ties are only in above-ground sections because the tunnels don't have ties; instead, the rails are attached directly to the concrete.

Rail ties are important to keep rails off the ground for drainage reasons, and (except in the part of the western Red Line in Maryland where there have been water problems) there shouldn't be water in the tunnels.

Riders on underground sections aren't spared pain in this plan; their lines will be running low levels of service when nearby sections are single-tracking or shut down.

Transit


The feds aren't helping on Metro safety, says DC transportation chief

Metro has to do better on safety, local and federal governments, riders, and many others all agree. But while the federal government is pushing for safety, some say it's also a part of the problem.


Unhelpful image from Shutterstock.

At a regional "summit" on Metro's future on March 30, Leif Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), blasted the Federal Transit Administration's relationship to WMATA and other transit systems around the nation.

Nobody can call Dormsjo a WMATA "apologist." From the moment he took over DC's transportation agency, he's been calling for reforms at Metro. A year ago, he said, "WMATA needs to hire and fire better, manage its capital projects better, follow accounting principles better, and communicate with the public better."

Dormsjo also has called for Metro to focus on safety and reliability. At the summit, he praised new General Manager Paul Wiedefeld for emphasizing just those two factors and getting "back to basics." Last year, when former safety head Jim Dougherty chafed at FTA oversight, Dormsjo rebuked him, defending the FTA's involvement.

But when it comes to fixing problems, he said in March, the FTA is not acting like a partner.

"Every other mode of transportation has better safety oversight relationship with the federal government than transit and the FTA," he said, listing freight, aviation, highways, and other forms of transportation, each of which has its respective "modal administration" inside USDOT. Those departments oversee safety but also are "partners" in fixing problems, said Dormsjo.

Not FTA. Instead, he said, FTA sits back and criticizes transit agencies for missteps but doesn't try to help find solutions. "It's always easier to knock someone down than pick them back up," he said, and FTA is not a "collaborative partner."

"I wish the current administration would extend their hand to the nation's transit system," said Dormsjo. He suggested FTA help work out solutions to problems and then apply them to other transit properties across the nation.


Photo by Gen Kanai on Flickr.

This is a common complaint

Other transportation officials have said similar things privately before, and about more than just safety. FTA also oversees the procurement procedures of transit agencies and monitors their actions to make sure they meet federal rules for grants.

One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, relayed the story of a transportation conference where the FTA's representative on a panel kept lecturing agencies on how to achieve compliance with federal rules. That FTA speaker, he said, never talked about helping agencies reach that compliance.

If the FTA were less "rigid" in its interpretation of regulations, said Dormsjo at the March 30 panel, that could save transit agencies a lot of money in things like buying vehicles.

A former transportation executive in the region, who also wasn't willing to speak on the record, said, "I've never found the FTA to be helpful. They are custodians of money, not advocates for projects. They never act like they are trying to help you; they usually act like you're being difficult."

Sometimes it seems as though the FTA treats the nation's transit more like a reality TV show than a vital public service. They sit at the judges' table, watch the agency's performance, and lob criticisms.

The FTA put WMATA in a sort of financial penalty box, called "restricted drawdown," in 2014 after discovering weaknesses in financial controls. But over two years later, the penalty hasn't been lifted.

Maybe that's for good reason, if Metro's internal controls aren't satisfactory, though that's not clear from public information; board chairman Jack Evans has claimed WMATA has improved and deserves to be let out of the penalty box. An Inspector General's report found that "inconsistencies in the way [FTA] regional offices enforce the rules ... meant [WMATA] faced longer delays in receiving reimbursements than the other two transit agencies examined."

Even if WMATA isn't ready to go off restricted drawdown, the FTA ought to make it a high priority to help WMATA get there, in whatever way it can. Perhaps FTA really is doing that (it's not in the public record), but if it is, based on off-the-record statements, that's not typical.

Nobody questions that Metro has to do better on safety and management procedures, and it's right for FTA to push for improvements. Problems, like the fire last week near Friendship Heights, are Metro's failings and Metro's responsibility to clean up. However, to do so requires teamwork from every other stakeholder as well, and the federal government needs to see its role that way, not just as a judge but a partner.

Transit


Metro has a brilliant solution to its electrical problems

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

In light of the day-long Metrorail shutdown that occurred on March 16th which uncovered major problems with power cables, WMATA is moving forward with a plan to allow the system to operate at partial capacity without electrical power.


Image from FTA.

Over the next three years, 200 Rider-Powered Rail Cars, or RPRCs, will be introduced into Metro's rolling stock. The technology allows transit riders to push a train along the tracks with their feet using strategically-placed incisions in the floor of a rail car.

By running on nothing but the energy and sweat of their riders, WMATA can allow such cars to operate in all conditions, including future power cable inspections or even a system-wide blackout caused by a lack of funding.

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the project will help overcome what he's called a "modern Stone Age family of maintenance problems." The Federal Transit Administration has said the quality of many parts of Metro are most analogous to "a page right out of history."


Artist's rendering of the new RPRCs.

Modifying cars is simple and cheap

The first 86 RPRCs will come from retrofitted 1000-series railcars, which WMATA had been in the process of decommissioning before this decision was reached.

"The same elements that make the 1000-series 'non crashworthy' also make them perfect for turning into trains powered by people," said WMATA spokesperson Hanna Barbera. Welders are already hard at work removing floor plates in front of the seats on 1000-series cars, he said, so that riders can scoot the train to their destination even while sitting and reading the news.

The remaining 114 RPRCs will need to be designed from the ground up as the first rider-powered heavy rail system. WMATA will begin a procurement process and expects bids from industry-leading companies such as Radio Flyer. Expected features include a metronomic drum beat broadcast over the speaker system that will better coordinate the pace of riders.

Public health stands to gain

Local leaders are hailing WMATA's plan as a win for public health. "Requiring metro riders to push their own rail cars through the 117 miles of track will help make the Washington region a global model for cardiovascular health," said Mayor Muriel Bowser of the decision, noting that widespread use of RPRCs in the Metro system might help DC regain the top spot as the fittest city in America.

Much of the cost of rebuilding the subfleet of cars will be covered through event sponsorships. The 2017 Rock N Roll Marathon will be held on Metro's 26.2-mile long Orange Line tracks, eliminating complaints about closed roads and noisy outdoor concerts, while providing Metro's electricians with a bonus workday to upgrade signals and switches.

Reports indicate that Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefield is currently in negotiations with SoulCycle to provide trainers throughout the Metrorail system as additional motivation to riders.

When asked for comment, WMATA Board chairman Jack Evans said, "Yabba dabba doo!"

Transit


Here's what Metro's work crews found during the closure

During Wednesday's system closure, Metro's work crews found at least 26 power cables and connectors that required immediate repair. This makes you wonder: What will it take to uncover similar issues?


Image of a third rail jumper cable with frayed outer metal insulation. Photo from WMATA.

The Metrorail system shut down for the whole day Wednesday so that track crews could inspect and repair all 600 train power cables. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the system was divvied up into 22 sections and crews went to work checking them all, repairing the ones which were found to be in unacceptable condition.

By the agency's 6 pm press conference on Wednesday, Metro had inspected 80 percent of the cables and found that 26 required repairs. It had fixed 18, and it handled the rest overnight, before today's opening.

"Let me tell you, the shut down today was necessary" said Wiedefeld. While there weren't any cables in immediate danger of causing a fire, Wiedefeld said enough were in a "hazardous condition that we cannot accept" to justify stopping all trains for a day, a very rare move in Metro's 39-year history.


Third rail power jumper cable "boots." The third rail is under the white cover that follows next to the track. Image from WMATA.

Here's the issue

The power cables that were called into question after the fire on Monday are part of the third rail system, which powers trains so they can move down the track. The "jumpers" as they're called are used to bridge gaps in the third rail, like when the third rail has to move from one side of the track to the other. The jumper cables allow the third rail to be on whichever side of the track it needs to be on to create a continuous supply of power for the trains passing on the track.

According to Wiedefeld and Board Chairman Jack Evans, the Monday fire was similar to the one at L'Enfant Plaza in January of 2015. At L'Enfant, a defective power cable missing some of its insulation, which would prevent moisture and dirt from getting into the cable, made contact with another piece of metal, like the tunnel wall. This caused sparking which led to fire and smoke, and in essence is a common form of a power "short"—where the path of the electrons deviates from where you want them to go—just on a larger scale and with more dire consequences.

After the L'Enfant fire and death of a passenger, WMATA re-inspected all of these power cables. WMATA replaced 125 cables, and inspections were set up for the cables to be inspected yearly.

Wiedefeld didn't say if any of the 26 cables found Wednesday had been replaced last year, so we don't know if the cables are just one year old and failed recently, or if the issues were missed during routine inspections. The power system is one of several in Metrorail that, if it isn't working nearly perfectly, could harm employees, emergency personnel, or passengers.

The NTSB recommended WMATA replace all faulty cables last year

The NTSB issued a press release and recommendation to WMATA saying that issues with some of the power connections required "immediate action." The agency found that some jumper cable boots supplying power to the third rail weren't installed with proper insulation, meaning that water and debris could reach the metal carrying the power and cause a short or spark.

In addition the evidence collected at L'Enfant, the NTSB also pointed to the electrical "smoke event" in the tunnel outside Court House as being caused in part due to faulty power cable installation.

"Investigators found that cable connectors were missing 'sealing sleeves' designed to keep moisture and contaminants away from the high-voltage conductors," read the NTSB report.

The NTSB's immediate action recommendation instructed Metro to inspect and verify that all cables that were installed had been properly constructed, which the inspections and repair in June were said to have accomplished.

The FTA questioned the thoroughness of WMATA track inspections

The Federal Transit Administration issued a scathing 116-page report last summer detailing numerous safety issues that their inspectors found when investigating how WMATA does business.

One of the issues listed in the report is one that claims that the number of people available to do track inspections was cut in half, meaning that each group of two track walkers meant to inspect the rail and nearby equipment includes only one person who is actually inspecting the tracks, fasteners, power equipment, and electrical systems. The other worker, who used to check the tracks as well, is now dedicated to looking out for trains, which could be coming at any time.

The FTA heard from track inspectors themselves who said that they "cannot adequately inspect both running rails and the third rail" in the time they have to get the inspections done. A side-effect of this could be that the track personnel skip or gloss over more subtle issues, letting them fester until turning into a full-blown issue.

What else is lurking in the tunnels?

With the discovery this week of a system-wide issue with faulty power cables, one has to wonder what might be next. The system inspection in September of Metro's tracks, which only came in response to the derailment at Smithsonian station, revealed several missed code-black defects which should have been caught but weren't. With the seemingly long-held attitude of reacting to problems at Metro instead of getting out in front of them, it's very possible there's another incident just waiting to happen.

Lets hope Mr. Wiedefeld and crew squash the festering problems before they show themselves again.

Transit


BREAKING: Metrorail will shut down completely Wednesday(!)

The entire Metro rail system will shut down from midnight Tuesday night to 5 am Thursday morning. Workers will inspect and replace the kinds of cables that caused Monday's fire.


Photo by mike on Flickr.

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld held a press conference at 4:30 to discuss the decision. WMATA Board chairman Jack Evans also spoke and fully supported the decision. NBC4 reporter Adam Tuss first broke the news shortly before 4 pm.

Wiedefeld said the investigation into Monday's cable fire revealed "commonalities" between last year's L'Enfant fire and this. He said, "When I say safety is our highest priority, I mean it. That sometimes means making tough, unpopular decisions, and this is one of those times. I fully recognize the hardship this will cause."

The chance of another fire is "very, very low," added Wiedefeld, but "as the person responsible for the life and safety" of riders and workers, he felt this action was necessary.

The agency will inspect 600 underground jumper cables during the shutdown, which will take until 5 am Thursday. If inspectors find other cables that need replacing, they will announce further closures or single-tracking.

What will Wednesday's commute be like?

Will there be car-mageddon? This may show how much the region needs Metro (and a safe and well-maintained Metro).

Buses will continue to run and Wiedefeld said WMATA will increase bus service for schools. Many residents may try the bus for the first time—though those buses might be stuck in massive traffic.

If you can bike, Wednesday would be a good day. Capital Bikeshare is sure to be stretched to the limit.

A lot of people immediately realized ride-hailing services will likely see some heavy demand. Travis Maiers wrote, "Uber's going to be expensive tomorrow, that's for sure."

How we got here

Ronit Dancis said, "Elected officials take note: this is what happens when you don't fund maintenance of public infrastructure and public utilities."

While many riders often rightly blame past WMATA managers and safety officials, there's no doubt that this situation was able to become so dire over time because local and federal governments underfunded maintenance for decades after the system was built. They were able to put less into upkeep without penalty, because things weren't breaking. Now, so much is broken.

Metro isn't the only agency in such a situation.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth said in a statement:

Certainly, we will see on Wednesday just how important Metro is to our region—to our transportation system and our economy. We may also realize amid the expected traffic gridlock tomorrow why dedicated bus lanes would offer a great way to move more people, faster and more reliably than the current bus in traffic model.

We hope that the ongoing challenges facing Metro will prompt our elected leaders to work together to provide the funding necessary to fix longstanding maintenance and rehabilitation problems. Failure is not an option.

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