Greater Greater Washington

Posts about WMATA


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 83

It's time for the eighty-third installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun. Please have your answers in by noon on Thursday.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at


Metro's shutdown plan deserves our support. Now local governments must step up.

It's sad that Metro has gotten so decrepit that months-long shutdowns and single-tracking are necessary. But they are. And kudos to Metro for admitting this and coming up with a detailed plan to fix it.

Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Honestly, we'd feared the shutdowns would be far worse. This plan seems to concentrate them into as narrow a place as necessary while getting work done where needed (as far as we can tell, anyway).

It's going to be painful for riders, but we'll need to manage, because it's clear that the previous maintenance scheme, of shutdowns just over nights and weekends and bouts of single-tracking, hasn't been working.

As Maryland delegate Marc Korman said on today's NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt, Metro leaders have to make sure the maintenance that gets done, gets done right. The connectors in the Orange/Blue/Silver tunnel through DC, which caught fire earlier this year and forced the day-long total shutdown, had just been supposedly inspected and repaired. Riders are not going to tolerate having their lines shut down and then learning the maintenance wasn't actually done correctly.

Also, the tracks aren't the only problem for Wiedefeld to tackle. Rail cars have been down for maintenance much more often than they should be, forcing Metro to run lower levels of service than promised. These shutdowns won't fix that. But managers may need to focus intensely on one problem at a time, at least until Wiedefeld can replace some of the poorly performing managers and employees, as he's promised to do.

Hopefully, though, the shutdowns will get Metro back to a place where, at the very least, we can be confident in its safety. That's important.

Virginia has a few bus lanes. It needs many more. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Jurisdictions have to help

These shutdowns will affect huge numbers of people. According to Metro's presentation, the closure from NoMa to Fort Totten will affect 108,000 people; East Falls Church to Ballston, 73,000; Eastern Market to Minnesota/Benning, 61,000; and on and on. That is, let's be clear, a lot of people.

If they all drive, it will mean massive gridlock. Many will telework or shift their hours and such, but unlike with the one-day shutdown where a lot of people could stay home for a day, that can't work for weeks or months on end.

Buses can replace some service, but if those buses are just stuck in major gridlock, then there won't be enough buses and little incentive for anyone to take them. There will need to be temporary bus-only or HOV-3/4 lanes.

Many more people will be trying to walk and bike, and many jurisdictions can do much better to make sure people feel safe and are safe on these other modes.

It would have been nice for jurisdictions to have started planning bus lanes and other measures long ago, but the shutdown plan is here now and there's no luxury of time. Some areas have 6-9 months to prepare, while others (like Alexandria and southern Fairfax, or northern Prince George's) will be hit soon.

We can't wait for the typical interminable studies. Just as the region made extraordinary changes for the inauguration, this also calls for unusual measures. Local DOTs should make aggressive plans for temporary bus lanes and then try them out, making changes over time to ensure they work.

Photo by Kevin Harber on Flickr.

We want to hear more about the late night

If ending service at midnight is really necessary, then maybe it's necessary, but we'd like to hear more. Does it have to be system-wide? And if it's going to be permanent, as Metro is considering, then we really want a more thorough analysis of the pros and cons.

Paul Wiedefeld has said that Metro will not open early or late for any special events over the next year. There's some sense to that, but some of these special events, like the Marine Corps Marathon, draw huge crowds with little alternate way for many people to get there. We're worried about what the impact will be.

Fretting about the effects of shutting down Metro in the past has led to Metro needing bigger shutdowns now, and so if it's needed, it's needed. But we think the case has to be made in more detail first.

We'll have more on contributor reactions to the late night issue in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, we're planning to organize residents to push for measures like bus lanes. If you agree or just want to find out more, sign up below.

Keep me informed

Let me know when there are chances to push for bus lanes and other ways to ensure that Metro riders can still get where they need to go during Metro's upcoming maintenance "surges."

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:


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.

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.


Metro's track work schedule dug the system into a hole

Metro is currently facing a huge backlog of work on aging and broken tracks, partly because its way of scheduling the work isn't working. The agency is announcing a new strategy for fixing its tracks on Friday, meaning there's a huge opportunity to get track work right.

Silver Spring pocket track. Photo by Ben Schumin on Wikipedia Commons.

There currently isn't enough time to do maintenance

In 2011, Metro started MetroForward to fix the system's infrastructure. The plan was to spend a large part of the project's $5 billion budget to fix the rails themselves. Five years and $3.7 billion later, the track work backlog hasn't gone anywhere

WMATA employees, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, and the Federal Transit Administration have all said that doing track work only during overnight hours isn't enough. The FTA also found that there is less time than before to perform track inspections that could find defects like cracked rails, defective fasteners, and third-rail insulator issues.

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is now mulling over options to fix the way the agency does track work, hoping to cut the current backlog and bring everything up to a state of good repair.

This chart from WMATA, made in 2011, shows why there isn't enough time to get all the maintenance work done overnight. There are three periods—5-hour, 7-hour, and 56-hour work windows—in which work could be done. Green signifies the usable time and red signifies time lost to setup/teardown and other non-work activities. The shorter the maintenance period, the less productive the actual work time is.

Track usage production ratios. Image from WMATA

Metro's current track work strategy doesn't work

Metro usually performs single-tracking in several places each weekend while workers take a track out of service. Trains often run less often because of this, sometimes every 24 or 26 minutes on average (in reality, trains may come as quickly as every couple of minutes on one side of the single-tracking area, or as infrequently as every 40 minutes on the other).

Weekend single-tracking is rough. It's caused a vast drop in weekend rail ridership, with some saying the system is unusable on the weekend. The reduction in service and increased unpredictability due to single-tracking is a big reason for this.

Full weekend shutdowns may be the way to go

As opposed to a single evening that provides 2.5 hours usable trackwork time (or 4.5 hours if the work starts at 10pm instead), a full weekend of track work from 9 pm Friday to 5 am Monday can provide up to 48.5 hours of usable track work time and allows access to both tracks, increasing the useful time ratio from 50 percent to 86 percent. The drastically-increased amount of unbroken time that workers have available on the track means that much more work can be accomplished.

Shutting down sections of track on the weekend to perform maintenance work not only is more convenient for passengers (rip the band-aid off instead of a slow pull), but also more beneficial to the maintenance personnel performing the work. Instead of being constrained to one track to work in, workers can spread out and move around the site easier, there's no need to watch out for trains moving on the opposite track, and there's a good potential more types of work can get done through better utilization of the work area.

Buses cost money though, and they would be needed for sectional shutdowns to ferry passengers across. Full shutdowns cost somewhere around 15 percent more than single-tracking according to one project. But if one method has a chance of retaining ridership and will accomplish more work in a single weekend than the other might in two or more, it may be worth it. Cost is no longer the driving factor for when and where track work occurs, as new Wiedefeld has seemingly made clear.

Not all stations and track can always be shut down for a weekend at a time though, so the agency may have to revert to other less-efficient track work strategies:

Short periods of track work are incredibly inefficient

During the week, the Metrorail system closes at 12 am, and opens at 5 am. While this provides five hours of "off" time, it really only gives maintenance personnel 2.5 hours or less to spend on the tracks. Setting up and tearing down track work is incredibly time consuming, as the process can include assembling workers and equipment, moving any heavy track machinery (prime movers) into the area, making sure the track is clear, setting up "shunts" to mimic a train in the area so the central rail routing system knows not to send trains into the work area, and more. An hour or more can quickly be used just to set up the work area.

If everything is set and placed, work can start. But when things don't go as planned, time can be easily eaten up, as the FTA noted in their Safety Management Inspection review published last year:

On the March 23 [overnight] shift, for what should have been a simple T-bar replacement...the contractor was still not able to get access onto the work site until 2:00 a.m., and the contractor had to start clearing the site at 4:00 a.m., leaving only two hours of productive time...The impacts of this limited work window can be exacerbated by communication and logistical challenges. For became clear that the Power branch work crew had the wrong size T-bar...and there was confusion whether the ATC department had been consulted in the planning of the work.
One hour before the crews need to wrap up (i.e. 4am in the morning if the system opens at 5am), they stop working so everything can be cleaned up so passenger trains can use the track. When this work runs over, passenger-carrying trains can be disrupted and you may see a tweet saying that there has been "late-clearing track work."

Mid-day track work is not productive and causes passenger frustration

Based on the track work production numbers from the chart, mid-day track work is incredibly time-consuming, disruptive to passengers, and doesn't provide much benefit. A mid-day maintenance window might be from 10am to 3pm (5 hours), which provides 2.5 hours of usable track time in the best case scenario. But if there are any issues in the morning and rush hour runs over past 10, the track work may wait, and that eats into the usable time.

What starts out as 2.5 hours of usable time could get whittled down to 1.5 or 1, or even less, on an especially bad day. While this work is going on, trains carrying passengers get to single-track around the area, waiting at least 10 minutes on either side of the stretch before going through.

Start track work earlier in the evenings

One option that helps provide more track time is to start track work "early outs" earlier in the evening at possibly 8pm, and end them later, possibly up to 6am. Current early outs usually start at 10pm and end by 5am. This provides 7 total hours of time for work, or around 4.5 usable hours of track time. The two-hour-early start provides two more hours of usable track time, which is valuable. Starting even earlier and ending later could provide up to 10 total hours, or 7 hours of track time, over double what crews would get with a typical overnight work session.

While early outs let track work start earlier, they require a delicate balance as well. If they start too early or end too late, they could severely impact peak rush periods and cause delays and rider frustration. More work could get done, but if done poorly could continue the ridership decline.

Longer shutdowns are an interesting possibility

Metro has never performed a shutdown longer than a weekend in recent history, but it seems Wiedefeld is headed in this direction. A shutdown from 9pm on a Friday to 5am the Monday a week later would provide about 200 track hours of usable time of 224 available, meaning 90 percent of the week is usable for track work. 200 hours of track time would be the equivalent to over 4 weekend shutdowns, 44 nights of work with 10pm early outs, or up to 80 regular overnight work sessions. Track work could be completed easily and quickly for both tracks in the work area.

At the same time, shutting down a station or two during the week is also hard. Buses and drivers would be needed to shuttle passengers around the shutdown area, more than Metro may have available. Replacing a rail car that can comfortably hold 120 passengers with 40-50-person buses means lots of road traffic, buses, and drivers. Extended shutdowns requires planning with jurisdictions to ensure alternate transportation for Metro riders goes as smoothly as possible.

This assumes the work is being done properly and coordinated well

Good use of track time means that workers are well-trained for what they need to do, equipment is available, and contractors are prompt and responsive. Audits have found that this is not always the case, and that new workers are liable to receive deficient training. At other times equipment has not been available or wasn't brought to the work site, resulting in large amounts of time wasted while waiting for the necessary parts.

Similar to how some electrical crews are receiving specialized training to better handle heavy-duty power cables, perhaps some track and structures crews may require the same training to verify that work is being done properly or to help ensure training of others. Metro's safety and track departments need to step up their quality control and assurance game, too: track work needs to be inspected by independent analysts who know exactly what they're looking at. Independent workers need to be in the tunnels checking that inspections are being performed and equipment is being installed properly. Otherwise, performing the track work is a waste of Metro's time and our money if the equipment has to be ripped out and replaced again.

Wiedefeld is releasing his track work strategy tomorrow, but as always, communication with customers again will be key to make this plan successful. Riders not only want to know what work is being done, but why the work needs to be done, what specifically is being done backed up with photos or video, and that the work is being done properly. Working with all interested parties, especially riders, is the only way the upcoming trackwork program can be successful while not alienating the very riders paying for a large portion of the agency's budget.


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 82

On Tuesday, we posted our eighty-second photo challenge to see how well you knew Metro. I took photos of five Metro stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 27 guesses. Nine got all five. Great work Peter K, JamesDCane, Justin..., Chris H, AlexC, Dillon the Pickle, FN, Solomon, and Stephen C!

Image 1: Tysons Corner

The first image is the view of Tysons Corner station from the plaza adjacent to the Vita building. Given the unique Silver Line architecture, you should have been able to easily narrow this down to the two "Gambrel" style stations. But Tysons Corner station isn't in a median, like Greensboro is, so this can't be Greensboro. All but one of you got this one right. Great work.

Image 2: Fort Totten

The second picture shows the top of a memorial plaque in the mezzanine at Fort Totten. The "Y OF" that is visible is part of the phrase, "in memory of," and is a memorial to the nine people killed in the 2009 Metro crash just north of the station.

Additionally, the windows and angles here are indicative of the mezzanine shape of Fort Totten. From this vantage point, we're looking toward the two escalators connecting the mezzanine to the Green/Yellow platform.

Twenty knew the correct answer.

Image 3: Van Dorn Street

The third image shouldn't have been too hard if you know the architecture of the system. The presence of three Blue Line trains on the PIDS tells you that this is almost certainly a Blue-only station, of which there are only three in the system. This picture was taken on a Saturday, but even though you didn't know that, there are times (weekends and off-peak), when Van Dorn and Franconia are not served by the Yellow Line.

Two of the three Blue-only stations can be easily eliminated. Arlington Cemetery is depressed in an open cut (so the trees wouldn't be visible) and doesn't have a canopy at all. Instead, it's only covered where Memorial Avenue crosses it. Week 8 gives you a sense of what that looks like. Franconia/Springfield, on the other hand has a very different canopy and the PIDS signs have a different format at terminal stations (BLUE LINE | LARGO CENTER | LEAVING 3 MINS).

But even if there had been only one Blue Line train on the board, you still could have solved this. That's because the canopy visible here is a "Gull I" design. And the only Gull I station served by the Blue Line is Van Dorn Street.

Twenty-five figured it out.

Image 4: Wheaton

The fourth image was a little trickier, and required you to take a second look to figure out that this was Wheaton. Many of you went with your first instinct, but closer inspection should have revealed this to be a twin-tube station. One clue is the presence of "can" lights hanging from the vault, which aren't present at the higher single-vault stations.

The perspective here is clearly looking through the doors of an elevator. Some downtown stations do have side platforms with the elevator in an alcove off to the side like this. But all of those stations have the "waffle" design, not the taller coffer "arch"-style. None of the "Arch I" or "Arch II" stations have side platforms. And that means this has to be one of the twin-tube stations.

It can't be Forest Glen because, as several of you noted, the elevators there all land in a common lobby and are farther from the tracks. At Wheaton, however, the solitary elevator lands not in the escalator lobby, but in an alcove at the far northern end of the Shady Grove platform.

Ten came to the correct conclusion.

Image 5: Capitol Heights

The final image was even more challenging, but there was enough information to figure out that it's Capitol Heights.

Like with image 3 above, you can tell that this station is served only by the Blue and Silver Lines (since the Orange Line isn't listed on the sign). There are only two underground stations that are served by the Blue and Silver, so even without additional information, you could have made a guess with a 50/50 probability of getting the right answer. Some of you did that and got lucky.

But there was a way to be 100% certain, and it involves knowing that while Benning Road and Capitol Heights are nearly identical, they're mirror images of each other. In week 56 we also ran a set with a similar signage clue and noted in the answers post the difference between the two stations.

At both stations, the single mezzanine is at the far end of the platform. At Benning Road, the mezzanine is at the east end. At Capitol Heights, it's at the west end. That means that when you descend to the platform at Capitol Heights, you're facing east. And if you're facing east, trains going eastbound to Largo are on your right, and trains going west toward downtown are on your left.

One final note: The reason you know this sign is at the bottom of the escalator when you arrive is because this is a fairly typical application of WMATA's signing in this case, since this is a decision point and because anywhere else on the platform, the column would also include a strip map of farther stations reached on the appropriate track.

Nineteen came to the correct conclusion.

Thanks for playing! We'll be back in two weeks with our next quiz.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at


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.


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 82

It's time for the eighty-second installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun. Please have your answers in by noon on Thursday.

UPDATE: The answers are here.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at


Metro needs to do a better job fixing rail cars

Blue-chip consultants at McKinsey & Company recently released a preliminary report on Metro performance. It dives into paratransit, the HR back office, parking, and other issues, but the one that most impacts commuters each day is rail car maintenance. If Metro doesn't do a better job of fixing its rail cars, it's going to keep losing riders.

Metrorail on-time performance. On-time performance can vary and drop more when there are fewer rail cars available for service. Graphic by the author, data from WMATA.

Get better at fixing the rail cars, improve daily service

According to the report, 63 percent of all rail line delays are due to railcar failures. 36 percent are caused by trains not being dispatched, and 27 percent are caused by trains being removed (offloaded) from the line. These delays and car failures lead to fewer trains available for passengers to board and more crowding, making the system less enjoyable—or functional—to ride.

The five most common rail car failures, according to the study, were propulsion, door, HVAC, brake, and pneumatic subsystems. Any one of these failures might cause a train car not to be dispatched from a rail yard or could lead to a train being offloaded and taken out of service during the day. Since rail cars operate in married pairs, a problem with one means that both in the pair would have to be pulled off the line.

One of the problems identified by the report is the high number of repeat failures in rail car components. McKinsey stated causes of this include below-average quality control/quality assurance processes, repair protocols that don't fully determine the root cause of the issue, and maintenance staff that are less experienced than in the past due to turnover. Any one of these issues identified would be a problem, but the three put together mean that rail car reliability is likely nowhere near where it should be.

Graphic showing repeat failures of rail car components. Image from WMATA via WAMU.

Metro is building a new two-mile test track near Greenbelt station primarily to ensure the new 7000-series rail cars work as expected when they're received from Kawasaki, but it could also double as a certification track for cars post-repair. As it stands today, rail cars do not undergo a "checkout" period to verify that the issue they were in the shop for was actually fixed.

Once the test track is finished, rail cars that have had their brake or propulsion issues worked on at the various yards could be checked out for additional issues and for an extra quality assurance step. Verification testing to check if the work was done successfully could be one way to help find recurring issues when they happen, before the cars are placed back into revenue service.

Railcar availability issues caused 36% of delays

The report noted that over a third of all rail delays were caused by not having enough cars available to run in service. Whether the cars are out for work or sidelined because WMATA doesn't have the parts needed to fix them, the lack of cars means fewer trains run for passengers to use.

The graph below shows how many of Metro's trains didn't operate in each month of 2015, as well as some of the top delays noted in Metro's daily service reports. The number of trains not dispatched only dips below 100 a few times, around October and November. Given each 6- or 8-car train can hold anywhere from 800 to 1000 people each, a train that's not dispatched from a rail yard leads to less capacity to move people and creates gaps in service causing passengers to end up waiting longer.

Stacked graph representation of the top 5 delay-causing rail issues according to WMATA's Daily Service Reports. Graphic by the author, data from WMATA.

The rail dispatching issue is relatively new, having only started becoming a more significant issue in 2014 and 2015. One reason the report points out that might cause this is the sometimes-significant delays in the parts ordering process, in part due to FTA requirements. At times there have been up to around 70 cars out of service awaiting work since the parts were not in stock.

Last 4 years of delays for the top 6 causes of rail delays, according to the Daily Service Reports. Graphic by the author, data from WMATA.

One of the main priorities the report wants Metro to focus on is to get better at figuring out the root-cause of issues when they occur, and use that information to help fix and prevent it from recurring on other rail cars. Getting better at fixing cars the first time would get them in and out of the shop bays faster, and keep them from coming back. More focus here would help keep the related issue of mechanic experience under control.

The track side of the system has had a spotlight pointed on it in recent months, primarily by the FTA with hundreds of inspections being performed to make sure the tracks are in good order. But Metro needs to be just as focused on keeping their rail cars in working order - not just to say that they did, but to reduce the number of delays that passengers feel, and make the experience of riding Metro better. Focusing on improving rail car maintenance won't be quick, but the dividends it will pay by providing better service to passengers will make it worth it.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City