Posts about Track Work
Yesterday morning, the Chicago Transit Authority closed the southern end of the Red Line for 5 months of reconstruction. Should WMATA consider a similar approach? There are advantages, but also big dangers as well.
WMATA's rebuilding problem, which it dubs Metro Forward, has been going on for over 2 years with no end in sight. Almost every weekend brings at least one major closure, like on the Green Line last weekend. When it's over, Metro will be more reliable and passengers will experience fewer problems. But in the meantime, riders face service delays and other disruptions almost every weekend. Could a different approach work?
The CTA thinks so. Its Red Line South reconstruction project will close a portion of Chicago's busiest line for 5 months. According to the CTA, the project would have taken 4 years to finish if it restricted the work to weekends only.
The agency chose to give both weekday commuters and weekend riders a lot of pain over a short time, rather than stretch it out over a long time. When finished, the reconstruction project will reduce travel times between 95th Street and Roosevelt by 20 minutes and will make the Red Line more reliable. By closing the entire line at once, riders will get to see those benefits sooner.
In the meantime, riders will have many alternatives to the Red Line, including several shuttle bus options to other L stations. Because of the increased volume of riders changing from shuttles to rail, CTA has also made temporary capacity improvements to the Garfield station on the nearby Green Line, including new staircases, faregates, and bus bays.
Additionally, the Red Line itself will be rerouted over part of the Green Line, and will operate 24 hours during the closure. To prepare for this, the CTA undertook an aggressive maintenance regimen on the Green Line track and structure, since trains will be running all the time, preventing any overnight maintenance.
However, there can be trade-offs. The Baltimore Light Rail was built as a single-track system with sidings where trains could pass one another. In 2004 and 2005, the Maryland Transit Administration closed each end of the line for about 6 months to reconstruct the line with two tracks. Before the project, train headways were limited to 17 minutes. Now, trains can run much more frequently.
During that time, MTA ran local and express shuttle buses to get riders around the closure, but ridership fell by 20% due to the inconvenience and took 3 years to recover, according to a source at MTA. When riders don't have transit options for long periods of time, they make alternate arrangements, like moving or purchasing a car.
If WMATA were to close a line for a long time, the agency could help to mitigate the inconvenience to riders by working with local jurisdictions to set up temporary bus lanes, signal priority, and other transit improvements. Adding additional buses to parallel routes, routing buses to different terminals, and discounting fares are all approaches that could help keep riders on board during the work.
Metro Forward is a big undertaking, and even when it's done, weekend work may still be necessary for future repairs. But for large projects, like Metro's years-long Red Line rehab, closures might get the work done sooner. However, it would cause significant disruption and a potential drop in ridership.
For many workers in the Washington area, Columbus Day is just another working Monday. But for federal employees and Red Line operators, it's a holiday. With reduced transit service, what were your experiences getting to work today?
The Metro system is operating under a "Saturday Supplemental" schedule, which means the rail network is operating at Saturday headways, but opening and closing times are like Monday-Thursday service. Most Metrobus routes will be operating on Saturday schedules, but some routes will have additional trips to meet demand.
There is also major trackwork on the Red and Orange Lines. Most notably, the Red Line between Judiciary Square and Glenmont is running only every 26 minutes.
My commute takes me on the Green and Red Lines. When I boarded at Greenbelt, I had to wait a good bit longer before the train left. But despite the longer wait, the train was much emptier than usual. Few people boarded at College Park, too.
But at Prince George's Plaza and West Hyattsville, the number of passengers boarding was close to normal levels. I suppose the more working-class demographics in those areas could be playing a role. After all, the service industry doesn't treat Columbus Day as a holiday.
At Fort Totten, where I change to an outbound Red train, I got lucky and only had a wait of 6 minutes. But the platform was very crowded, and when the train arrived, it was standing room only. That's certainly odd. My reverse-commute Red trains generally seem to have less than 10 people per car.
Large crowds were waiting at Takoma and Silver Spring for inbound trains. That mirrors my experience from Saturday, when I had to go into the office. My wait for an inbound train at Silver Spring on Saturday afternoon was 21 minutes (and for the first 12 of those minutes, the PIDS said the next train was coming in 9 minutes).
WMATA certainly needs to do trackwork. But for a holiday like Columbus Day, running trains only every 26 minutes seems to be a bit of a problem. After all, the Red Line is the busiest line (even though the Glenmont side is less busy than the Shady Grove side).
What were your experiences like?
Last weekend WMATA ran trains 30 minutes apart along the entire Orange Line. Although some reduction in service was necessary due to single tracking between Eastern Market and Cheverly, such extremely infrequent trains along the rest of the line was unnecessary and was a disservice to Metro's customers.
Metro's job is not merely to run trains. It's to serve customers who ride trains. Occasionally it is necessary to inconvenience customers for a short while to fix long-term repair issues, but when that happens WMATA must do its best to minimize the inconvenience and provide adequate alternates. Last weekend they failed to do so.
WMATA planned the single tracking between Eastern Market and Cheverly to accommodate a range of repairs and reconstruction in that segment. Half-hour headways may have been necessary to ensure worker safety and maximize efficiency, so that the work could be completed prior to Monday's rush hour. That's all perfectly justifiable.
But there was absolutely no reason for riders along the entire length of the Orange Line to be left with such terrible service. Metro's track schematic clearly shows there are crossover tracks between Federal Center SW and Capitol South stations. Trains coming and going west from Federal Center SW could have used that crossover track to turn around, ensuring regular weekend headways through downtown Washington and in Virginia.
We know trains can turn around using the crossover tracks since they do it every day at Mount Vernon Square and Grosvenor, so why couldn't they have done so last weekend at Federal Center SW? This simple solution would have prevented thousands of Metro customers from being greatly inconvenienced.
It's possible that Metro had repairs under way elsewhere along the Orange Line, but the press release didn't communicate that. In any event, there are crossover tracks every few stations all throughout the system. Trains could have turned around at McPherson Square, Foggy Bottom, or Clarendon, and at least riders west of the turnaround wouldn't have been faced with 30-minute waits.
Sometimes officials forget that keeping the rail system in proper order is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. If the system isn't serving customers then it's not working. The next time Metro has to perform single tracking, they should use one of the system's many turnarounds to ensure short headways along the rest of the line.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
It's the weekend, and there's track work taking place on the Metrorail system. Trains are running on reduced headways, and after an extended wait, a train finally rolls in
"SPECIAL" trains show up most often when there's track work going on somewhere on the line, but, the fact is, they can appear at any time. To understand how the problematic signs come to be, it's important to first understand how the side destination signs on Metrorail trains are set.
The train operator doesn't actually set the destination station, even though this is what riders see from the platform. Rather, he or she sets a destination code, which indicates the train's destination station and the route it will take. Destination codes are two digits long, so there are only 99 destination codes available. This means that not all possible combinations of stations and routes can be displayed; there are some stations where trains can terminate that don't have a destination code assigned.
One of these stations is East Falls Church, where all westbound Orange Line trains from downtown terminated this past weekend due to the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project. Thus, Orange Line trains bound for East Falls Church display "SPECIAL" all the way from New Carrollton to East Falls Church. This work has been going on throughout 2011, and will continue in 2012, based on Metro's track work schedule.
Because the PIDS (the in-station "next train" display boards) are also driven by trains' destination codes, more often than not they only display "Train".
Regardless of the destination code set, the train operator can manually override a train's side destination signs, forcing them to "SPECIAL" or "NO PASSENGERS" with the use of a switch in the cab. In certain circumstances (especially when there's no track work going on), it may be the case that the train operator has the right destination code entered but has failed to set the train identity control switch appropriately. In those cases, a kind word on the intercom or through the cab window will often get the problem resolved.
The situation is an accessibility and wayfinding nightmare. While operators of "SPECIAL" trains are supposed to make frequent public address announcements with regard to the train's route, they're often inaudible to the majority of passengers, and at their best, they still do nothing for hearing-impaired riders.
Where a station without a destination code is a frequent terminal due to work (like East Falls Church), the best solution would be for WMATA to revise the destination code table plugged into each railcar's display system. Unfortunately, that requires bringing every railcar into the shop, an expensive and time-consuming proposition.
In the meantime, riders may find it helpful to know that if, for example, there's track work on the Orange Line, but not the Blue Line, then westbound trains at downtown stations that display "SPECIAL" are almost certainly operating on the Orange Line and terminating at East Falls Church.
Even if Metro can reduce the use of "SPECIAL" destination signs for frequent work, these trains will always exist. Not every station can have a destination code; there simply aren't enough codes.
Sometimes trains will need to terminate at a certain station due to work very infrequently, and for them it's probably not worth it to reset the codes for a one-time event. That was the case this past weekend, when Green Line trains from Greenbelt terminated at Georgia Avenue. Their destination signs displayed "SPECIAL" while going southbound, but the switch replacement work on the Green Line at U Street was a one-weekend event.
In any circumstance, since they're going to continue to exist, Metro should make more of an effort to communicate the route and destination of "SPECIAL" trains to customers.
Temporarily closing a segment of the Green Line might ironically improve service for some this weekend. WMATA announced that it will close the Shaw, U Street, and Columbia Heights stations this weekend for scheduled track maintenance.
Green Line closure this weekend.
The stations will close at 10 pm Friday and won't reopen until Tuesday morning's normal opening time (Monday is a holiday). A similar closure will be in place on the Orange Line between East and West Falls Church stations as Metro works to connect the new Silver Line.
In the meantime, Metro will operate free shuttles along the route to ferry passengers through this service gap. Ironically, these shuttles may sometimes operate more frequently than the rail service would on a typical weekend.
Metro instituted a similar closure along a section of the Red Line on Labor Day weekend. On that weekend, I went to have brunch at a friend's house in the Brookland neighborhood. During that time, Metro shuttles were running down his street every 2 minutes. Many of the buses were nearly empty, but for a moment I was jealous at the thought of transit service every 2 minutes.
Likewise, if WMATA keeps similarly short headways for the shuttles this weekend, the agency might actually enhance mobility between the Convention Center, Shaw, U Street, Columbia Heights, and Petworth.
One of Metro's main shortcomings is that riding during non-rush periods, especially on weekends or at night, can entail waiting on platforms for as much as 24 minutes. This is an unacceptably low level of service, but our region lacks the political leadership to set a minimum level of transit service the way we do for utilities.
In the abstract, our leaders may appreciate the importance of frequent service, but nothing drives home the point like waiting on a Metro platform with 100 other people only to watch a packed train arrive half an hour later.
Though buses can't match the speed and comfort of rail service, the frequency of bus shuttles this weekend might prove to be a significant, though temporary, transit improvement.
Metro released a complete calendar yesterday for all their major trackwork over the next 12 months. It relies much more heavily on closing stations and connecting them with shuttle buses, rather than single-tracking.
WMATA believes the closures and bus bridges will affect most passengers less than single-tracking and will allow them to get vital work done faster. Many of the closures allow installing new "track circuit modules" that prevent the electronic systems from losing indication of trains, as happened in the Fort Totten crash, or "guarded #8" switches which guard against trains derailing as they change tracks.
The first of this work, coming this weekend, is related to the Silver Line. The Orange Line will be closed between East Falls Church and West Falls Church stations to enable crews to work on the connection between the Silver and Orange Lines.
While closing stations and forcing passengers to use a bus may be disruptive for those passing through the work zone, they actually worked quite smoothly last time, Metro used them, on Memorial Day weekend. Many readers reported using them.
Metro also carried more passengers that weekend than the previous year, even with the shuttles. Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel said that over the Memorial Day weekend in 2010, Metro carried around 70,300 riders on the Blue and Orange Lines between Federal Center SW and Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road.
This year, the line was closed so that the interlocking at Eastern Market could be replaced. Passengers had to ride shuttle buses between Federal Center SW and Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road. Despite that, Metro carried 84,600 riders on the bus bridge.
It appears that the line closure and bus bridge did not deter riders from taking Metro. Hopefully, as closed segments and shuttle buses become a regular sight on Metro, they will continue to run as smoothly.
To save time and money, Metro is revising the way they do some track work. Instead of single-tracking through work zones, Metro will now close whole line segments more often.
When BART was being designed, a 1971 article in the IEEE Transactions on Industry and General Applications described its system for avoiding shutdowns by single-tracking:
The BART system will provide service at 90-s intervals during peak demand periods, extending to as long as 15-min intervals during the low-demand early morning hours. At no time will service be discontinued; by the use of carefully placed crossovers and the control of trains in a reverse running mode, maintenance work on the roadbed can be performed without serious disruption of the service.
But in 1971 BART had yet to open, and the Metrorail system had only broken ground two years earlier. Operating experience in the years since has shown that while single-tracking may preserve service, it does so at the expense of lengthened headways and disruptions along the entire length of the line.
Today, taking this experience into account, WMATA has announced a new approach to weekend track work on the Metrorail system, in which entire sections of lines will be closed and replaced with buses.
Single-tracking doesn't just disrupt riders in the work area itself; it slows down the entire line, and affects riders throughout the Metrorail system.
WMATA's new approach to track work will preserve service on the open portions of lines, and avoid the follow-on effects which usually occur when trains are single-tracking.
Closing lines to speed repairs is, by itself, nothing new. In 2006, London Underground elected to close the Waterloo & City Line in its entirety for five months, in order to avoid a projected 70 weekend closures necessary to complete the major overhaul of the line.
Because of the complete closure, weekday riders who would have been spared disruption under a program of weekend closures instead had to take alternate routes. But because the complete closure was more efficient, the work was done (and the disruption ended) in 5 months, rather than in more than a year for weekend closures alone.
New York City's MTA has also been examining partial line closures as an alternative to frequent evening and weekend disruption. No decision has been made yet, but MTA Chairman Jay Walder seems to think it's a strategy that's proven itself in London, and which may prove viable in New York as well.
So, how well will this strategy work for Metrorail? At the extremities of lines, complete closures will probably be superior to single-tracking. Work will go faster with no trains running through the work areas, and the unaffected parts of the line won't have to contend with the bottleneck caused by single-tracking. In the core of the network, though, where ridership levels are high even on weekends, shuttle buses may end up swamped with passengers, leading to delays for riders traveling through the closed areas.
In the end, riders will face disruption whether trains are single-tracking or replaced with shuttle buses
Starting tonight, Metro will close the Blue and Orange lines between Metro Center and L'Enfant Plaza. Metro Center and L'Enfant Plaza will still have Blue and Orange Line trains, but Federal Triangle and Smithsonian will be closed. They'll reopen on Tuesday morning.
All riders should keep in mind that the last train on all lines will depart 20 minutes earlier than usual throughout the weekend.
Like all line closures, Metro will be providing free shuttle bus service around the closure. These buses typically can't handle the number of passengers that exit the stations in large clumps as trains are offloaded. So passengers generally are forced to wait for a bus they can fit on.
This delay and being forced to exit the system and wait on a street corner in the elements is a major, though necessary, hassle.
Metro could reduce demand for shuttles by letting riders know how close Federal Triangle is to Metro Center and Archives and how close Smithsonian is to L'Enfant Plaza. They've done this in the past for major events, by encouraging riders not to change lines, and instead walk from the nearest station.
For those continuing longer distances, since each separate section of the Blue and Orange Lines connects to other Metro lines, many riders may well choose to avoid the shuttle buses and simply take the Green/Yellow and Red lines around the closure.
Unfortunately, the Green, Yellow, and Red lines will be operating typical weekend frequencies. The Red Line will be the most frequent, despite 2 different work projects on either end of the line. Red trains will be coming through Metro Center every 7-8 minutes, but the more frequent service will only be between Grosvenor and New York Avenue.
This means passengers will risk a long wait at 2 transfer stations if they attempt to take Metro around the work zone. If Metro could run a few more trains, they could make this easier, though that would also cost money they don't really have.
Running more frequent Red Line service at least between Farragut North and New York Avenue could virtually eliminate the wait for passengers transferring at Metro Center and Gallery Place. And wait times on the Green and Yellow lines between L'Enfant and Gallery Place could be alleviated by adding special Blue Line trains from Franconia-Springfield to Mount Vernon Square. Or as a cheaper option, just running shuttle trains from Pentagon City to Mount Vernon Square.
While beefing up Metro service on the unaffected lines would make getting around the closure easier, it would probably not completely eliminate the need for shuttles. Some passengers may want or need direct service to Federal Triangle or Smithsonian.
Metro officials did not respond to our inquiry about beefing up rail service as an alternative or plans to communicate about nearby stations.
If you have to travel around this closure, a choice between the bus shuttle and a hop on the Red and Green lines is likely to be a crapshoot.
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