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Posted at 2:25 PM ET, 01/11/2011

Many Metrorail disruptions ahead

By Robert Thomson

During my online chat Monday, several travelers submitted questions about Metro's maintenance program. I'd like to use one such question to discuss what's ahead for Metrorail in 2011.

Metro Maintenance: "Why is Metro continuing to perform track maintenance that inconveniences riders, or is this Metro playing catch-up for neglecting routine maintenance?"

Metro is starting 2011 with a major track rehabilitation project that will shut down Foggy Bottom Station during the long Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. The main impact of the weekend's work will be on the Orange and Blue lines, but there also will be several disruptions for maintenance along the Red Line.

During 2010, the transit authority made heavy use of the holiday weekends, when ridership is usually light, to shut down both sets of tracks for repairs to the rails, platforms and tunnels. That's in addition to the normally heavy schedule of weekend work that involves closing one track to create a work zone while trains in both directions take turns on the other track.

In 2011, the repair schedule is going to get even more aggressive. Look for frequent shutdowns at various points on the Red, Orange and Blue lines. During Presidents' Day weekend in February, Smithsonian will be the focal point. But the shutdowns will not be confined to the long holiday weekends.

There's just too much to do. Even as Metro continues with the long-term rehabilitation of the Red Line, the long-term rehabilitation of the Orange and Blue lines gets underway. On just about any weekend this year when Metro does not expect big crowds on the trains, riders are likely to find one or two tracks shut to make room for maintenance projects.

Is all this the result of some big screw-up on the part of Metro's current management? I don't see it that way. Today's bosses didn't have anything to do with the design of the system or its financing. For our great benefit, an earlier generation built the second largest subway system in the nation, but now we have to fix it.

Some of the newer generation of transit managers wonder if the earlier generation ever dreamed that their beautiful new subway would ever have to be fixed. Many points in the system are not easy for workers to get at while the trains are running -- and the trains are almost always running.

As a big system with so many moving parts gets older, Metro managers are looking for every opportunity to make repairs. We've seen more examples lately of single-tracking around work zones set up at midday. When the reduced number of trains running means that the work zone creates little impact on the train schedule.

But the service delays and disruptions of 2011 will not be entirely about fixing what's broken. At various points, train operations will have to make way for work on new projects. Blue Line riders will experience a disruption because the Wilson Bridge project is working on the Telegraph Road interchange. Orange Line riders will encounter delays in the Falls Church area, where the Dulles Metrorail project will be working on connecting the new line to the Orange Line tracks.

Over the past several years, as the pace of maintenance has picked up, Metro has done a better job at communicating with riders on the schedule. The holiday weekend disruptions get a lot of advance publicity. But the schedule for the more routine single-tracking weekends is published by Metro the month before the work takes place.

The rider complaints that I receive focus on two concerns: They say that station managers often seem ill-informed about the plans and can't respond to questions. And they say the previously announced train schedule for the disrupted lines often folds in the face of reality, as gaps between the trains increase.

By Robert Thomson  | January 11, 2011; 2:25 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail  
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I think one of the major complaints some people have about the holiday weekend work is that WMATA seems to consider solely what the federal government does in terms of what's a holiday. That can create problems because large parts of the private sector do not observe all of the federal holidays:

(a) New Year's Day fell on a Saturday this year, so the feds followed normal practice and observed it on a Friday. A fair portion of the private sector instead observed it on January 3 because they were focused on year-end accounting (the law firms, especially, were under the illusion that their clients would send them year-end payments on Dec. 31).

(b) Martin Luther King Day is a regular work day for large parts of the private sector.

(c) Washington's Birthday (which is its real name) is pretty universally observed, with the exception being the retail sector. The retail sector doesn't really generate heavy Metrorail traffic, however (Fashion Centre at Pentagon City's location notwithstanding). The same applies to Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, although more of the retail sector shuts on Independence Day than on the others listed. Thanksgiving and Christmas are pretty much universally observed in all sectors.

(d) Columbus Day is a regular work day for a lot of private-sector employees. I seem to recall WMATA scheduling one of the massive projects last year over Columbus Day weekend and causing large problems for a lot of people as a result.

(e) Veterans Day is almost universally NOT a holiday for the private sector (many companies observe the day after Thanksgiving instead). November 11 is on a Friday this year and I wouldn't be surprised if WMATA were to pick that day for a major project. It would be a serious disservice to riders if they did.

It's a major problem, one that has no ideal solution. Martin Luther King Day is sort of touchy in terms of the private sector not observing it due to political considerations relating to what the day is. My impression is that more companies observe this one than observe Columbus Day or Veterans Day. (From a personal, practical standpoint, I'd rather have Columbus Day. The weather is nicer, and King Day falls so soon after two other holidays. I understand the politics, though.) But regular Metrorail riders are right to demand that WMATA consider the needs of ALL riders, not just the federal government employees. Yes, feds make up a major part of the ridership, but the system's raison d'etre is not solely to transport federal employees to and fro. I'm reminded of the time the Caps scheduled a home game for 1:00 PM on Columbus Day, thinking people had off from work. The fans rebelled and the team never made that mistake again.

At least with this weekend's project it's easy to bypass Foggy Bottom via the Yellow and Blue Lines. It will take longer, but it's easy to do and the fare remains the same as it would be via the normal route.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 11, 2011 2:40 PM | Report abuse

1995hoo, it seems that Metro does do some research and base the decision on when to do track work on days when ridership is historically low (or lower). Unfortunately, those are days when the federal government is closed.

Personally, I think closing down stations for a couple of days over a holiday weekend is MUCH less of an inconvenience than constant weekend single tracking for weeks on end. Usually when they drag out work over many weeks, it results in slower trains as trains reduce speed through the "work" zone, creating more delays.

At least when a disruption is isolated to a few days, you can plan around it (drive, carpool, take a bus, etc.) or your inconvenience is isolated to a day or two, not weeks.

I took the shuttles that ran when they closed the end of the redline to do track work last fall (Glenmont to Fort Totten). I was really surprised at how efficient the buses ran and how well organized everything was. My trip took an extra 15 minutes but I barely noticed because I wasn't ever waiting (something that can't be say about Metro usually).

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | January 11, 2011 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps most frustrating of all are the endless number of times Metro asks us for our patience as they improve the system. After years now of these dreadful weekend repairs and holidays inconveniences, the system has only gotten worse in my perception, and as Dr. G points out, there is, ugh, no end in site. It might be more tolerable if things seemed to be getting better. They don't. The frustration is compounded in winter. As someone whose regular travels involve standing on an outside platform during these long delays in sometimes bitter (and the longer I stand there dangerous) cold, I can only assume that no decision maker or board member has ever once done the same (let alone day after day) or thought much about the customers in general.

Posted by: citygirl113 | January 11, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

UMDGirl, I tried to acknowledge the issue you cite in the final two paragraphs of my comment, especially where I conceded that it's a major problem with no easy answer. Dr. Gridlock is right that you can't blame today's Powers That Be for many of the foolish mistakes made in the design of the Metrorail system, such as the two-track design or the lack of pocket tracks. Today's folks were not involved back in the 1960s and 1970s. (As an aside, I highly recommend Zachary Schrag's book "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." Very worthwhile read for folks interested in that sort of thing.) I think I try to be reasonable in my comments and it's why I tend to ignore a lot of the drivel posted by people who do nothing but rant and rave about how the WMATA board ought to be fired or who post unhelpful nonsense like "Metro sucks. And if you ride Metro, you suck too." That sort of snivelling garbage is something a ten-year-old might say.

On the other hand, though, I'm trying to look at both sides of the issue, and I can understand why private-sector commuters get frustrated with these shutdowns on weekends where many people have to work, especially when it happens multiple times. I think everyone understands that sometimes things come up that require special circumstances, but I think your average Metrorail rider fails to understand that switch replacements are such complex repairs that they in fact constitute special circumstances. Let's be realistic, for the most part those of us who read and comment upon this blog tend to be more well-versed in transportation matters than the average guy on the street, right? (I do wonder why the general public seem not to understand how important unseen repairs are. I mean, most people don't usually look at their cars' brakes, but most people understand how important it is to maintain their brakes.)

You make a valid point about how the WMATA planners have to balance it out to have the least problematic overall impact, and for practical purposes that requires recognizing that the feds are a huge part of their rider base. I think it's also fair to recognize that WMATA's workmen deserve some consideration, meaning that while as a practical matter the ideal weekends for this sort of work might have been Thanksgiving and Christmas, it would be massively bad workplace-relations strategy on WMATA's part to ask the workmen to do it then. On the other hand, I find myself asking to what extent the work could be shifted by a month to a more-universally observed holiday (Washington's Birthday in the winter; Labor Day in the fall). I suppose Labor Day was unappealing last year because of that VPI v. Boise State football game at FedEx on Monday night, but it seems to me that it's more reasonable to inconvenience the football traffic, especially when neither school is a DC-area school and so the fan bases will not be regular Metrorail customers, than it is to inconvenience the commuters on whom WMATA relies.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 12, 2011 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Closing the closest station to the Lincoln Memorial on MLK Day? Why does Metro hate black people?

Posted by: getjiggly1 | January 12, 2011 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Closing the closest station to the Lincoln Memorial on MLK Day? Why does Metro hate black people?

Posted by: getjiggly1 | January 12, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I know getjiggly is being a smart-arse as usual, but it's 0.8 miles from Foggy Bottom to the front of the Lincoln Memorial (facing the Reflecting Pool) and it's 0.9 miles from the Arlington Cemetery stop. Nicer walk via Memorial Bridge, too.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 12, 2011 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Yup 1995hoo, both actually closer than the Smithsonian which is 1.3 miles from the Lincoln. It's only 1.4 from Farragut West and 1.5 from Farragut North (and downhill too). I'ma redliner so I always just get off at Farragut North and walk down 17th street rather than transfer or deal with crowds of tourists at Smithsonian.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | January 12, 2011 5:09 PM | Report abuse

I guess if you're 3/5 of a person, it doesn't hurt to walk 13% further.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | January 14, 2011 10:04 AM | Report abuse

I guess if you're 3/5 of a person, it doesn't hurt to walk 13% further.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | January 14, 2011 10:05 AM | Report abuse

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