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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 09/24/2009

Metrorail to Dulles: Why So Slow?

By washingtonpost.com editors

By Roger M. Firestone
Oakton


In 1881, the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, better known as the Nickel Plate Road, began construction of a main line from Buffalo to Chicago. In 500 days, the railroad completed more than 500 miles of track, some 49 bridges and numerous stations, placing hundreds of thousands of crossties, laying rail and driving spikes, all with manual labor. Trains ran in the fall of 1882, providing high-speed transport of meat and produce from the Midwest to hungry consumers in the East.

If Metro could equal the Nickel Plate, trains would be serving Dulles International Airport before Thanksgiving. Instead, it will take another four years just to reach Wiehle Avenue in Reston, even though Metro has modern equipment to replace the manual labor of the 19th century. Oh, yes, and the entire Nickel Plate Road was valued at somewhat over a million dollars (William Vanderbilt bought it for a hugely overpriced $7 million to stifle his competition), far less, even in today’s dollars, than the billions that the Dulles extension will cost.

What have we forgotten that Americans knew how to do 13 decades ago?

By washingtonpost.com editors  | September 24, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Tags:  dulles, metrorail  
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Comments

The lengthy time for construction is at least somewhat understandable given the need to remove existing infrastructure from much of the planned right of way. What I question is why it takes Metro so long to perform routine maintenance.

Railroads in the old Confederacy after the civil war were of different gauges (distance between the rails), making it difficult to travel or ship freight over any distance without multiple changes of cars, etc. It was eventually decided to re-gauge all railways in the south to the standard gauge used elsewhere in the country. The work involved moving one or both rails to the new gauge and adjusting all of the switches on 11,500 miles of track, plus adjusting the wheels of all locomotives and cars to the new gauge. And the work had to be done with the technology of the day, much of it by hand labor.

The project began on May 31, 1886, and was finished THE NEXT DAY. It has become known in history as "the day they changed the gauge." Less than two days to completely re-gauge all railways and equipment in the southern United States.

By comparison, Metro had to close several stations for three days over the Labor Day weekend to replace a half mile of track and one switch.

Posted by: alert4jsw | September 27, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

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