Nearly two months into its SafeTrack accelerated maintenance program for the DC-area Metro system, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration appears to put a dent in its massive backlog of track, power system, and other infrastructure repair needs that had contributed to the deterioration of one of the nation’s best-known rail transit networks into a daily drama of smoke and fire incidents, power and signal system glitches, and threatened federal shutdowns.
Through SafeTrack, WMATA is attempting to cram three years’ worth of maintenance into 12 months by augmenting a stepped-up regular maintenance program with 15 “Surges” that include extended shutdowns of specific track sections for more intense work.
According to data released by the agency, the first two surges met their goals of bringing their respective sections into a state of good repair. Both had been bumped up in the SafeTrack Surge schedule after being cited as high-priority sections by the Federal Transit Administration, which had hinted at a potential system shutdown unless WMATA took immediate action.
During the 13-day Surge #1 on the Orange Line in Northern Virginia, work crews replaced more than 1,800 crossties, while renewing more than 540 insulators and more than 3,100 lf of spot rail. Thirty power cables and 24 expansion cables were also inspected and repaired. Work went so well that WMATA was able to get a head start on work originally scheduled for the 12-day Surge #5, which began in the same area on July 20.
For Surge #2, which focused on a key junction in DC serving three Metro lines, the 16-day work blitz included replacement of more than 500 crossties and four major switches, renewal of more than 2,000 lf of grout pads, and other work on grout pads, signals, and power cables.
The weeklong Surge #3, a section serving National Airport, fell short of its repair objectives, the result, says WMATA, to the Washington area’s infamous extreme summer heat, which forced workers to take more frequent breaks. Still, only 3 percent of the planned work was left undone, a large portion of which involves grout pads, drainage maintenance, and repairs to the traction power system. The leftover tasks will be finished up over nights and weekends.
WMATA also noted that more than 1,300 crossties were replaced during this surge, a volume that would have taken more than eight months under a typical off-hour repair schedule.
Results have yet to be published for the recently completed Surge #4, which also included tracks to National Airport. The morning after its completion, however, early arrivals at one of the underground stations in that work zone stepped into a haze reminiscent of the smoke problems of earlier this year, but later attributed to dust from the repair work.
(UPDATE 7/21: Surge #5 began inauspiciously, when utility transfer issues during set-up forced an unplanned service interruption at the end of the morning rush hour. That resulted in a hasty deployment of shuttles to move passengers to the next operational station, but not without another ding to WMATA's already tarnished reliability reputation.)
SafeTrack may yet accomplish its goals of rectifying Metro’s infrastructure woes, but WMATA’s problems will be far from over.
In early July, it was reported that WMATA had begun 2016 with 80,000 open work orders, including some more than a decade old. The agency countered that the number had already been cut by more than half by mid-year, and only a handful of the open items were considered priority issues.
The agency’s new emphasis on safety has also gotten off to a rocky start, with a railyard rearending incident and two occurrences of trains overruning red signals within eight days.
Mother Nature has also been of little help. In addition to the heat issues during Surge 3, a summer thunderstorm’s flash flood inundated an underground station. Aside from some passengers with wet shoes, no damage was reported.
Keeping Metro in a state of good repair will also require a greater financial commitment by the jurisdictions it serves. Rising costs and declining ridership (due in part to the system’s recent reliability issues) could put the agency in a $1.1 billion operating hole by 2020, according to a consultants’ report. With no dedicated funding source, WMATA may well call on DC, Virginia, and Maryland to come up with additional subsidies of up to $100 million as early as FY 2018.