Rider frustrations seem to be at an all-time high, but Metro officials say that track work and upgrades are making a difference.
The effort to rebuild Metro’s Red Line is showing progress but years remain of work to clear a backlog a deferred maintenance, a top transit authority official told a group of transit advocates in Silver Spring on Tuesday.
Rob Troup, Metro’s deputy general manager for operations, addressed a gathering of the Action Committee for Transit, an advocacy group that supports public transportation initiatives in Montgomery County, Maryland. As service disruptions are being reduced and scheduled rebuilding work is becoming easier to manage, Troup cautioned that major maintenance efforts on Red and other lines would continue through 2017, and ongoing maintenance to keep the system in a state of good repair will continue indefinitely.
“The question is when will the rebuilding end? And I think you really need to understand it is a positive statement when I say it will ever end,” Troup said. “I know that sounds cliché… but this is true because under investment in our capital maintenance and systematic deferral of repair of the railroad resulted in diminished reliability.”
Metro is roughly halfway through a six-year, $5.5 billion dollar rebuilding program that required significant funding from Congress and the jurisdictions of D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The effort has frustrated many commuters because weekend track work reduces the number of available trains and stations, but Troup said weekends give crews the most time to make extensive repairs. As a result service is improving, he said.
“On-track incidents — our on-track, wayside incidents — have decreased 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, and we are seeing that same trend continue from '13 into '14,” he said. “Our projection is the backlog will be completed in 2017 but that does not mean an end to the shutdowns. We will continue to have shutdowns, albeit fewer. We will be able to be much more deliberate about those shutdowns as we go forward.”
Aging railcars, however, continue to up end Metro’s attempts to show the public service is improving. “These account for over half the delays and offloads that we have," he said.
The good news is Metro will begin phasing out its fleet of 1970s-era 1000-series rail cars by the end of the year. The first set of 64 modern 7000-series rail cars are being prepared for service. But it will take Metro three years to fully phase out the 1000-series, and five years to fully phase in the 7000-series. The transit authority has the necessary funding to replace all its 1000- and 4000-series rail cars, but needs commitments from Congress and its jurisdictions to expand its fleet to meet the goal of running all 8-car trains in rush hour by 2025.
Three years. Five years. Through 2017. By 2025. Metro’s riders are being asked to wait long periods before the aforementioned milestones are reached, stretching patience already being tested by daily service breakdowns. No matter how much progress the transit authority can point to, it takes just one minor problem on one rail car on one train during morning rush hour to snarl thousands of commuters’ trips.
A frozen door, for instance, forced a train out of service one morning last week, leaving passengers waiting on outdoor platforms in frigid temperatures on the Red Line. Delays lasted 25 to 35 minutes before the out-of-service train could be cleared from Metro’s two-track system.
Troup told the group Metro has no plans to add a third track, but would like to add more alternate routes by building an inner-loop of stations to relieve congestion on the Red, Blue, and Orange Lines.
Metro’s deputy general manager also addressed the possibility that three Red Line stations might have to close six weeks for extensive repairs to deal with water infiltration at Medical Center and Friendship Heights stations; Bethesda station would close, too, according to a report by NBC4.
“I am very pleased we had a hugely productive meeting with our APTA (American Public Transit Association) peer review group,” Troup said.
“We had really productive conversations and we are looking at the results of those. I am pleased to say decisions are under review now because we do see there might be viable alternatives to what we originally suggested. But, and I stress to the reporters, that is still under review and no decision has been made along those lines.”
In an interview following his presentation, Troup declined to comment on the possible alternatives to closing down the three Red Line stations for weeks.