Broken Promises - Bad Dreams, A Metro Investigation (Fourth in a series)
WMATA’s quest to get “Back2Good” runs into many problems
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Although the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) SafeTrack program concluded months ago, riders on the rail system continue to deal with closures and single-tracking – strategies the Metro system may be employing for some time.
Just weeks after the conclusion of the WMATA SafeTrack program, maintenance workers were back on the tracks addressing issues, and even after months of accelerated work with thousands of repairs and replacements made to the tracks, grout pads and tie downs of the rail system, stations continue to close and safety incidents are still occurring.
Eric Randall, a principal transportation engineer with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said work and issues like those WMATA has faced are not unusual for metropolitan rail systems, but for a system with a backlog like Metro’s, it could take decades to get back on track.
“We are catching up on a backlog. It is going to take a few years, a handful of years or more maybe, to work and get through to get back to a state of good repair and keep following a fairly aggressive schedule, but Metro is never going to be new again,” Randall said. “We’re never going to get back to a whole brand new system, so yes, there’s always going to be a more aggressive maintenance schedule.”
WMATA made major headlines in January 2015 when smoke filled the L’Enfant Plaza Station, eventually killing one person, and Randall said the system has gone through a number of “adverse events” that brought the authority to the point where General Manager Paul Wiedefeld decided he would have to make waves to affect change.
“Just like with your car or something – you can drive it every day, but eventually you’re going to have to take it to the shop,” Randall said. “Maybe the emphasis was too much on service. I think clearly the emphasis now is maintenance.”
In a dash to address a growing list of issues with the rail system in the nation’s capital, WMATA rolled out a condensed and targeted repair program called SafeTrack. The strategic project was set up in 16 phases from, June 4, 2016 until June 25, 2017, to address concerns along the six rail lines that may have led to fires, derailments, smoke and potential safety issues. SafeTrack condensed three years worth of work into a single year.
“The work that has been accomplished under SafeTrack has been significant,” Wiedefeld said during a meeting with the House Oversight Committee in March. “For example, over 28,000 wooden ties have been replaced, which is more than was done in the past two years alone.”
Throughout the yearlong process, 63,398 crossties, more than 12,000 insulators, more than 839 power cables and more than 36,000 feet of railing were replaced, all while closing sections of track and shortening hours, according to reports released by Metro. In total, the project cost approximately $162 million, according to a WMATA year-end report, but despite a large number of repairs and millions of dollars spent on addressing issues, just two days after SafeTrack ended WMATA was already back to conducting emergency maintenance when the Red Line was single tracking to address a hanging cable in Gallery Place.
WMATA has also begun a number of single tracking or suspension and service operations or underwent serious delays to continue to address problems in the rail system since the end of SafeTrack. On July 10, the authority began suspending weekend service on the Red Line and limited service on weeknights for a month to address water leaking. That same day smoke was reported at the Friendship Heights Station. On July 24, Red Line service was suspended due to a track problem outside the Medical Center stop, which included two smoking and arcing insulators. On July 26, service on the Blue and Orange Lines was suspended due to debris on the tracks.
“You know, every day there’s always going to be the occasional issue, just like there is on the highway system – some days there’s an accident and there’s going to be delays and people are going to get caught up in jams – but overall, month after month, we’re seeing more reliability,” Randall said.
The Sentinel visited every Metro station inside Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and found, still, evidence of repairs needing to be made to the system. Along the Green Line, Sentinel reporters found broken lights, vegetation growing in the tracks, standing water on the lines, open or broken service fences, missing tie downs and exposed wires.
Several stations in Southern Prince George’s County, which were not included in SafeTrack, had multiple track fasteners missing, sidewalks with tiles coming up or gone completely and a significant amount debris on the track including shoes, soda bottles and entire cardboard boxes.
To that effect, WMATA still has work to do, according to a report from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The report states that the transit authority must continue to put safety above service to ensure that issues are addressed without delay and without incident.
“WMATA's SafeTrack capital improvement program was a necessary and important first step to address a severe backlog of critical infrastructure issues. However, WMATA must do much more to further reduce this backlog and improve its maintenance program to better ensure the safety of the Metrorail system for passengers and workers and restore the system to a state of good repair,” an FTA spokesperson said in an email.
That kind of work could take decades, Randall said, but he is confident WMATA is moving in the right direction.
“It’s going to need more work. It’s going to take, in some cases, up to a decade to go back and redo all the underground fasteners, all the underground tracks and everything else. It is a matter of time, it is a matter of money,” he said.
In the coming months, the transportation authority has more than 20 maintenance projects scheduled along every rail line that range from single tracking on weekends and weekdays to extended or weekend shut downs. Continued work ranges from switch maintenance and rail renewal at L’Enfant Plaza in October to bridge inspections, fastenor and “insulate renewals” at the same station. Other work includes radio cable installations, platform rehabs, ceiling grid and tile installations and other “preventative maintenance.”
That work began on Aug. 5 at two Green Line stations in Prince George’s County. The closures were not a part of SafeTrack. The track was closed so WMATA could rebuild interlocking and grout pads.
“This is the first of three major track work projects planned over the next year as part of Metro's new program of preventive maintenance and planned capital work announced last spring to maintain a state of good repair,” a Metro press release from Aug. 4 reads.
Wiedefeld said part of his Back2Good campaign includes this “industry standard preventative maintenance program” that will push the system into proactive maintenance, rather than reactive.
However, the new program is not slated to just cover new issues or just include stations SafeTrack did not cover.
In its Sept. 8-10 phase of the new maintenance program, Metro noted it planned to work on replacing grout pads between New Carrollton and Cheverly stations on the Orange Line, resulting in single tracking through three stations. Addressing grout pads was one of the focuses of Surge 15 of SafeTrack, which shut down the Orange Line from Stadium-Armory to New Carrollton.
“The main focus of the surge was to replace deteriorating crossties, as well as grout pad and fastener replacement on the aerial structures,” the detailed surge report reads. “ Structure crews focused on replacing 8,879 linear feet of grout pad on the aerial structures, clearing brush and repairing fencing.”
Surge 15 shut down a portion of the Orange Line for approximately a month between May 16 and June 15 of this year and the WMATA detailed report noted the system completed “109 percent” of the planned work for structures, the category that grout pads fall under, in that phase.
But Randall said with a system like WMATA, new maintenance issues will always occur, and even if Metro goes into a station or maintenance program with a plan, additional, or unknown, problems can always derail them. In addition, on its own report, WMATA said surge reports were subject to change after quality control tests.
“Metro is a very complex system. It is $40 billion plus of investment. You’re operating 100-ton vehicles with thousands of passengers every day. There’s going to be things that break or things that need to be replaced that nobody could know perfectly in advance,” Randall said. “They’re going to go back and revisit the sites, they’re going to go back and revisit every part of the system year after year after year.”
The work never ends, Randall said, but while it may take more than a decade to address issues with the Metrorail lines, Randall, the FTA and local governments have all said they believe WMATA is moving toward the right direction.
Scott Peterson, a spokesperson for the Prince George’s County Executive, said the county appreciated WMATA’s communication in regard to warnings about closuring during SafeTrack and said the county hopes the work done through the maintenance program will prove effective.
“Although it is too early to tell if SafeTrack maintenance worked to improve the long-term safety of Metro riders, we do applaud GM Weidefeld and WMATA for having the ‘sense of urgency’ to fix the Metro’s systemic safety problems,” Peterson said. “We hope that SafeTrack work in time will prove to be successful by eliminating any further major tragedies and hazards on the rails.”
Randall shared a similar outlook, stating that he was glad Wiedefeld is taking control of the maintenance program and moving WMATA forward.
“I think they’re making good strides at getting the system back into a state of good repair,” he said. “They’ve gotten a lot more efficient and effective at the maintenance they’ve done. So they’ve made a start on rectifying the backlog of work that needs to be done over the past several years.”
While Metro has struggled financially due to track closures and an onslaught of public relations nightmares, Randall believes as the system continues to move forward and prove its improved reliability, customers will come back, he said.
You can see the statistics slowly start to improve, but it is going to take a while to get back there,” he said.