Wednesday, May 11, 2016

DC Metro: From jewel to hazard

When Baltimore's light rail trains had wheel cracking problems in 2008, the then MTA Administrator didn't take any chances and took trains out of service for emergency repairs, no matter that service was disrupted and the lack of trains led to crowded trains and doubled head-ways.
WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld explains Alice Rule on Tuesday

The same guy is now the head of Washington's Metro, and once again, Paul Wiedefeld is not joking. He created national headlines when he shut down Metro for a couple of days to inspect electrical jumper cables that had created a deadly track-fire at one instance and seemed to be a re-occurring problem.

But the mishaps continued. Like much of the country's infrastructure, Washington's Metro, once the pride of the nation, is aging, overburdened, insufficiently maintained and stressed beyond capacity.

This month Wiedefeld's WMATA presented a Safe Track Plan to get ahead of the accumulating problems that his predecessor couldn't or wouldn't address. Once again riders will have to deal with service shortages, missing trains and shortened hours of operation while maintenance crews are trying to get the track network into shape.

The plan includes:
  • 3 years worth of work accelerated into approx. 1 year 
  • Includes expansion of track-work hours on weeknights, weekends and during certain rush hours — both above ground and in tunnels 
  • Achieves safety and state of good repair of basic track structure and advances critical NTSB/FTA work 
  • Includes line segment shutdowns of less than one month 
  • Uses contractors to augment existing workforce
The work scope is listed with impressive detail:
  • Installation of NTSB-recommended boots and seals on all 3rd rail cables 
 by end of summer* 
  • All underground boots will be retrofitted by end of this month 
  • Replacement of 12,000 insulators Remove 3rd rail expansion joints in underground system, reducing risk 
  • Eliminate ALL temporary gauge bars that prevent spread of tracks 
  • Replacement of approx. 48,000 wooden ties (achieves state of good repair) 
  • Will need to replace 11,000 ties/year to maintain steady state Replacement of approx 36,000 direct fixation fasteners (achieves state of good repair) 
  • Will need to replace 18,000 fasteners/year to maintain steady state 
  • Clearing of 87,000 linear feet of drains Extensive tunnel leak mitigation
Some of the more dramatic services impacts are 
  • Total shutdown between National Airport and Braddock Road July 5-12
  • Total shutdown between Pentagon City and National Airport July 12-19
  • Total shutdown from Eastern Market to Minnesota Ave and Benning Road Aug. 20 to Sept. 6
  • Total shutdown between NoMa and Fort Totten Oct. 9 to Nov. 12
Even President Obama himself commented on the DC Metro, placing it into the broader context of the national infrastructure:
US Secretary Foxx threatening Metro "shutdown"

"[W]e got bridges, we got roads, we have ports, we have airports, we have water mains and pipes as we saw in Flint, that suffer from neglect," Obama said at the White House after he was asked about the Metro repairs. "And the reason we've been neglecting them is not because we don't know how to fix it, it's not because people haven't been aware of the need."
"The problem we have is that the Republican Congress has been resistant to really taking on this problem in a serious way," he added. "And the reason is because of an ideology that says, government spending is necessarily bad."
He said the GOP's ideology "has led us to not investing in those things that we have to do together." (Obama)
US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, one of the more vocal department heads stepped the rhetoric up yesterday and even threatened that he would shut down the DC Metro system if safety issue wouldn't be taken care of.
"I would have no hesitation to shut down the system" (DOT Secretary Foxx)

Paul Wiedefeld called over 600 Metro Managers to a meeting on Tuesday to communicate urgency and explain his safety principle with what he called "Alice rule", named after his own daughter.  
“I asked the people who were running the light rail — I said ‘would you put your daughter on this?’ And they said ‘no’. “You don’t put anyone on service that you wouldn’t put my daughter on — that you wouldn’t put your daughter on,” (Paul Wiedefeld).
Like global warming, the US infrastructure crisis has been long in the making; everybody could see it coming but instead of devising solutions the matter continues to get cloaked in ideological smoke screens.
DC Metro station

So far, we are seeing just the tip of an iceberg. Yet, certain politicians still talk about cutting taxes even further, impoverishing the public sector even more and making upkeep and investment into infrastructure upgrades even harder. There is no free lunch!

In spite of its skimpy rail network Baltimore is also affected by maintenance issues pertaining to aging rails and trains. Our Light Rail trains are in the midst of their mid-life overhaul, tracks on Howard Street are in a deplorable condition. Our Metro is nearly the same age as DC's. New carriages are on order. Weekend service and longer hours of operation have shortened the hours available for maintenance here as well. MTA Administrator Paul Comfort will address whatever maintenance deficit aggressively as well.

Partial shut-downs and service cut-backs were announced by MTA for this summer.
The Maryland Department of Transportation’s Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) will shut down Baltimore Metro Subway service from the Milford Mill to Mondawmin stations for 21 days – July 23 to August 12 – for replacement of major components of Metro rail.
The Maryland Department of Transportation’s Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) will shut down Baltimore Metro Subway service from the Milford Mill to Mondawmin stations for 21 days – July 23 to August 12 – for replacement of major components of Metro rail.
To keep things in perspective: With over 700,000 riders a day, the DC Metro is still a very safe and effective means of transportation, sparks, fires and occasional crashes not withstanding. Especially if compared with the hazards of, say, the DC Beltway. Riders on Baltimore's rail transportation travel safely as well, even if their number is only 10% of Washington's ridership.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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