Deja Vu Washington

“The system wasn’t maintained the way it should be, and we have to make up for that now. That’s why we’re doing this intensive work.”
— Richard Sarles, then Metro general manager, May 2011

“It is clear that the current approach is not working, more aggressive action is necessary.”

— Paul J. Wiedefeld, Metro general manager, May 2016

“I appreciate the need for the rebuilding effort and generally support the plan. One question that I have though is that Metro has been rebuilding for years now and things seem to be getting worse, so why should we have confidence that this rebuild will be better?”
— A reader’s comment submitted for Monday’s Dr. Gridlock online chat

Everyone in the D.C. region — Metro riders, residents, employers, employees, civic leaders — has a right to wonder how much better Metrorail service will be a year from now under the new SafeTrack Plan. The new strategy that Wiedefeld outlined Friday will increase the extent of service disruptions that many riders already said was unacceptable. Meanwhile, much of the track work that will be done is the same type of track work that has been underway for five years.

The crews won’t be building a new railroad. They will continue rebuilding the old railroad.

Looking back to 2011, here’s how Metro officials presented some of the benefits of their “aggressive” track work plan. We would get “newer rail less likely to crack or have age-related defects, reduced fires and smoking from old insulators and stud bolts, less speed restrictions from worn ties and grout pads, ability to sustain 8-car trains with replaced cabling, improved customer convenience and comfort and overall service reliability.”

Here was a mid-project update from the transit authority’s Metro Forward website: “And our work on the track is moving along, with the replacement of 11, 731 cross ties, 62, 723 linear feet of running rail, 20, 745 fasteners, 8, 849 insulators and 9, 829 linear feet of grout pads, all to give you a safer, more reliable ride.”

In Metro Forward, transit officials also previewed this type of work: third rail rehabilitation; track fasteners; floating slab; and a track welding program acceleration to improve ride quality, as well as replacing ventilation and exhaust fans; repairing platforms; redoing elevators, escalators and tiles at stations; fixing cracks in tunnels; repairing signals, circuits and equipment along tracks.

These are among the “expected work elements” outlined Friday in the SafeTrack Plan: insulator replacement; fastener replacement; rail renewal; radio system/cellphone installation; interlocking maintenance; third-rail cover boards, cables and boots; tunnel lighting; emergency signage; debris clearing; ventilation work and fan control; tunnel washing.

To see the overlap is to see that this new plan is not a magic formula. Metro’s promise is to speed up about three years of work into about one year. But it’s basically the same sort of work that had many riders wondering afterward, “How is this better?”

Wiedefeld has not said that nothing got done during the past five years. He’s saying it didn’t get done fast enough. At the moment, Metrorail users have no way of anticipating whether this new program is going to create the more reliable ride they want.

The program is certainly going to be more disruptive, which raises the stakes even higher for results.

Also, many of the Metrorail disruptions have nothing to do with the tracks. They result from busted train doors and brake problems. Those problems are likely to be eased by the arrival of more new rail cars. But the new rail cars also have experienced breakdowns.

This is not to suggest that Metro is doing the wrong thing by implementing this new program. (And it’s not as though Metro will take a vote among the riders before deciding whether to proceed.) But everyone needs to cast a cold eye on the new plan and remember what we’ve been told before.

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