WASHINGTON, D.C. – The metro area was abuzz this week over rumors of a 6 month shutdown of Metrorail lines, but the transit system’s leadership is assuring passengers that the service changes won’t be that drastic. At a summit with regional leaders in the Washington Metropolitan Area Council of Governments (COG) on March 30, Washington […]
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The metro area was abuzz this week over rumors of a 6 month shutdown of Metrorail lines, but the transit system’s leadership is assuring passengers that the service changes won’t be that drastic.
At a summit with regional leaders in the Washington Metropolitan Area Council of Governments (COG) on March 30, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Board Chair Jack Evans said that the rail system was so backlogged on maintenance that the current schedule- which sees tracks close for three hours on weeknights and weekends for repair work- would be completely unable to accommodate the workload.
“So in order to do repairs that are necessary, it may come to the point where we have to close the entire Blue Line for six months,” Evans said, “People will go crazy. But there are going to be hard decisions that have to be made in order to get this fixed.”
However, at a lunch meeting with members of the Montgomery County Council on April 5, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld walked back those remarks, saying Evans is extremely passionate about the system and may have let those emotions get the better of him in conveying the gravity of the situation Metro is facing.
“I don’t see any need for a long closure of any part of the system,” Wiedefeld said, according to the Washington Post.
Even earlier, on March 31, Wiedefeld had attempted to reassure Metro users in the wake of the furor caused by Evans’ remarks. He wrote an email to passengers saying that no decisions had been made on closures.
“I want to let you know that I am working on a long-range maintenance plan for the rail system to ensure safe and reliable service. The plan is in development now, and I expect to have it ready in four to six weeks,” he wrote. “While I am keeping options open on how to proceed, no decisions have been made. Moreover, any service change in the plan that could affect your commute will receive ample notice to customers, businesses, stakeholders and the region as a whole.”
Wiedefeld said he was trying to avoid a system-wide shutdown, but that service hours might need to be adjusted to allow for maintenance crews to complete their work effectively. And, if portions of the track would have to be shut down during normal service hours, buses would be provided to carry passengers between the affected stations, he added.
County council Chair Derrick Davis was at the COG event where Evans made his remarks. Speaking with The Sentinel before Wiedefeld’s clarifying comments Tuesday, he said he was not surprised by the news that Metro was underwater on maintenance.
“What I took away from the last several meetings, the reason I wasn’t surprised, was because I was listening. We are in a state of deep repair need,” he said. “I was probably more taken aback when Jack Evans pulled out a report that was done in 2005, and there had been very little or no activity done to ensure that the tenets in that 2005 report had been met or even acted upon.”
Davis said he believes that Wiedefeld and Evans are the right leaders to put Metro on the right track, because Wiedefeld’s actions during the blizzard in February and the 29-hour shutdown two weeks ago show he is putting safety first.
Wiedefeld, who previously worked in the airline industry as the chief executive officer of the Maryland Aviation Administration, completely closed all six rail lines on March 16 to allow for emergency safety inspections after a fire at the McPherson Square Metro station was ignited by sparks from corroded power cables. That inspection uncovered 26 safety issues, including three “metal-on-metal” corrosion situations where trains would not have been running had they been known to staff.
WMATA observers viewed that shutdown as a taste of things to come as the transit system tries to recover from its bad reputation for safety and reliability.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III supported Wiedefeld’s decisions that day, but said he was concerned about the impacts of a longer-term shutdown.
“Although I am very concerned about passenger safety, shut downs over an extended period of time will have a significant impact on our residents and businesses who rely heavily on Metro operating regularly,” he said.
Davis said, based on the reports he heard about Metro in just the three months he’s been with COG, he felt that the years of inactivity on maintenance, combined with inconsistent funding (especially at the federal level), have finally added up.
“I don’t play an engineer on television because I am not one. I seek out the people who can give me the expert testimony. There’s an adage that says, measure twice and cut once. I think we’ve done the measuring,” he said. “It’s time for that urgency of now for this to happen.”
As Wiedefeld formulates his plan to address lagging maintenance in the next month, Baker said he hopes that the opinions of the region’s leaders will be taken into consideration.
“It is imperative that the voices and views of Prince George’s County stakeholders are heard as we try to find the best solution to these mounting concerns about the safety of Metro,” he said.