Metro is currently facing a huge backlog of work on aging and broken tracks, partly because its way of scheduling the work isn’t working. The agency is announcing a new strategy for fixing its tracks on Friday, meaning there’s a huge opportunity to get track work right.

Silver Spring pocket track. Photo by Ben Schumin on Wikipedia Commons.

There currently isn’t enough time to do maintenance

In 2011, Metro started MetroForward to fix the system’s infrastructure. The plan was to spend a large part of the project’s $5 billion budget to fix the rails themselves. Five years and $3.7 billion later, the track work backlog hasn’t gone anywhere

WMATA employees, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, and the Federal Transit Administration have all said that doing track work only during overnight hours isn’t enough. The FTA also found that there is less time than before to perform track inspections that could find defects like cracked rails, defective fasteners, and third-rail insulator issues.

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is now mulling over options to fix the way the agency does track work, hoping to cut the current backlog and bring everything up to a state of good repair.

This chart from WMATA, made in 2011, shows why there isn’t enough time to get all the maintenance work done overnight. There are three periods— 5-hour, 7-hour, and 56-hour work windows— in which work could be done. Green signifies the usable time and red signifies time lost to setup/teardown and other non-work activities. The shorter the maintenance period, the less productive the actual work time is.

Track usage production ratios. Image from WMATA

Metro’s current track work strategy doesn’t work

Metro usually performs single-tracking in several places each weekend while workers take a track out of service. Trains often run less often because of this, sometimes every 24 or 26 minutes on average (in reality, trains may come as quickly as every couple of minutes on one side of the single-tracking area, or as infrequently as every 40 minutes on the other).

Weekend single-tracking is rough. It’s caused a vast drop in weekend rail ridership, with some saying the system is unusable on the weekend. The reduction in service and increased unpredictability due to single-tracking is a big reason for this.

Full weekend shutdowns may be the way to go

As opposed to a single evening that provides 2.5 hours usable trackwork time (or 4.5 hours if the work starts at 10pm instead), a full weekend of track work from 9 pm Friday to 5 am Monday can provide up to 48.5 hours of usable track work time and allows access to both tracks, increasing the useful time ratio from 50 percent to 86 percent. The drastically-increased amount of unbroken time that workers have available on the track means that much more work can be accomplished.

Shutting down sections of track on the weekend to perform maintenance work not only is more convenient for passengers (rip the band-aid off instead of a slow pull), but also more beneficial to the maintenance personnel performing the work. Instead of being constrained to one track to work in, workers can spread out and move around the site easier, there’s no need to watch out for trains moving on the opposite track, and there’s a good potential more types of work can get done through better utilization of the work area.

Buses cost money though, and they would be needed for sectional shutdowns to ferry passengers across. Full shutdowns cost somewhere around 15 percent more than single-tracking according to one project. But if one method has a chance of retaining ridership and will accomplish more work in a single weekend than the other might in two or more, it may be worth it. Cost is no longer the driving factor for when and where track work occurs, as new Wiedefeld has seemingly made clear.

Not all stations and track can always be shut down for a weekend at a time though, so the agency may have to revert to other less-efficient track work strategies:

Short periods of track work are incredibly inefficient

During the week, the Metrorail system closes at 12 am, and opens at 5 am. While this provides five hours of “off” time, it really only gives maintenance personnel 2.5 hours or less to spend on the tracks. Setting up and tearing down track work is incredibly time consuming, as the process can include assembling workers and equipment, moving any heavy track machinery (prime movers) into the area, making sure the track is clear, setting up “shunts” to mimic a train in the area so the central rail routing system knows not to send trains into the work area, and more. An hour or more can quickly be used just to set up the work area.

If everything is set and placed, work can start. But when things don’t go as planned, time can be easily eaten up, as the FTA noted in their Safety Management Inspection review published last year:

On the March 23 [overnight] shift, for what should have been a simple T-bar replacement…the contractor was still not able to get access onto the work site until 2:00 a.m., and the contractor had to start clearing the site at 4:00 a.m., leaving only two hours of productive time…The impacts of this limited work window can be exacerbated by communication and logistical challenges. For example…it became clear that the Power branch work crew had the wrong size T-bar…and there was confusion whether the ATC department had been consulted in the planning of the work.

One hour before the crews need to wrap up (i.e. 4am in the morning if the system opens at 5am), they stop working so everything can be cleaned up so passenger trains can use the track. When this work runs over, passenger-carrying trains can be disrupted and you may see a tweet saying that there has been “late-clearing track work.”

Mid-day track work is not productive and causes passenger frustration

Based on the track work production numbers from the chart, mid-day track work is incredibly time-consuming, disruptive to passengers, and doesn’t provide much benefit. A mid-day maintenance window might be from 10am to 3pm (5 hours), which provides 2.5 hours of usable track time in the best case scenario. But if there are any issues in the morning and rush hour runs over past 10, the track work may wait, and that eats into the usable time.

What starts out as 2.5 hours of usable time could get whittled down to 1.5 or 1, or even less, on an especially bad day. While this work is going on, trains carrying passengers get to single-track around the area, waiting at least 10 minutes on either side of the stretch before going through.

Start track work earlier in the evenings

One option that helps provide more track time is to start track work “early outs” earlier in the evening at possibly 8pm, and end them later, possibly up to 6am. Current early outs usually start at 10pm and end by 5am. This provides 7 total hours of time for work, or around 4.5 usable hours of track time. The two-hour-early start provides two more hours of usable track time, which is valuable. Starting even earlier and ending later could provide up to 10 total hours, or 7 hours of track time, over double what crews would get with a typical overnight work session.

While early outs let track work start earlier, they require a delicate balance as well. If they start too early or end too late, they could severely impact peak rush periods and cause delays and rider frustration. More work could get done, but if done poorly could continue the ridership decline.

Longer shutdowns are an interesting possibility

Metro has never performed a shutdown longer than a weekend in recent history, but it seems Wiedefeld is headed in this direction. A shutdown from 9pm on a Friday to 5am the Monday a week later would provide about 200 track hours of usable time of 224 available, meaning 90 percent of the week is usable for track work. 200 hours of track time would be the equivalent to over 4 weekend shutdowns, 44 nights of work with 10pm early outs, or up to 80 regular overnight work sessions. Track work could be completed easily and quickly for both tracks in the work area.

At the same time, shutting down a station or two during the week is also hard. Buses and drivers would be needed to shuttle passengers around the shutdown area, more than Metro may have available. Replacing a rail car that can comfortably hold 120 passengers with 40-50-person buses means lots of road traffic, buses, and drivers. Extended shutdowns requires planning with jurisdictions to ensure alternate transportation for Metro riders goes as smoothly as possible.

This assumes the work is being done properly and coordinated well

Good use of track time means that workers are well-trained for what they need to do, equipment is available, and contractors are prompt and responsive. Audits have found that this is not always the case, and that new workers are liable to receive deficient training. At other times equipment has not been available or wasn’t brought to the work site, resulting in large amounts of time wasted while waiting for the necessary parts.

Similar to how some electrical crews are receiving specialized training to better handle heavy-duty power cables, perhaps some track and structures crews may require the same training to verify that work is being done properly or to help ensure training of others. Metro’s safety and track departments need to step up their quality control and assurance game, too: track work needs to be inspected by independent analysts who know exactly what they’re looking at. Independent workers need to be in the tunnels checking that inspections are being performed and equipment is being installed properly. Otherwise, performing the track work is a waste of Metro’s time and our money if the equipment has to be ripped out and replaced again.

Wiedefeld is releasing his track work strategy tomorrow, but as always, communication with customers again will be key to make this plan successful. Riders not only want to know what work is being done, but why the work needs to be done, what specifically is being done backed up with photos or video, and that the work is being done properly. Working with all interested parties, especially riders, is the only way the upcoming trackwork program can be successful while not alienating the very riders paying for a large portion of the agency’s budget.

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Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.