The plan is finally here. Metro is launching a plan it calls “SafeTrack” to replace significant portions of the system’s rails, fix numerous safety problems, and bring the system closer to a state of good repair. Riders will face weeks-long periods of single-tracking and station shutdowns for the next year.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The Metro system is 40 years old and needs massive repairs. Today, trains run in service 135 to 168 hours each week, leaving little time for comprehensive maintenance. The SafeTrack plan will squeeze in work which would otherwise take three years to do at current rates, including clearing some urgent NTSB safety recommendations by the end of this month and others by the end of summer.

When the actual shutdowns will happen

There will be 15 work “surges.” Some involve shutting segments of the system down entirely for a week or two. Others involve continuous single-tracking for multiple weeks (as much as 44 days), which means single-tracking even during rush hours.

When Where Color(s) What
June 4-19 Franconia to Van Dorn Blue Single-tracking
June 20-July 3 Greenbelt to College Park Green Single-tracking
July 5 @ 10 pm - July 12 Nat’l Airport to Braddock Road Blue/Yellow Full shutdown
July 12-19 Nat’l Airport to Pentagon City Blue/Yellow Full shutdown
July 20-31 Greenbelt to College Park Green Single-tracking
August 1-8 Takoma to Silver Spring Red Single-tracking
August 9-19 Shady Grove to Twinbrook Red Single-tracking
Aug. 20-Sept. 6 Eastern Market to Minnesota Ave/Benning Rd Yl/Or/Bl Full shutdown
Sept. 9-Oct. 21 Vienna to West Falls Church Orange Single-tracking
Oct. 9-Nov. 2 NoMa to Fort Totten Red Full shutdown
November 2-12 W. Falls Ch. to E. Falls Ch. Orange Single-tracking
Nov. 12-Dec. 5 East Falls Church to Ballston Orange/Silver Single-tracking
December 6-24 Pentagon to Rosslyn Blue Full shutdown
Jan. 2-March 7 Friendship Heights to Medical Center Red Single-tracking after 8 pm
March 6-14 W. Falls Ch. to E. Falls Ch. Orange Single-tracking
April 16-May 8 Braddock Road to Huntington/Van Dorn St. Blue/Yellow Single-tracking

These “surges” will affect riders beyond these zones. Outside the single-tracking or shutdown areas, the capacity of each line will still be reduced, so there will be fewer trains on any lines that run across that segment. You can see a detailed list of affected sections in the full presentation.

The “surges” also aren’t the only piece. Metro will shut down at midnight instead of 3 am on weekends, and will do more work at nights. Right now, when a segment is shut down for a night, that starts at 10 pm or midnight; now, it will start at 8 pm, like on the Friendship Heights to Medical Center segment in early 2017.

Metro will stop doing maintenance during July 4, the Presidential inauguration in January, and next year’s cherry blossom season, but nothing else. Even if there’s a street festival or other special event in an area scheduled for maintenance, Metro will stick to its maintenance schedule.

Photo by Hannah Rosen on Flickr.

Why such long windows?

Shutting down a piece of track for weeks is the only way to do some maintenance that WMATA has never done since it opened. Metro will completely replace rails, ballast, and the substructure which the rails lay on top of.

A significant number of the wooden rail ties in the system are original from when the system opened. Some have been replaced here and there as they deteriorated too much, but the new program means the agency will be able to replace large numbers of the ties as well as fasteners, rail, and other track equipment.

WMATA prime mover. Image from WMATA.

The only way to fully rebuild a section of rail is to keep trains off it for a long time, which is why single-tracking would have to last for weeks.

Other maintenance will address NTSB findings that the “boots” on the power-supplying third rail aren’t always properly fastened and that watertight seals need replacing.

How people can get around in the meantime

Metro plans to have a dedicated fleet of up to around 40-50 buses once the track work starts, in order to help move passengers around closure and single-tracking areas, to minimize impact on surrounding roads. Even still, passengers will certainly see delays.

Dedicated traffic control officers, dedicated bus lanes, and other changes to the traffic pattern could help keep the buses moving. Those are up to the state, county, and city departments of transportation. Metro will depend on jurisdictions to step up, said Barbara Richardson, Metro’s chief of external relations, “because we need to think creative and differently about how to move people throughout the region.”

What Wiedefeld announced today is just the draft plan. He’s releasing it to the board, the local DOTs, and the public for input. He’ll finalize it next week, and maintenance will start in June.

Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

In the long run

After the year, the system will be in better shape, but that doesn’t mean no more shutdowns, said WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel. Riders got used to having no single-tracking and no shutdowns when it was brand new, but that’s because the necessary maintenance wasn’t being done.

What exactly the maintenance plan will look like beyond a year isn’t certain, said Stessel, but riders shouldn’t expect no shutdowns at all.

Addendum: Answers to a few of your questions

We’ll try to post more information as we get it to various questions.

Several people asked why these shutdowns are mostly on above-ground segments. According to Stessel, they will indeed be doing considerable maintenance in the tunnels, but those are mostly tasks that can be done during weekend shutdowns and overnights.

The jobs that can’t be done in a night or a weekend are the much bigger jobs such as the rail tie replacements. To fully tear down and rebuild a section of track is a bigger job. And rail ties are only in above-ground sections because the tunnels don’t have ties; instead, the rails are attached directly to the concrete.

Rail ties are important to keep rails off the ground for drainage reasons, and (except in the part of the western Red Line in Maryland where there have been water problems) there shouldn’t be water in the tunnels.

Riders on underground sections aren’t spared pain in this plan; their lines will be running low levels of service when nearby sections are single-tracking or shut down.


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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.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.