A Metrorail train to Shady Grove departs Metro Center. Image by the author.

Red, Orange, Silver, and Blue Line riders might have longer commutes beginning this week. There’s a new, 35 mile per hour speed restriction in place between Medical Center and Union Station, and between Rosslyn and the Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road stations as of Sunday the 13th. Speeds may not return to normal again for a year.

According to preliminary data from MetroHero, the stations most impacted by the restriction appear to be between Medical Center and Dupont Circle. The stations closer in on the Red and Orange/Silver/Blue already mainly see train speeds below 35 mph due to their close spacing.

A speed reduction up to nearly 20% compared to the prior restriction on almost half the Red Line and a large portion of the Orange/Silver/Blue lines is very likely to slow down thousands of commutes, and throw Metro’s new schedules out the door. After trains started running less frequently on June 25th, operators have been instructed to run based on their schedule, and not on how far or close they are from the train ahead of them. This restriction may either cause operators to rush and keep their doors open less while actually in stations, or force Metro to “slow down” its schedules to allow train operators to keep up with where they’re supposed to be and when.

This isn’t the first time Metro has reduced train speeds. Last May, Metro implemented a 45 mph speed restriction on the Red Line between Grosvenor and Dupont Circle and on the Orange/Silver/Blue lines in response to an FTA safety directive requiring the transit agency “take immediate action to reduce the risk of smoke and fire events.”

A Metro spokesperson told me that the “minor adjustment to the speed restriction was implemented as part of the temporary order to reduce power draw. The change is expected to have minimal impact on service reliability, as most trains do not reach maximum speed through the downtown core.”

The new restriction is not part of additional request or requirement from the Federal Transit Administration, the agency which oversees Metrorail safety.

The timing of the additional speed restriction comes a month and a half after Metro cut peak rail service on most lines from 6 down to 8 minutes, reducing the total number of trains and rail cars needed system-wide. The agency is also actively upgrading traction power substations and equipment in order to facilitate running the entire system with 8-trains.

WMATA Temporary Order T-17-09 restricts trains to a maximum speed of 35 mph between Medical Center to Union Station and Rosslyn to Minnesota Ave/Benning Rd stations affecting the Metrorail Red, Orange, Silver, and Blue lines. Image used with permission.

There isn’t a great way for Metro to limit trains to speeds below 45 mph on a certain section of track, due to how he system that safely separates trains works, and the fact Metro trains are currently being manually driven. Some operators not actively paying attention to the limit have likely been able to exceed it, and have “sped” down the track at their formerly-normal speeds. However, restricting trains to below 35 mph is doable through the use of “medium” speed couplers, which force trains to stay below those speeds and can cause a penalty brake on the train to apply if they continue speeding.

In the meantime, you may need to leave a little bit earlier and add some additional time to your Metrorail trip until this restriction is lifted, which could be August 13th, 2018 at the earliest.


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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.