Image by Beau Finley used with permission.

Metro announced on Monday, May 7 that the agency will shut down the Blue and Yelllow Lines south of National Airport in summer of 2019. This will be the first of several shutdowns to rebuild the platforms at 20 stations over the next three years.

The agency’s plan released Monday is ambitious. Broken into four phases, WMATA plans to rebuild up to three station platforms at once, for a total of 20 stations. The first shutdown south of National Airport station is expected to be 98 days in length, likely the longest-ever extended shutdown of a Metro station since it opened.

During the summer 2019 shutdown, three station platforms will be rebuilt: Braddock Road, King Street, and Eisenhower Avenue. While those are closed, Metro plans to perform a number of unrelated tasks, including finally repairing the Huntington crossover (which was removed from the list of tasks to be done during SafeTrack), installing a new track crossover north of King Street station, upgrading power equipment, and repairing a Blue Line bridge.

Van Dorn Street station will be rebuilt one side at a time during September, Franconia’s platforms between October and December, and National Airport and Huntington station platforms between January and May 2020.

Phases 2-4

Metro released fewer details about the later three phases of the project. The agency hasn’t decided yet how the work will be done, whether with single-tracking, shutdowns, or another option.

Upcoming affected stations include West Hyattsville, College Park, Greenbelt, Rhode Island Avenue, then Vienna, Dunn Loring, West Falls Church and East Falls Church during Phase 3. The final phase of the project will include Cheverly, Landover, New Carrollton, Addison Road, and Arlington Cemetery.

The work is expected to wrap up by the end of September 2021, when Arlington Cemetery’s platforms are redone.

Metro says its platforms are “structurally deficient”

Greater Greater Washington previewed the Phase 1 work back in April, and previously noted that the agency was looking to shift its rebuilding efforts to platforms, with SafeTrack wrapped up.

Photos of the station platforms included in Monday’s announcements easily show why many of them need to be rebuilt: the platforms are being supported by ‘temporary’ supports, as they can’t hold their own weight.

Metro has determined that the platforms are “structurally deficient” and require ongoing temporary near-term repairs to keep them open for passengers. The agency blames “decades of exposure to weather and de-icing agents” as two reasons why the platforms are in the shape they’re in now.

The region needs better alternative transportation

Metro’s plan calls for a 98-day closure of all Virginia stations below National Airport next summer. Metro presumably will offer shuttle buses to replicate the shuttered rail service, but past experience has shown that buses only without bus lanes, signal priority, or very streamlined routes, will end up bunching and provide sub-par transportation service to passengers needing them.

With a year to plan, Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria have a chance to evaluate and determine what kinds of changes they can make to ensure alternate transportation options are good ones for passengers.

Virginia Railway Express saw a ridership bump during SafeTrack, but the agency is near its capacity with the number of trains that it runs. It might be possible to increase the number of trains VRE runs during rush hours, though that would be primarily dependent on cooperation with the rail company CSX who owns most of the tracks VRE runs on.

Additional options the region has at its disposal are bus and driving changes. Metro should consider extra Metroway buses and extra buses on the 10 line, and extending service where possible. For example, Route 1's REX bus line could extend up the Metroway busway to Crystal City. Perhaps even making some roads HOV might be an option, in addition to enabling satellite parking.

REX bus. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Why now?

The fact that Metro is now expecting to receive an additional $500 million in dedicated capital funding each year is certainly part of the equation for why this project was announced now. Metro says they’re expecting to spend between $300 and $400 million to replace these 20 platforms.

The agency would say that, now with the additional funding, they’re able to devote resources to working down the system’s backlog of work. Being able to depend on funding years into the future now means that Metro can reliably budget multi-year projects with the assumption that money for them will be there.

But some of the platforms themselves are on their last legs. Metro has propped them up for years with temporary supports and performed minor patches, but hasn’t closed these 20 for extended periods of platform work. The agency hopes the relatively quick nature of the project — shutting down a station for no more than 98 days — is the lesser of two evils as compared to having work extend out months into the future if they were to single-track or perform nights-only platform work.

It’s unknown if or when riders will return

Metro finished up SafeTrack in June 2017 and subsequently kicked off their “Back 2 Good” campaign to try and invite riders back to the rail system. Riders endured weeks of ongoing trackwork which at times closed multiple stations during SafeTrack, and the new program highlighting Metro’s improvements was to help stem the ridership declines that they’d seen recently.

On the bright side, Metro data does show improvements are happening. The agency says that train offloads are down from 1298 to date in Fiscal Year 2016 to 599 to date in FY 2018, and that railcars are becoming more reliable, now traveling 86,000 miles between issues causing a delay.

Metro has a long way to go before it can eliminate the $15.5 billion backlog of track and structure work says it has, and riders will feel a lot of that pain. Metro Board Chair Jack Evans is fond of using a Churchill saying that the end of SafeTrack, the first big program kicked off by General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, was “the end of the beginning” of getting Metro from out of the reliability hole it’s been in.

The question that Metro will need to figure out is how to get riders to return to the system and stay, while they go about performing the trackwork they say is necessary. With other alternative commuting options becoming more prevalent, the agency will have to do as much as they can to communicate and set expectations with riders and provide better service to keep them — and their money — around.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

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.