Image by Jim Havard used with permission.

Metro will keep its shorter late-night hours for at least another year, meaning trains will continue to run no later than 1 am on Fridays and Saturdays, 11:30 pm weekdays, and 11 pm on Sundays for the next fiscal year starting July. With this schedule, Metro continues to have the shortest hours of any similar rail system in the US.

On May 10, Metro staff made the case to the agency’s Board of Directors that the system should continue to close early to allow preventative maintenance trackwork to continue. A follow-up vote Thursday, March 24 approved the measure to extend these limited hours in hopes of making the system more proactive about preventing track issues.

Metro first reintroduced a preventative maintenance program back in July 2017, cutting rail service by eight hours per week so the system closes for 41 instead of 33. In exchange, the agency implemented six programs they said would help them deal with track issues before they became emergencies.

The programs are supposed to check for bad power cables, find where power escapes the track power system and causes fires, properly grind and maintain switches, torque track fasteners, keep the tracks level and in proper alignment with ballast tampening, and clean up the trackbed.

The Metro Board of Directors previously approved the program to run for two years, but required periodic updates to its status.

Nine months in, Metro says the program is mostly on track. Three of the six programs — cable meggering, stray current testing, and switch maintenance — are ahead of the agency’s two-year completion schedule at 103%, 124%, and 344% completion, respectively, while tamping is close at 94%.

Trackbed cleaning is behind schedule at 72%, which Metro attributed to the Red Line waterproofing pilot program taking priority over track time. Torqueing track fasteners is also behind schedule at 67% completion. Metro’s Laura Mason said the work was delayed because newly-purchased tools for the job didn’t work out as expected.

Fewer track defects and fires attributed to proactive trackwork

Metro staff hope to use the new preventative maintenance program to help move the agency towards doing proactive, routine work instead of requiring emergencies which create reactive spur-of-the-moment trackwork to fix issues.

Metro attributes some progress to the program. The agency says electrical fire incidents are down 3% since the same time last year — from 33 to 31 — while Fiscal Year 2017 had a total of 55 electrical fires. Metro's goal is to nearly halve fires by next year, for an estimated 28.

On the track side of things, the agency has recorded 243 track defects so far this year, down from 374 the same time last year. Fiscal Year 2017 had a total of 874 identified track defects. Metro hopes to also be able to reduce the number of defects by 50%, bringing total track defects down to an estimated 437 next year.

Fewer emergency track defects or fires means fewer disruptions to train service. For Metro, it also means that employees can do their work more routinely. Emergency track requests typically take precedence over scheduled routine trackwork so the more there are, the more disruptive they become.

Metro crews created 2,142 and 2,528 emergency track requests in the first nine months of Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017, respectively. Only 1,034 requests have been made so far in FY 2018, although more work is yet to come to bring that number even further down.

With shorter hours, Metro says conducting work is more efficient

Metro’s new, shorter, service hours began last summer in July 2017. The agency is now closed 41 hours of the week, up from only closing for 36 hours per week in 2016 though down from the 44 hours per week it stayed closed back in 1998.

Metro says the shorter hours were needed to allow workers to be more efficient and get more work done when they're out on the tracks. We previously covered how Metro's existing trackwork schedule caused workers to spend lots of time setting up and tearing down work zones, but accomplishing little actual work. Metro changed all that with SafeTrack when they began taking sections of track out of service for days or weeks at a time, meaning the percentage of time spent setting up and tearing down was minimal compared to how much time was spent actually doing work.

Shorter system hours this past year have allowed Metro workers to be more efficient, according to the agency. Board documents say that with the 24% increase in time that the system is closed, workers were able to accomplish 34% more work — or “work-wrench hours,” as the agency calls it. Workers were able to spend 113,085 hours being productive so far in this current fiscal year, but only 84,656 productive hours had been spent at this time in Fiscal Year 2016 before SafeTrack.

Work-wrench hours measure the “total time that a technician has tools-in-hand and is directly conducting work.” The metric doesn't measure the efficiency of the work or its quality. Metro did not provide work-wrench hour figures for FY 2017, during which rail service was severely impacted by SafeTrack.

Metro chalks the extra productivity up primarily to the shortened hours on on the weekends, where the system now closes earlier and opens later than it used to. Productive work increased 144% over Friday to Sunday, according to the agency, in FY 2018 as compared to FY 2016.

Here are the hours of service changes, FY 2016 to FY 2018, which will stay the same for FY 2019:

  • Monday to Thursday: Metrorail closes 11:30 pm instead of midnight
  • Friday and Saturday: Metrorail closes 1 am instead of 3 am
  • Sunday: Opens 8 am instead of 7 am, closes 11 pm instead of midnight

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.