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Years of Track Work Ahead for Metro

Weekend repairs part of NTSB recommendations from 2009 collision.

As trains roared in and out of the Shady Grove station Friday, hoards of people hopped on trains just as fast as the rail cars emptied out. Ernesto Mendoza came up the escalator and walked to the first open door he saw on a train heading downtown. 

He relies on the Red Line to get to and from his job at a Washington restaurant. With track work preventing full train service, Mendoza, 38, said he has to leave his Gaithersburg home at least 45 minutes earlier in weekends to make sure he arrives at work on time.

“I don’t mind it too much especially now that the weather is changing,” Mendoza said. “I just wish they would hurry and finish the track work.”

The weekend track work will jumble commutes around Washington at least through 2017.

Each weekend along one or more of the lines, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority will be making repairs to tracks, especially along Metro’s busiest stretches along the Red and Orange lines.

Metro spokeswoman Caroline Lukas said for years prior to the tragic train crash in June of 2009 the transit company lacked in making track repairs.

“The primary cause of the track work is to increase overall safety,” Lukas said. “We’re doing a lot of catch up now.”

Almost a year into the $5 billion Metro Forward project, the intense track work will ease over time, said Dan Stessel, another spokesman for Metro. He said funding for the project is coming from the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA). The law provides $150 million a year and Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland contribute $50 million each. The funding is separate from the operation budget, which is funded by passenger fares, Stessel said.

Stessel said he is aware of the complaints received by Metro from passengers but he’s also aware of the compliments for the work that will make the aging rail system safer. He said Metro offers free shuttle buses for passengers to help them connect with other trains as they venture around areas track work is being done in.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended a lot of track repairs be made after the tragic train crash that killed eight passengers and an operator on the Red Line when two trains collided. In July 2010, NTSB found the accident was a failure of the track circuit modules that caused the automatic train control system to lose detection of one train, allowing a second train to strike it from the rear, according to a release from the safety organization. The NTSB also cited Metro for its failure to ensure that a verification test developed after a 2005 incident near Rosslyn station was used system wide. This test would have identified the faulty track circuit before the accident, according to the release.

“From a customer perspective, all they see is they have to wait an extra 15-minutes they have to wait,” Stessel said.

Jennifer Parsons said she doesn’t mind the track work on weekends if it will make her weekday commute from West Falls Church, in Virginia, to Metro Center during the week. The Red Line averages more than 270,000 passengers a day during the week making it the busiest line in the system. The Orange Line, which Parsons, of Falls Church, takes daily, averages more than 180,000 passengers’ daily, the second busiest line.

“I’d rule on the side of safety all the time,” Parsons said. “I have a family to live for and if Metro says I have to wait longer for a train on the weekend if I want to go into the city, so be it. Better to be safe than sorry.”

For more information on Metro’s weekend track work, click here.

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