Metro hopes to avoid weekday shutdowns for tunnel repairs

WASHINGTON – With more than 40,000 riders per month, the stretch between Dupont Circle and the Medical Center stations is one of the busiest links in the Metro system.

The possibility of shutting down the Friendship Heights and Medical Center stations for weeks, including during weekday rush hours, for waterproofing and tunnel repairs would have a serious impact on riders.

But Metro spokesman Dan Stessel says a decision to close Red Line stations during weekdays is a last resort.

“Impacting weekday service is always a last resort option. And that’s the way we would approach this. We won’t know if that’s even necessary until the engineering work is done. But absolutely it’s a safe statement to say that impact weekday is the last thing we would want to do,” he says.

An engineering report is currently being conducted and should be complete within four to five months. Then the American Public Transportation Association will conduct an independent review before a decision is made about how to fix the water leaks. Such a decision would not likely come until at least spring 2014.

When the tunnels were built along this stretch of the Red Line, lining the tunnel with waterproof wrapping was not standard engineering practice. Every few weeks Metro has to physically go into this section of tunnel and manually pump water out from the tracks, switches and other pieces of sensitive equipment. Despite all of that pumping, problems frequently occur.

“Between Friendship Heights and Medical Center, which is 3 miles, we have 40 percent of our arcing insulators. It’s a 106-mile system, but 40 percent of the problems are happening there and it’s happening because of water,” Stessel says.

Insulators are part of the support system on the third rail. An arcing insulator occurs when electricity on the third rail jumps, giving off sparks or smoke. When that happens, Metro shuts down the rail and single-tracks through the area while inspecting the track. Firefighters are often called in to make sure the smoke doesn’t lead to a fire.

During rush hours, arcing insulators can make for a messy commute home. A Jan. 30 incident in the tunnel between the Navy Yard and Anacostia stations began with an arcing insulator.

“We’re going to look for ways to minimize any potential inconvenience as possible. That has to do with advanced preparation, that means doing whatever we can on nights and weekends,” says Stessel.

Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner told the Washington Post he was upset about learning of the potential shutdown from a story on NBC4.

But Stessel says stakeholders in Montgomery County and D.C. plus businesses and employment centers will be consulted long before any final decision is made.

The National Institutes of Health and the new Walter Reed at the Bethesda Medical Center are two huge employers located a short walk from the Medical Center station. Both organizations have been promoting mass transit options like Metro to its employees for years to avoid gridlock along Maryland Route 355, Connecticut Avenue and Jones Bridge Road, along with the parking shortage brought on by BRAC.

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