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Metro safety plan: What riders need to know

WASHINGTON (AP) — Riders of the beleaguered Metrorail system will endure a year of rolling shutdowns and slowdowns in an effort to catch up on maintenance and improve safety and reliability.

Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, said Friday that his plan calls for squeezing three years’ worth of maintenance into one year.

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RIDER IMPACT

The rolling closures will begin in June and continue through May 2017, according to Wiedefeld’s plan, which Metro’s board of directors is expected to approve. For days or weeks at a time, sections of track will either be closed entirely or trains in both directions will be sharing a single track, leading to major delays.

For example, for two weeks in July, stations on either side of Reagan National Airport will close, forcing air travelers to take shuttle buses in addition to trains. Starting in September, Metro will single-track trains for 42 days between the Vienna and Dunn Loring stations in northern Virginia, resulting in extremely crowded trains departing from one of the system’s busiest stations.

While many of the shutdowns will occur at suburban stations in Virginia and Maryland, the effects of the track work will reverberate throughout the system. For example, Metro says 94,000 weekday trips will be affected by seven days of single-tracking in August between the Takoma station in Washington and the Silver Spring station in Maryland.

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WHY IT’S NEEDED

The past 16 months have been among the worst in Metro’s 40-year history, starting with the January 2015 electrical fire that led to the death of a passenger from respiratory failure due to smoke. Dozens of passengers were sickened as they waited more than 30 minutes in a choking atmosphere before firefighters arrived.

While there have been no further fatalities or injuries, Metro has endured a series of track fires since then because of power cables that were either damaged, poorly installed or missing components. After a fire in March that was similar to the one last year, Wiedefeld made the unprecedented decision to shut down the entire system for a day for emergency inspections and repairs.

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NO MORE LATE NIGHTS

Beginning in June, Metro will also stop offering late-night service on Fridays and Saturdays, when the system closes two hours later.  Instead, the system will close at midnight seven days a week.

Wiedefeld said late-night ridership has dropped considerably, making the decision easier. Five years ago, Metro transported about 5,000 riders per hour during the late night service. Today, that figure is about 2,500 riders per hour.

Unreliable service and safety concerns in the last year have decreased overall ridership.

Metro will also begin to wind down evening service immediately after rush hour, single-tracking starting at 8 p.m. every night, instead of waiting until 10 p.m.

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RIDERSHIP

Metro is the nation’s second-busiest transit network, with more than 700,000 daily trips, but ridership has dipped in recent years as reliability has suffered. Wiedefeld said he expects ridership to decrease further over the next year, but he believes riders will return.

“They want the system back to where it is reliable and they want to be safe, and I think that will drive the numbers,” Wiedefeld said.

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NO BREAK ON FARES

Wiedefeld said fares will not be reduced during the maintenance blitz.  When portions of track are closed, shuttle buses will be provided, and while trains will be less frequent and more crowded during single-tracking, the system will continue running.

“We’re maintaining transit in the entire system,” Wiedefeld said.

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TOURISM

Spring and fall are the city’s busiest times of year for tourism and conventions, and people visiting the city will be impacted by the Metro maintenance. Elliott Ferguson, the president of Destination DC, the city’s tourism bureau, said the good news is that his organization has time to share information with visitors about what to expect.

“It will be disruptive, but it’s not something that will make it impossible for visitors to still enjoy the city,” Ferguson said.

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OBAMA WEIGHS IN

President Barack Obama said Friday that the deteriorating state of Metro “is just one more example of the under-investments that have been made” in the nation’s infrastructure.

Obama said during a White House news conference that investing in infrastructure “is not and should not be partisan.” He says it’s an issue this year’s presidential candidates should address.

He says there are bridges, roads, airports and pipes around the country that are being neglected, and the problem is fixable.

“The Republican Congress has been resistant to really taking on this problem in a serious way,” Obama said. “The reason is because of an ideology that says government spending is necessarily bad.”

However, Republicans said during a hearing last month that Metro’s problems can be traced to poor management rather than a lack of funding. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, told Metro officials that they should not expect a bailout.

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