Train moving momentarily? This may be why

WASHINGTON — “We’ll be moving momentarily, train ahead of us.”

When Metro riders hear that dreaded announcement, and there has not been a train breakdown or track problem, there is often a common root cause: overwhelmed and overworked Rail Operations Control Center workers.  For the last eight years, these employees have had to do all of the juggling that, for the first 33 years of the Metro system, was entirely handled by computer systems.

Metro has identified an immediate need to add 66 percent more staff to the control center.

For decades, Metro’s computer systems ensured trains were properly spaced and moved smoothly on their own. Meanwhile, train operators confirmed that the train was operating properly, made station announcements and operated the doors. That system was shut down after a failure contributed to the deadly 2009 Red Line crash near Fort Totten and was only briefly returned to service on part of the system a few years ago.

Documents prepared for the Metro Board’s meeting this week acknowledge that there are no plans to return to the smoother automatic train operation system any time soon. In fact, as part of the response to a series of federal safety recommendations and directives, Metro said it needs to hire 33 more people to split responsibilities in the control center, to give controllers the opportunities to take breaks and to reduce distractions.

The chaotic scene in the control center was well documented during the deadly 2015 smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza. Metro is planning to split testing of tunnel fans to a maintenance operations control desk. It is considering adding noise reducing materials to the room. It is also considering adding a separate area where supervisors could discuss how to handle situations, such as emergencies or service disruptions.

There are still concerns from Metro staff about a lack of experience in the control center.

“Retirement waves over the past decade have resulted in the loss of experienced and seasoned staff, with 45 percent of controllers now having less than three years of service. Metro has had difficulty in attracting and retaining ROCC employees due to the stressful and demanding work environment and compensation equity and other issues,” board documents said.

Metro is reviewing salaries for the controllers and has two 25-week training classes underway. When the classes and other new hires are complete, Metro plans to open a fourth operations desk that will spread the workload for controllers and cut down on radio traffic on other channels.

In the meantime, Metro has hired contractors to take care of administrative and data entry responsibilities in the control center.

  • Q: What is the Silver Line extension?
  • It’s an 11.5-mile, six-station stretch of track added on to the Silver Line (which marks the first time Metro will head into Loudoun County, and it will bring rail riders to Dulles International Airport for the first time.)

  • Q: What are the new stations?
  • As of Monday, the Silver Line ends at Wiehle-Reston East. Starting Tuesday, it extends to Reston Town Center, Herndon, Innovation Center, Washington Dulles International Airport, Loudoun Gateway and Ashburn.

    In a burst of optimism, Metro released the new map last month.

  • Q: So you can take the Metro to Dulles now?
  • It’s true! Metro estimates it’ll take about 53 minutes to get there from Metro Center, 62 minutes from Reagan National Airport. There’s an underground walkway between baggage claim and the station, and it’s about a five-minute walk, Metro said.

    In fact, you’ll be losing some of the other options for getting to Dulles: The Silver Line Express Bus service, run by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority between Dulles and the Wiehle-Reston East station, is ending Nov. 16, and the Fairfax County Connector routes 980 and 981, which both went to the airport, are shutting down Nov. 16.

    That said, Jack Potter, the president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said the extension is a big deal for the airport, and in turn for travelers: Easy access to downtown will attract new airlines to Dulles, he said. “This has been a vision for Dulles Airport for 70 years,” Potter said.

  • Q: So when does the first train leave?
  • The first eastbound train leaves Ashburn for Largo, Maryland, just before 2 p.m. Tuesday. There are a couple of ceremonial westbound trips, but the first full-on trip to Ashburn shoves off from Largo at 12:51 p.m.

  • Q: How much did this all cost?
  • A cool $3 billion. It’s about $250 million over budget, which Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chair Jeff McKay was not thrilled about when it was announced this summer. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors kicked in $40.25 million this month, after the opening date was announced.

  • Q: And how long has this been in the works?
  • Hoo boy.

    The first projection was that this second phase of the Silver Line would be running in 2018. That’s been adjusted multiple times over the years: Storm water problems, concrete problems, locusts (OK maybe not locusts). They’ve dealt with some stuff is what I’m saying.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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