A rider enters a Metro train in the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Metropolitan area residents and leaders voiced their support of a draft plan to improve Metrorail’s safety and reliability even though adjustments to the system will mean closing some stations for weeks at a time and others early.
Paul Wiedefeld, general manager and CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) held a press conference on May 6 to announce his “SafeTrack” draft plan. The plan includes substantial changes in the way the Metrorail system will operate because of an aging infrastructure and malfunctioning equipment and parts. He said expanded track work will take place starting in June to improve Metrorail safety.
“The plan is going to take some sacrifice from all of us,” he said. “But it is clear that the current approach is not working, more aggressive action is necessary.” A final version of the plan is scheduled to be released to riders on May 16, according to a press release.
Since his selection as general manager of the system, the second busiest transit and bus system in the nation, on Nov. 30, 2015, Wiedefeld has made upgrading the rail system a priority and has taken bold steps to insure customer safety. During the blizzard earlier this year, Wiedefeld shutdown the entire system from 10 p.m. on Jan. 22 to limited service on Jan. 25, which was an unprecedented move by a general manager.
The plan includes 15 so-called “safety-surges,” which will shut down parts of the system for weeks at a time, over the next year that work on repairing equipment and updating the technology of the rail system. Also, Wiedefeld said, beginning on June 3, the rail system will close at midnight each night instead of being open till 3 a.m. on weekends.
Additionally, there will be weekday work on rail lines that will start as early as 8 p.m. in many cases. Wiedefeld said there is a draft comprehensive schedule of track work starting in June where some stations could be closed for weeks.
For example, the Blue/Silver and Orange line rail lines from Eastern Market station to Minnesota Ave./Benning Road will have reduced service from Aug. 20 to Sept. 16, 2016, with Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue stations shutdown during that time. These lines have a large number of Black customers because the trains are traveling to predominantly Black areas that are east of the Anacostia River and central Prince George’s County communities.
Buses will be available to riders who need the Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue stations, as with the other “safety-surge” areas. The draft plan urges customers to use alternate transportation means to travel to avoid delays in their personal schedules.
“Metro’s safety culture change depends on support from the entire region,” he said. “We have to begin by understanding that safety trumps inconvenience.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III is behind Wiedefeld’s plan. “Over the past several months it has become clear to leaders around this region that we must invest and fix our Metro system and we must do it now,” Baker said. “I welcome the announcement from Metro of their new SafeTrack Plan as a potential path forward to complete three years’ worth of maintenance, repair, and upkeep within the next 12 months.”
Paul Brathwaite, a Bowie, Maryland resident, who sometimes uses Metrorail to get to his job in downtown Washington, said that Wiedefeld is doing the right thing. “Safety is the first, second and third priority of the Metro system,” Brathwaite told the AFRO. “So many people don’t have confidence in the system but this is the first steps to enhancing safety.”
However, even though the local response to Wiedefeld’s plan gained acclamations, federal officials are not pleased by the metro system’s performance in regards to safety.
The AP reported that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said May 10 that he is considering an entire shutdown of the Washington Metro subway system if local officials do not follow a safety directive by the DOT.
Foxx told the AP that Wiedefeld’s plan “ambitious” and said it did not address the root cause of the problem. “We have the ability to withhold (federal) funds from Metro. We have the ability to shut Metro down, and we’re not afraid to use it,” Foxx said.