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Metro’s Red Line is leaking

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Published on: Thursday, August 29, 2013

By Holden Wilen

Metro users are concerned about potential closures after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) announced it will perform an engineering study on how to fix a water leakage problem in the tunnels of a three-mile stretch on the Red Line.

Metro Deputy General Manager Rob Troup said there is “significant” water infiltration in the tunnels between the Medical Center and Friendship Heights stations because of the geology, but he assured metro riders it is not a safety issue.  

“We are advancing the engineering work to determine the best course of action,” Troup said. “Once the engineering work is finalized, we will be able to tell you more about future plans to improve Red Line reliability.”

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the water issues are nothing new in the tunnels, which are 150 feet below the surface. The tunnels opened up in the early 1980s and go in part beneath Rock Creek, but were built without a protective membrane. Newer stations such as Wheaton and Glenmont were built with membranes.

The water creates three main problems, Stessel said: it causes corrosion on the rails which leads to more frequent replacement; it causes insulators on the electric third rail to give off sparks or smoke which can lead to delays; and it causes a “muddy build-up” in switches which requires more frequent cleaning.

“This is a reliability issue because you never know when we will have a service disruption as the result of an arcing insulator. It is also a maintainability issue,” Stessel said. “In the long term we are in the process of rebuilding metro and we are going to spend $1 billion this year rebuilding the system. Every minute that we spend fighting a maintenance battle takes away resources from other things we want to be doing.”

Repairs are still more than a year or two away because WMATA’s engineering study will take another four to five months, Stessel said, and then the agency will consult with experts from around the world. Talk of a shutdown is premature, he said, though closures will likely be necessary when repairs do take place.

“We have not made any decisions about how we would go about doing this work, whether service would be disrupted and if so, how,” Stessel said. “We are a service delivery business. The last thing we want to do is disrupt customers.”

County Councilman Roger Berliner, who also chairs the council’s transportation, infrastructure, energy and environment committee, said he has spoken to WMATA officials, and that a closure of the Red Line would be detrimental for county residents.

“After consulting with WMATA Acting General Manager Richard Sarles, I am satisfied that WMATA will explore all options in seeking to address the problem of water infiltration on the Red Line,” Berliner said. “Importantly, WMATA also is committed to working with our county and all affected stakeholders before reaching a final decision.”

Stessel said the reason why WMATA is looking now to fix the tunnels is that the agency is upgrading its aging infrastructure.

“We are investing $5 billion over 6 years. We have the technical expertise ramped up and ready to go,” Stessel said. “We have engineers on staff and engineers on contract. We have the forces mobilized to do it. We have the resources. The leadership of metro is looking for long-term solutions to improve reliability.”

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