Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

How do we know it's winter on the Metro? Cracked rail, delays

January 4, 2012 - 10:26 AM
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(Photo: flickr/takomabibelot)

This week has featured far chillier temperatures than usual so far in what has up till now been a rather mild winter. Our commutes are now in the 30s and 20s or even lower. Today's low is 18 degrees, terribly enough.

As I trudged to my nearby station and boarded the train, I found myself thinking, How can you tell it's winter on the Metro? The touch of this frigid metal Metro pole, still icily chill despite being far underground. 

But soon enough I discovered another bigger sign that it's winter — the recurring winter problem of a cracked rail, this time near the Pentagon Metro, which created delays on the Blue and Yellow lines as Metro single-tracked. I first heard the news a little before 9 a.m. as my utterly, uncomfortably packed Yellow line train toward Huntington waited just north of L'Enfant Plaza for a few minutes. Later I noticed that WMATA's communications team had been on Twitter at the time, attempting to reassure riders about the state of the single-tracking and the nature of the problem. "Trains unable to operate over it until fixed; crews won't be able to fix until after rush," WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel tweeted about two hours ago, adding that crews were already on their way. The Yellow Line is continuing to single-track for now but it looks like the delays should clear up before too long.

Pieces of rail always crack when temperatures drop. In January of 2005, Metro suffered two cracked rails in the same day in northern Virginia. "Track problems such as the two we experienced this morning actually do not happen all that frequently," then-Metro General Manager Richard White said at the time. "Problems with railcars and underground cable remain our two biggest problem areas. But when we do have these kinds of cracked rail problems, we know it inconveniences hundreds of our customers and for that, we’re sincerely sorry." It also happened last January. It happens just about every winter. And to be fair, this isn't just a WMATA problem. Consider this 2007 New York Times headline: "Cracked rail delays thousands on subway." It's a universal rail issue. The present Metro GM, Richard Sarles, expressed concern for the state of our aging rail — including explicitly such problems as cracked rail — according to May 2010 Examiner report. Our rails will hopefully receive more attention during the coming years' worth of WMATA repairs planned.

But don't think that these rail problems will disappear in warmer months. In winter we have cracked rails, but in summer, expect a little track-warping problem known as the heat kink. Welcome to 2012, D.C. commuters. We likely have many more rail issues to come.

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