Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Meet WMATA's 'prime mover,' the Metro Forward workhorse

March 15, 2012 - 08:20 AM
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Have you witnessed one of these titans rocket across the Metro tracks in the last few months? Take a peek at this video clip from earlier this March in which an enormous machine hurtles down the Gallery Place-Chinatown track and into the darkness of the Metro system.

That screech is a sound worth hearing:

When I first saw the clip, I wasn't quite sure how common it was for all this equipment to fly through the tunnels this way, riders still on the platform. I've never seen anything like this in my own riding experience.

Dan Stessel, chief spokesperson for WMATA, told me these are the "workhorses of our maintenance fleet. They haul supplies and equipment to work sites, lift materials with their cranes, provide lighting, and more." They also help clear snow on years that actually feature any. The vehicle, called a prime mover, is one of many responsible for moving around the materials necessary to rebuild our deteriorating 36-year-old transit system.

Not to mention it sounds like an absolute monster on the tracks. Imagine being the rider waiting at the edge of the platform and seeing this equipment fly through ... it's a rather unsettling sight.

One Metro rider uploaded the above video on Friday, March 9 and in the YouTube title dubbed the vehicle "the reason for my Metro delay tonight" with a question mark. Stessel, however, explained that prime movers traveling through the system wouldn't likely pose any delays, especially given the longer headways already happening on a weekend night.

Although I've never spotted one of the diesel-powered prime movers myself, Stessel told me it's common enough to see them near Metro Forward work zones late at night these days. A large reason is, according to Stessel, the "very narrow" windows that Metro has to move its crews into place as the service reductions kick in and the work begins. These windows are even more crunched on Friday and Saturday night when Metro is open till three in the morning. Hence it's all the more important to have the cranes and lights and everything else in place.

No surprise, in light of that information, to consider that the above video of the prime mover comes from a Friday night. It's hard to say where that prime mover was traveling to on March 9, but according to WMATA, track work on the Yellow Line was expected to begin at 10 p.m. Perhaps the prime mover moved to accommodate those crews? The diesel means they can move without power to the third rail, giving them even more flexibility late at night. These machines have been extra busy in the last half year, and Metro says we have real achievements to show for all the delays and closures. The track work includes, Metro recently announced, the following accomplishments: the installation of 10,432 rail fasteners, 10,785 cross ties, 5,491 insulators, 7.5 miles of running rail, 16 turnouts, and 1,375 linear feet of running rail. Not bad.

A look at WMATA's past procurements shows different types of prime movers, such as one slated to "be used as a work train to perform drain cleaning operations throughout WMATA’s Rail System" in 2009. There's also something called a "Flashbutt Welding Prime Mover," a rather ridiculous name. In spring of 2011, WMATA sought five "Super Prime Movers," which would need to be "capable of moving rolling stock of 120 tons GVW up a 5 % grade and 240 tons GVW down a 5 % grade, and shall be capable of pulling two (2) flat-cars of 40 tons GVW each over the entire transit system and maintain a minimum speed of 25 MPH when traveling on grades of 2 ½ %" and suitable for traveling along WMATA's rail tracks. I suspect these were procured in anticipation of all the Metro Forward track repair work that began in earnest later in 2011. The super prime movers are big enough to carry eight Metro employees and an operator. How much do these cost? One prime mover contract for some of the 2011 equipment, according to Railway Age, went for $6 million. Documents from recent years suggest Metro has little over two dozen of the vehicles overall, most over 15 years old. Metro social media manager Brian Anderson alluded to one that weighed upwards of 81,500 pounds last year.

Stessel pointed out that you can sometimes see the movers sitting around in WMATA's Metro Forward videos. Check out this raw footage clip from Oct. 8. Not all prime movers are innocent, however. One of these beasts killed two WMATA workers on Jan. 26, 2010 at 1:45 a.m. near the Rockville Metro.

Have you spotted these out on the rails? I'll grant WMATA this — "prime mover" is one crisp name for any vehicle.

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