April 2010

Snowstorms halt D.C. transit services

by METRO Staff

Courtesy WMATA

February's back-to-back snowstorms forced the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) to stop running above-ground trains, take buses off the road and put a halt to paratransit service, said Steven Taubenkibel, public affairs specialist.

The agency saw a dramatic drop in ridership during the storms, the aftermath of which cost Metro $18 million.

The agency plans to submit costs to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for potential reimbursement, according to a Feb. 18 news release. Of the total cost to the agency, $8 million went to snow removal and $9.7 million accounts for lost revenue.

"Our budget was about $2.5 million for this fiscal year so we are definitely over our budget," Taubenkibel said. "But when you get snowstorms like this, the dollar amount is not an issue - it's got to get cleaned up."

Based on past experience, Metro discontinues above-ground rail service anytime the area sees eight inches or more of snowfall. The last major snowstorm to hit D.C. took place on President's Day weekend in 2003, Taubenkibel said. "We had trains that were getting stuck with hundreds of people and we had to do rescues," he recalled.

When snow covers the third rail, trains develop propulsion problems and stall, Taubenkibel explained. After that storm, "It took us almost an entire week to complete all the electrical repairs that we had to make due to snow ingestion in the engines," he said.

This February, the agency stored above-ground rail equipment underground, limiting service to one of the two tracks. The first storm arrived on Feb. 5. When the storms had passed, return to above-ground train and bus service was hindered by snow that remained on roads and train tracks.

"We were still operating on snow emergency routes; there were mounds of snow piled up at curbs. Many of our buses could not make either left or right turns," Taubenkibel said. Parked cars blocking side streets also limited bus service for several days.

Metro relies on local jurisdictions to clear sidewalks and bus stops. Safe operation of bus service was also hindered by the possibility of bus passengers waiting in the street if stops were inaccessible. "We had daily conference calls with our regional transit partners to get an idea of what the road conditions were," Taubenkibel said.

The agency's curb-to-curb paratransit service was also put on hold until roads could be cleared. In cases of paratransit subscription clients who had medical appointments, Metro worked with regional partners to provide transportation. "I know in one case, we had a vehicle that was stuck," Taubenkibel said. "Even a couple of attempts by private contractor tow trucks could not move the vehicle, and that was one example of a driver trying to get to a customer. The vehicle sat there for probably three days."

Crews worked for two weeks with no days off to plow above-ground tracks, remove snow from parking garages and clear rail yards and bus garages, Taubenkibel reported. "There was really no place to put the snow, so we had contractors helping us with 4 x 4 trucks," he said.

It was also imperative to get rail yards cleared in order to resume maintenance. "The equipment we had stored held up very well in the tunnels, but at some point [cars] were beginning to break down," Taubenkibel said. "If it required jacking up a railcar, you really can't do that in a tunnel."

With frequent plowing and de-icing treatments, the first segments of above-ground train track reopened Feb. 11.

A born and raised Washingtonian, Taubenkibel says he has never seen two storms of this magnitude hit the city one after the other like this year's did. "You certainly heard a lot of people in this town that were not pleased with snow removal, not pleased with the type of service that we were providing," he said. "The storms shut down the federal government for four days, and pretty much shut down all of our services. I think in the future, there's a lot that we can learn from this in terms of personnel needed or equipment needed and also just general patience when it happens."


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