It's been nearly two years since Metro started driving its trains manually, a safety step after the deadly Fort Totten train crash. But those herky jerky rides will continue for "several years," according to the agency's deputy general manager.
Dave Kubicek told The Washington Examiner that manual operations will continue for a number of years because the agency still needs to swap out "well over half" of the safety modules of the type that faltered in the 2009 train crash.
The only way to speed up the work, and thus resume automatic service sooner, would be for Metro's work crews to get more access the tracks, he said.
That either means more shutdowns like those that occurred this past Memorial Day weekend at four Orange/Blue Line stations or fewer hours of service, an unpleasant trade-off for riders.
The prolonged period of manual operations comes even as the transit agency says it can now test for the failures that led to the deadly accident of June 22, 2009, that prompted Metro to drive trains in manual mode in the first place.
That day, one Red Line train running in automatic mode slammed into another near Fort Totten, killing nine people and injuring dozens more. The agency's safety system failed to stop the collision because of a problem with the track circuits.
Metro immediately started running its trains in manual mode, instead of the smoother automatic service it was designed to use. That has meant bumpier starts and stops as human error entered the picture.
The National Transportation Safety Board also issued an urgent recommendation for Metro to install a continuous testing system that would alert officials in real time as soon as the safety system faltered.
Kubicek told The Examiner the agency developed a tool at the end of 2010 that could find such failures. The agency never publicized it or showed it off to the NTSB.
"We don't view it as 100 percent official and complete," he said, adding there were plans to show it to the NTSB this summer.
Even so, Kubicek said the components of the safety system need to be replaced before automatic service can resume. The NTSB had called for Metro to remove all of the 1,482 circuits exhibiting problems. Kubicek said all the other track circuitry also needs to be replaced or retested.
Doing that takes time. Earlier this year, Kubicek had said the track workers would gain the equivalent of an extra 40 to 45 days of maintenance time over a year to repair tracks and stations if the system closed down at midnight instead of 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Metro's board had declined to cut the extra weekend train service this spring but said it might revisit the issue this summer.