Cold weather cracks 2 rails on Metro, causing delays

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  • Metrorail riders faced a hassle-filled commute Wednesday morning when problems hit four out of five lines on the second workday of the new year.

    Most of the problems were caused by two cracked rails. Though the fractures measured less than about 4 inches each, they caused major backups on the Yellow and Red lines, and led to delays for Green and Blue riders.

    The crack on the Yellow Line bridge was noticed at 6:30 a.m. but wasn't resolved until 10:20 a.m., Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. Crews replaced a 40-foot section of rail for a crack 3 to 4 inches long. But trains had to share a single track during the work, which delayed Blue and Green line trains, too.

    Track work slated for weekend
    Metro is planning to begin major track work again this weekend, after a brief holiday hiatus, albeit without any station shutdowns. Four of the five Metrorail lines will face delays starting at 10 p.m. Friday and running through Sunday:
    Red Line: Trains will share a single track in two spots, Dupont Circle to Friendship Heights and Takoma to Forest Glen. Riders should expect 30-minute waits between trains, but the transit agency plans extra trains from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. from Fort Totten to Farragut North.
    Green Line: Trains will share a single track in two spots, between Georgia Ave-Petworth and Fort Totten and between Naylor Road and Branch Ave.
    Blue/Orange lines: Trains will share a single track between Smithsonian and Eastern Market.

    Meanwhile, Metro officials found another crack about 7:30 a.m. on the Red Line near the Takoma station, which caused delays lasting until about 9 a.m., he said.

    A train also broke down on the Green Line at Prince George's Plaza at 8:30 a.m. It took about an hour to get the train cleared to a rail yard, Stessel said. In the interim, trains had to share a single track there, as well.

    Adding to the experience, some riders reported that Gallery Place station smelled strongly of rotting seafood. While Metro officials hadn't pinpointed the cause of the smell, Stessel said he was sure it wasn't an environmental concern or health hazard.

    Much of Wednesday's problems weren't caused by the transit agency's aging system, the typical root of Metro delays. It was the weather, Stessel said. Extreme shifts in temperature, from mild to freezing or warm to hot, cause the metal rails to shrink and expand. In the winter, that can mean cracked rails, while in the summer the rails can warp or pop out in what is called a sun kink.

    And unfortunately for Metro and its riders, the problems with cracked rails may be most likely to strike during the early-morning commute. Cold temperatures may drop overnight, but when trains start to run over them, the vibrations can crack the stressed metal, Stessel said.

    That's likely what happened Wednesday when temperatures dropped as low as 17 degrees, matching the coldest day for all of last winter, according to AccuWeather. Though temperatures are supposed to warm to the 50s by Friday, more track problems could arise if the weather dips back as forecasted.

    kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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    Kytja Weir

    Staff Writer - Transportation
    The Washington Examiner