System glitch leaves Metro’s nerve center unable to control its tracks, wrecking morning commute

In a year when Metro says it will bring service “Back2Good,” Thursday morning brought riders back to reality — with systemwide slowdowns and sluggish communications that have become familiar to customers of the nation’s second-busiest subway.

Metro says a computer glitch struck at the height of the morning rush, stripping the Rail Operations Control Center of its ability to remotely move switches, where trains change tracks — leading to a ripple effect of delays and disruptions across the 117-mile subway. The glitch was a consequence of planned maintenance and testing, leaving the control center unable to communicate with the tracks it oversees, the agency said. As a result, Metro had to dispatch workers to manually move the switches through the end of the morning rush.

The episode postponed scheduled track work and angered riders in what became the system’s first major service meltdown of 2017, a year when Metro has pledged to win back riders with a $400,000 “Back2Good” campaign.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the problem was detected immediately after maintenance and testing began at 9:22 a.m. He said Metro reestablished the majority of connections within 10 minutes, but problems persisted throughout the day as some devices required reboots even after connections were restored.

The problems meant at least 90 minutes of disruptions for riders, many of whom were back to their normal riding routines because of a lull in SafeTrack work. In preparation for Inauguration Day and anticipated winter weather, there will be no more SafeTrack maintenance surges until February. Other riders are easing into regular work schedules this week after holiday vacations.

Metro said service was fully restored by 11 a.m., but not before riders sounded off about the delays and the lack of information from Metro about what was happening. Although Metro has pledged to be more transparent and responsive to riders, complaints about its lack of communication with customers continues.

“The train was stopping, then they weren’t telling us what was going on, and when I was able to get [information], they kept mentioning a 20-minute delay. I saw myself [waiting] longer than that,” said Fazli Erdem, 43, whose commute from McLean to King Street-Old Town station stretched an hour longer than usual. “I’m generally frustrated because, I mean, to me, the problems appear to be on the Orange Line and Blue Line . . . and there is no track work supposedly until February.”

Beatriz Lopez, 34, of Burke, Va., said the delays caused her to miss a 9:30 a.m. meeting.

“If only it was a 20-minute delay,” said Lopez, whose 15- to 20-minute commute from Clarendon to Farragut West stretched to 45 minutes. She tweeted her outrage to @metrorailinfo, the system’s official Twitter account for alerts.

“Seriously,” she said. “4 freakin stops take 45+ mins!!”

Metro said it announced the problem at 9:41 a.m., about 20 minutes after discovering the connection issue. But riders complained that they were stuck in delays long before that — possibly because of unrelated congestion — which was exacerbated later by switch and signal problems, according to the agency.

Stessel said a combination of rush-hour congestion, train spacing issues and required reboots slowed trains for much of the morning.

In five high-traffic areas, riders faced extended waits, watching in frustration as trains passed by on the opposing tracks. Switches normally move every two to three minutes at those locations: outside East Falls Church, King Street-Old Town, Stadium-Armory, L’Enfant Plaza and Pentagon.

“Having it under manual control adds a few minutes, and then that cascades,” Stessel said. “You repeat that process three or four times, and all of a sudden you’re in a 10-minute delay.”

Though the delays maxed out at about 20 minutes, according Metro, riders complained of trips taking as long as two hours as trains crawled from stop to stop, with extended waits in tunnels and little information on the cause.

“You don’t even have a signal to your phone, you can’t even kill time,” Lopez said. “Worse off, it was slightly packed — a lot of people, myself included, were standing. It was just a really long, exhausting wait per stop.”

Stessel said delays averaged about 10 minutes with isolated cases stretching past 15 minutes.

Because of the problems, Metro canceled scheduled track work on the Red and Silver lines, but maintained scheduled Silver Line turnbacks at Ballston — a knot for those riders, who had the added burden of a transfer during the delays.

“Still not sure why #wmata thinks it’s okay to leave #Silverline riders waiting at #Ballston for a half-hour+ regularly,” tweeted one rider.

The agency offered free rides to some customers who had particularly bad experiences. After Erdem logged his complaint, the agency responded by offering three trip credits worth $3.50 each.

“We handle customer care on a case-by-case basis,” Stessel said. “We can review the customer’s actual trip time versus what it should have taken, and those factors get reviewed, and so anyone who was significantly inconvenienced should get in touch with customer service.”

Lopez said her train crawled from Clarendon to downtown, with extended waits at each stop. At one point, she said, riders shot each other confused looks as the train held for what seemed like 10 minutes in the Rosslyn tunnel.

“He had literally apologized, I counted, about five times,” she said of the train operator, as the train held between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom.

Later Thursday, she canceled a $115 monthly payment to a garage in Clarendon, where she parks her car to ride Metro. She arranged to commute with a friend from Rosslyn instead — using Uber.

“I wish it could be the New York system, because I’ve ridden the New York City system and it’s great,” she said. “But this is the hand that’s been dealt to us.”

When colleagues emailed to ask if she would make her morning meeting, she shot back a curt response, knowing they would understand.

“Nope. Train.”

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