Washington Metro officials pretended to be shocked when a Red Line train derailed due to a broken rail on Monday. In fact, the break should not and probably didn’t surprise any of them.
“It’s like, God, didn’t we do all of the fixing, the bad areas, SafeTrack?” rambled Metro’s board chair, Jack Evans. “All that stuff was intended to prevent stuff like this from happening.” Actually, Evans knows perfectly well that the SafeTrack work was superficial and the system still needs $15 billion to $25 billion of maintenance and rehabilitation work.
“This rail was manufactured in 1993, which may sound old but actually rail can last 40, 50 years,” said Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld, “so it’s not particularly old in the railroad business.” Actually, it is.
Real railroaders measure rail lifespans not in years but in the number of tons that roll over them. If a rail line sees little use, the rail can last 40 to 50 years. But rail supporting 25 heavy coal trains a day might last as little as four years. Modern rail should support about 1.3 billion tons on a straightaway, but only about 380 million tons on curves, where the rails suffer more stress. The Red Line’s broken rail was on a curve.
Metro rail cars weigh 40 tons, and the average number of passengers riding the cars –nineteen — add about 1-1/2 more. Metro runs about a thousand six- to eight-car trains a week on the Red Line, or some 52,000 a year. If all of these trains were eight-car trains, the rails would have carried 380 million tons and be worn out after 22 years, or three years ago for rails installed in 1993. Metro sometimes runs six-car trains on the Red Line, but at best the broken rail was near the end of its lifespan.
Metro also said that the broken rail had been ultrasonically inspected last August and was supposed to have been visually inspected last week. The lesson here is that rails near the end of their lifespans might not reveal defects to visual or even ultrasonic inspections, so Metro should completely replace all rails more than 20 years old.
Metro, of course, is asking DC and the states of Maryland and Virginia to increase their support of the agency by $500 million a year to add to federal and other dollars so it can do $15 billion worth of repairs over the next ten years. Yet after spending that $15 billion, it admits it will still have another $10 billion in repairs to do. So clearly, Wiedefeld knows that much of the system’s infrastructure is worn out, and if Evans is so naive to be surprised when a rail breaks, he probably shouldn’t be on the board at all, much less its chair.
Virginia is already using highway tolls to pay for the Silver Line. As transportation blogger James Bacon points out, drivers on the Dulles Toll Road pay more to support the Silver Line than Silver Line riders themselves. It’s time to stop this insanity and return Washington DC to more modern transportation which, for the near future, is buses, not rails.