Metro riders could soon be confronted by an unprecedented service shutdown.
Structural and maintenance problems at the Friendship Heights and Medical Center stations may force a complete closure of a busy stretch of the Red Line for weeks, News4 has learned.
Specifically, the issue is with water constantly seeping into those stations -- and the mess it's leaving behind.
"Water is just coming in from basically the geology that is there. The stations have a lot of fractures," said Metro Deputy General Manager Rob Troup. "In a few weeks, it will be filled up with water and mud."
News4 got an exclusive look at the cavernous tunnel just outside the Friendship Heights station recently. Metal drip pans could be seen plastered all over the ceiling -- a Band-Aid of sorts to keep the water flowing away into drains.
The same issue is happening at the Medical Center station.
Metro said in a series of tweets after the story broke on News4 that the closure was one possible solution that the system is considering.
The tweets read:
"Metro faces challenges along a portion of the Red Line near Medical Ctr, where constant water infiltration from outside the tunnel requires ongoing pumping, dredging and cleaning to keep switches in service and to prevent arcing insulators. While not a safety issue, Metro engineers are considering comprehensive long-term solutions to improve the reliability of the Red Line for yrs to come while reducing main't requirements.
"Any decision around appropriate long-term repairs, incl. timeline, possible effects on service, will be made only after final engineering designs submitted in the coming months," the tweets read.
One Metro source said the repair process -- and the corresponding shutdown, if it is needed -- could take a month and a half.
"What we are going to do is we are looking to re-line the tunnels and that’s a significant effort," said Troup.
Re-lining a tunnel is certainly not a quick process. A rubber lining is put in place around the tunnel and then a layer of concrete is installed around the lining. It’s not a project that can be completed in a weekend.
Metro is currently finishing up a design plan to complete the work. After that, officials will make a decision on how long to shut things down.
"Whether or not we shut down [is something] we haven’t decided yet, but it is a significant project that we have to undertake," said Troup.
The Red Line is Metro's busiest line. On average, more than 6,200 riders boarded at Medical Center each weekday this year; at Friendship Heights, the number's even higher: 9,703.
"I don't have a car," Metro rider Erica Naylor said. "I use the Metro everyday to get to and from work and if it's not open, I'll have to probably take the bus and there's no direct bus from where I live."
The shutdown would also affect anyone simply trying to travel through the affected stretch. Riders would have to board shuttle buses to bypass those stations.
That could translate into more cars on the road, with commuters choosing to drive to get around the work.
A closure of this magnitude is not unheard of in the transit world. The Chicago Transit Authority currently has a 10-mile section of its own 40-plus-year-old Red Line closed, so that repairs can be conducted around the clock. Everything from tracks, to station canopies, to elevators are being replaced.
"A railroad goes through a cycle about every 30 to 35 years. And you have to get in there and do the work and do it correctly," said Troup. "We’re constantly cleaning up two or three inches of mud within the system. We are constantly cleaning drains. We have higher corrosion. We are in there more often replacing the rail than we should be."
The Metro system is almost 40 years old, and the Red Line is its oldest line. Five Red Line stations opened on Metro's launch day in 1976. Friendship Heights and Medical Center began service as part of a 1984 expansion.
Keep in mind, Metro is also planning major upgrades to the Bethesda station, and could use this opportunity to complete work there as well.
As disruptive as a complete closure of this section of the Red Line would be, Troup said it may actually be better than the alternative of piecing together time to work on the problems.
"If we don’t do this work now, and we don’t shut down -- what’s the impact down the road?" he asked. "What’s the impact four or five years down the road when we have significant levels of water intrusion, and we are constantly putting in rail and we’re having to take the [stations] out of service because of the issues that we have there?"
One thing is certain: A massive amount of work will be coming to the Red Line -- it’s now just a matter of how long it will take.