- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2000

Metrorail will return to automated operations by Thanksgiving weekend, ending countless delays and bumpy rides since going to manual service 20 months ago.

Workers should have installed by the long holiday weekend more than 11,300 relay switches the subway system needs to return to the smoother automatic operation, said Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann.

The transit authority discovered defective relays in March 1999, and operators have had to rely on manual controls to run the trains since then. The relays control the trains' speed, braking and rail switches.

Although most of the relays have been replaced, Metro decided to wait until the four-day weekend to return to automatic service to retrain employees and inspect the new relays.

"[Delaying it] would give us an opportunity to slide into it gradually and not in a very busy rush hour," Mr. Feldmann said.

He said Metro needs only half of the 21,000 relay switches made by Alstom Signaling Inc. to return to automatic operation and that many of those were installed by the end of last month. The remaining relays should be installed in coming months.

Mr. Feldmann said efforts to transfer to automatic controls were stymied because of safety concerns and because Metro had to retrain some of its 454 subway operators. Many of the operators have begun running trains since Metro began manual operations and have never run a train automatically.

"We had to retrain a significant portion of our workers who had come on board since making the switch and only knew how to manually operate [the trains]," Mr. Feldmann said.

The rail system, designed to operate automatically, runs more slowly in the manual mode. Operators must accelerate and brake manually, which causes quick, jarring starts and stops, Mr. Feldmann said.

Metro was mainly concerned with about 21,000 of the system's 24,000 relays because many failed prematurely. The devices are supposed to last 70 to 80 years, but failed in less than 25 years.

Mr. Feldmann said Alstom had been concentrating solely on getting the relays to Metro. This past September and October, members from Metro's engineering staff paid visits to the company, based in Rochester, N.Y., to ensure the relays would be shipped on time.

Meanwhile, Metro's board yesterday delayed taking action on the design for escalator canopies at Metrorail stations. Instead, they voted to solicit offers for new designs for the canopies.

The six-member board voted to look at three new designs that will be judged on aesthetics and safety, and cost no more than $450,000 per station at the 46 of 53 escalators.

The total program is not expected to cost more than $27.2 million.

Metro General Manager Richard A. White told the board that late-night Metrorail service is catching on. Metro began testing the extra hour in July, when it extended weekend service to 2 a.m.

In September, more than 10,000 riders took advantage of the extra hour on Friday and Saturday nights. Compared to the summer, the number of passenger that use the subway increased in September by 12 percent on Fridays and 13 percent on Saturdays, Mr. White said.

The transit agency is also finalizing plans for its Metrobus service to the Dulles corridor, which could begin on Dec. 4 and take riders on a 55-minute trip from downtown Washington to the area around Washington Dulles International Airport.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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