Rail Car Woes Leave Metro Lacking Trains At Rush Hours

The shortage of railcars has stalled many of Metro's long-planned measures to ease crowding on trains, such as these at L'Enfant Plaza.
The shortage of railcars has stalled many of Metro's long-planned measures to ease crowding on trains, such as these at L'Enfant Plaza. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Months-long delays in getting new rail cars and constant overhauls of older ones have left Metro without the equivalent of five to six trains during rush hours on some days, at a time when record numbers of people are riding the subway.

For years, Metro has been counting on new cars to alleviate the rush-hour crowds that are jamming platforms and trains as the summer season gets underway. The first new cars were on the tracks in the fall, but a litany of problems -- including faulty software, mechanical problems and troubles with doors -- has delayed the availability of many more.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has called the shortage "unacceptable," and agency officials said they hope to have additional cars available for regular service by the end of the week. Officials said they are working with Alstom Transport, which has a $323.4 million contract to build 184 cars and a separate deal to rehabilitate many older models, to address Metro's needs.

The lack of cars has caused Metro to delay many of its long-planned crowd-easing measures, such as reducing the number of four-car trains on the Blue Line and running more eight-car trains on all lines. Most trains have six cars.

The problems have been particularly acute in recent weeks. Summer is typically Metro's busiest season and June its busiest month, as tourists descend and special events add to bulging crowds. Metro has recorded three of its top 10 ridership days in its 31-year history this month. The most recent was June 13, when 789,247 passenger trips were recorded, its ninth-highest tally.

Commuters, especially on the Green Line, have been feeling the squeeze. Colette Fozard, 36, of Hyattsville, who rides from Prince George's Plaza between 8 and 8:10 a.m. every weekday, said she has noticed that trains have been fuller in the past few months and that she hasn't been able to get her usual seat. When she transfers to the Red Line for the rest of her commute to Farragut North, the platforms are more crowded than normal, she said.

"At least three days a week, I let one or two trains go by, because it's not physically possible to jam anyone else on those Red Line trains at 8:30 to 8:45 a.m.," said Fozard, an assistant at a downtown law firm.

Metro has little room for error during rush hours. The agency needs 782 of its 978 cars to run enough trains during peak times.

But in May, Metro had enough cars on just four of 22 weekdays, transit agency records show. For the weekdays between May 22 and yesterday, the average daily shortage at 7 a.m. was about 24 cars. On June 1, Metro was down 48 cars, the equivalent of eight six-car trains -- room for about 5,000 people. On that day, riders took 749,191 trips, almost 4 percent more than the same day last year.

Metro had hoped to have 50 new cars in service by the end of last year but only had 38 new ones on the tracks. The cars have had structural and mechanical issues and problems with electrical and propulsion systems. Many of the issues are common with new cars and did not become apparent until the cars were delivered to Metro, agency officials said.

As problems arose, a backlog of cars built up. In January and February, Metro had to essentially halt delivery of new cars because the agency had no place to store them while others were being tested, operations officials said.

Then in the spring, there were problems with the software systems that control heat sensors and propulsion. It took five months to put one pair of rail cars into service, for example, while Alstom made sure that the propulsion system met Metro's specifications. About the same time, Metro discovered that train doors were not closing tightly enough, causing more delays.

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