Metro Eyes a Makeover

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008

With shiny, stainless-steel exteriors, ergonomic seats and interactive, high-tech maps, the next generation of Metro trains could look and feel dramatically different from those of the past 40 years and represent a fundamental shift in the way the nation's second-busiest subway system operates its rail fleet.

If the designs are approved, it would be at least five years before any of the cars hit the tracks. Metro is planning in advance of a decision by federal authorities on whether to approve the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport and the time needed to order, build and test cars.

But there are other problems. The cars would be so technologically advanced that they would not be compatible with Metro's existing cars, rail chief Dave Kubicek said yesterday. That means the agency would have to operate two fleets: one with the newest cars, and the other with the existing fleet, which has older models with mechanical problems.

Having two fleets also raises questions about where they would run and the costs of replacing current cars as they reach the end of their usefulness.

"This is a pretty profound decision," said Metro board member Chris Zimmerman. Future board members would have to weigh the benefits of the new cars against the fact that they wouldn't work with the existing ones, he said.

"We need to understand the entire big picture," said board member Peter Benjamin, "not just 'this is going to be cool.' "

Although it would be years before the cars would be in service, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said Metro needs to decide "in months" whether to order the vehicles if the $5 billion-plus Metrorail extension to Dulles receives federal approval. The Federal Transit Administration is expected to announce its decision by next month.

If the Dulles project is approved, Metro officials say they need to be ready to operate rail service for the first phase, to Wiehle Avenue, by early 2013. That means ordering the cars soon because of the lead time involved: one year to solicit bids, three years to build the cars and another year for testing.

Federal funding includes money to buy 64 rail cars for the first phase. If approved, Metro would buy 64 more cars at the same time for the second phase. Financing would have to be determined.

Even without the Dulles project, the transit agency needs to think about what's next for the rails, officials said. The 1,070-car fleet has six kinds of cars. Metro puts them together in like pairs to make four- , six- or eight-car trains. The 300 oldest ones are more than 30 years old and reaching the end of their service. Another series is due for a midlife overhaul.

In the past, each new series of cars was designed to be compatible with the previous one.

The older cars break down frequently, causing delays and disruptions. Some components are so old that manufacturers no longer make them, Kubicek said.

The new technology is "five or six grades" above Metro's newest cars, he said.

Several aspects of the new design are supposed to give passengers better information and a more comfortable ride. They include ergonomic, cloth-covered seats; overhead grab handles; more speakers inside and outside the cars; high-tech monitors in the cars to display news; and automated station information. And no carpet.

Board members indicated yesterday that there would be much debate about the concepts before final decisions are made. Members have historically been hesitant to depart from the original design. They spent months debating changing the seat colors from orange and brown to the burgundy, blue and sand in the newest cars.

One of the concepts introduced yesterday calls for eliminating the brown stripe on the exterior of the cars and introducing a different "M" logo.

On the logo alone, "that's weeks of discussion," board member Jim Graham said.

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