Metro Eager To Order 648 High-Tech Rail Cars

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Metro officials say they need to buy 648 rail cars and overhaul 100 older ones to meet current and future ridership needs. The total cost will be about $2 billion if the agency is able to win board approval to begin the bidding process by next month, according to a staff proposal to be presented to board members tomorrow.

The timing of the order is tied to the proposed Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport. Metro is not building that extension, but it will operate the line once it is completed, and needs to add 128 rail cars to do so. Although final approval for federal funds for Dulles is not expected until the end of the year, Metro officials have been told by federal and airport officials to proceed with ordering the rail cars because of the long lead time involved, according to Metro rail chief Dave Kubicek.

The 748-rail car program is one of the major items on General Manager John B. Catoe's $11 billion list of capital projects that the regional transit agency needs over 10 years to maintain, expand and improve train, bus and paratransit service.

Kubicek said the new rail cars will have improved features, including high-tech monitors inside the cars, to display news and station information, as well as more ergonomically designed seats. The cars, which would cost about $2.76 million each, would also be outfitted with the latest diagnostic technology so train operators and mechanics could troubleshoot more quickly and efficiently if there is a breakdown, Kubicek said.

For example, door malfunctions are frequent on eight-car trains. The current technology gives train operators only an indicator that there is a door problem somewhere on the train, but the new technology would tell the operator, " 'It's the sixth car, doors 10 and 11,' and they would know exactly where to do troubleshooting," Kubicek said.

At the same time, the cars would be so technologically advanced that they would not be compatible with Metro's existing cars. Board members have expressed reservations about operating what would be, in essence, two fleets -- one using the newest cars and one made up of many older ones with mechanical problems.

Phase one of the Dulles extension, which is expected to be completed in 2013, will extend from just past the East Falls Church Metro station on the Orange Line in Arlington County through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston. The second phase will run beyond the airport to Loudoun County and is expected to be done in 2016. The estimated $385 million price tag for the Dulles rail cars is being paid for outside of Metro's budget.

But if the Metro board signs off on the ambitious rail car plan, which would increase the fleet by 30 percent, the board and agency officials will need to work with local, state and federal officials to come up with $1.7 billion for the remaining rail cars and a new testing facility that Metro wants to build near its Greenbelt rail yard. The agency's current capital needs are funded through July 2010. Capital projects are paid for primarily by state and local jurisdictions served by Metro.

It would be 2012 before any new cars are in operation, but Metro wants to make a decision soon to consolidate its rail car order to save money. Metro officials say they would save more than half a billion dollars in capital and operating costs by eliminating repetitive design, procurement, development and engineering costs of the rail cars, which have to be custom-built.

The long lead time to order rail cars includes about 10 months to solicit bids, an additional three years for manufacturing and more time for testing.

Besides the 128 cars for Dulles, the new rail cars would include 300 to replace Metro's oldest cars, which are more than 30 years old, and an additional 220 to eventually allow the transit agency to run all eight-car trains during the morning and afternoon rush. About 24 percent of rush-hour trains are eight-cars-long now; the rest are six-car trains. The fleet currently has 1,140 cars.

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