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Metro's megapurchase of rail cars offers more room, less grunge, greater capacity

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 29, 2010; B01

Washington's new subway cars will have ergonomically designed seats for back comfort, added legroom and resilient floors for easy cleaning (no more stained and dirty carpets). Automated voices will make station announcements instead of hard-to-hear humans.

Each new car will carry five more riders and come equipped with padded seats, security cameras and seat-back grab handles. Digital maps will help riders track where they are in the system, the next stop and available connections.

When 428 new cars begin arriving in 2013 from Kawasaki Rail Car's plant in Lincoln, Neb., Metro riders should see a big difference because the design of the system's cars has changed little in 34 years.

"We're moving ourselves from the technology of the 1960s to the technology of the 21st century," Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin said this week as the board awarded Kawasaki an $886 million contract. Assuming the transit agency buys as many as 320 more cars in coming years, the $1.9 billion deal would be one of the largest purchases in Metro history.

The new cars will not immediately ease rush-hour crowding. Ridership is rising 2 to 3 percent a year, but the new cars won't allow for longer trains until well past 2016, when Metro will be able to add significant capacity.

Three hundred of the 7000 Series cars will replace the oldest models in the fleet, which date to the system's beginnings in 1976. The 1000 Series cars have become a safety liability: The striking train in the June 22 Red Line crash that killed nine people belonged to this class and was compressed to a third of its length. Interim General Manager Richard Sarles called their replacement his "top safety priority."

The 128 7000 Series cars will be used to expand the system, allowing riders to travel through Tysons Corner to Dulles International Airport by 2016. The first 11.7 miles of the 23-mile line, to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, are scheduled to open in late 2013. The extra service will require 64 new cars for each leg, although the new cars will be distributed throughout the Metro system.

"I like that," Gwendolyn Pleasant said when told that carpets will be gone in the 7000 Series, a feature she called "much more sanitary." But news of the purchase was mixed. Pleasant and other riders at the McPherson Square station during the Friday afternoon rush hour viewed it as a financial overreach a day after Metro approved a steep increase in bus and rail fares.

"It doesn't make sense," said Pleasant, a 60-year-old flower seller. The fare increase will allow Metro to cover a deficit in its operating budget; the capital budget is paying for the rail cars.

Davinia Miles, 39, on her way home from her job as a security guard in New Carrollton, said she has ridden high-tech subway cars in New York and likes them. But she said Metro has more pressing problems that she's become more aware of after her husband's knee injury. "They should fix all the broken elevators and escalators before buying new cars," she said.

The new cars will have the latest diagnostic technology, so that in case of a breakdown, operators and mechanics will be able to make repairs more quickly than on older cars. The 7000 Series cars are so technologically advanced that for the first time in Metro's history, the new cars will not be compatible with the system's existing cars.

That means they cannot be mixed and matched as they are now, and that riders will be wondering whether a new train or an old one will pull into the station.

In 2012 or early 2013, four test trains will be shipped to Washington so Metro engineers and mechanics can run six months of technical tests and iron out kinks before the rest of the order is delivered in 2013, about 12 to 16 cars each month. The cars won't technically be in service during the testing period, but there is a good chance riders will be able to sit inside and give them a once-over for themselves, officials said.

Metro Deputy General Manager David Kubicek said the new order "represents an ability to have capacity" the system has needed for years.

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