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Regulator pauses Metro’s plans to reduce inspections on 7000 trains

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission is investigating whether the transit agency is following safety and training protocols

A 7000-series Metro train rolls through the Takoma neighborhood in Northwest Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Metro’s plan to bring back shorter train wait times by returning all of its suspended 7000 series rail cars to service has been paused while Metro’s regulator investigates whether transit workers were following the agency’s own engineering department’s safety recommendations.

Over the past two and a half months, Metro has been following a plan, approved by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, that would get all of its 7000-series cars reinstated from suspension following issues with the cars’ wheels linked to derailments, and bring back Metrorail waits of five minutes or less by the summer. The safety commission is an independent government agency authorized by Congress to oversee and monitor Metrorail safety.

As Metro was preparing to move to the next step in the plan last week, by cutting back the number of wheel inspections of rail cars that have passed previous inspections, safety commission officials said they found discrepancies between Metro mechanics’ actions in putting cars back into service and what Metro’s engineers say is safe.

Safety commission spokesman Max Smith did not specify what those discrepancies were. He said the commission continues to investigate a possible “gap” in understanding, but in the meantime, commission officials have told Metro not to cut back on wheel inspections of 7000-series cars, cutbacks that could have led to more trains going back into service and more reductions in wait times.

“We communicated back that they couldn’t make any more changes,” Smith said on Sunday. “The overall issue could be a significant one potentially.”

The Metro Board called a sudden executive session on Sunday. While the meetings or agenda aren’t public, Metro cited as its rationale “safety and security matters” that would “compromise public safety” if they were released prematurely.

Metro spokeswoman Kristie Swink Benson cited “inaccuracies” with the safety commission’s statements but did not provide additional details.

“We will have more to say on this matter tomorrow when we can transparently correct numerous inaccuracies for the record,” she said Sunday in a statement.

The issues, while potentially serious, did not merit the safety commission to order any cars out of service, Smith said.

The investigation is one of three potential safety violations or concerns the commission has raised in just the last week.

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The 7000 series, Metro’s most advanced and latest model of rail car, was first suspended in October 2021 after a federal derailment investigation discovered a defect that had surfaced in several 7000-series cars that causes wheels to move outward from the axle, creating instability. The 7000 series makes up nearly 60 percent of Metro’s rail car fleet, and their absence resulted in a year-long train shortage that created average waits of 10 minutes for much of 2022.

In the fall, as a rise in rail passengers led to onboard crowding during commuting times, Metro pushed the safety commission to permit the use of many more cars than the agency was allowing and for a time frame or path in which Metro could get all of its cars back and into service.

In late October, both sides reached an agreement allowing Metro unlimited use of its newest 7000-series cars that had been delivered over the past five years, or about 340 of the 748 cars. The transit agency was limited to using up to 80 older 7000-series cars a day, a number that could increase based on results of performance data. The older cars had been linked to more unsafe wheel movements.

All cars Metro puts back into service must undergo wheel screenings every four days. Metro’s plan called for that interval to lengthen to seven days as long as no issues had surfaced after four screenings.

Metro began submitting paperwork to make that jump when the safety commission told Metro to pause, Smith said.

Wheel inspections are time-consuming, and longer intervals would allow the transit agency to get more 7000-series cars on the tracks every day. Under the plan, Metro was proposing to offer riders average waits as low as 5 minutes by July.

It’s unclear how long Metro will have to pause before it can reduce inspections. Smith said the agency must keep screening wheels every four days until the commission had “no technical objection.”

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Three issues have come under safety commission scrutiny last week including the one involving the 7000 series. On Friday, Metro announced that Metrorail operators will follow new training procedures after the safety commission discovered issues with how Metro was training operators.

While all active rail operators have completed requirements for safe operations of trains during passenger service, 64 operators from recent training classes did not receive the training in proper sequence. Transit officials said they will be given supplemental simulator training to reinforce safe operating practices.

Theresa M. Impastato, Metro’s chief of safety and readiness, said in a statement on Friday that the agency had conducted “a full and transparent investigation” into the lapse.

The safety commission also found that Metro had been certifying people to work on the tracks under the transit agency’s old safety guidelines, which were replaced in early November, Smith said.

Internal Metro probe into lapses finds disregard of training process

In July, the discovery of nearly half of Metrorail operators not being recertified led Metro to pull many operators out of service for immediate retraining, which led to delays on the rail system because of a temporary shortage of drivers with proper accreditations. The lapse led to the resignations of Metro’s general manager and chief operating officer. Internal investigations found that Metro operations directors had suspended training programs central to recertification without informing Metro’s safety department or the safety commission.