The train! The train!
They are the stainless-steel, ergonomic, cool-blue pride of Metro — the hoped-for safer, smoother-running future of a subway system long beset by performance and management woes: Eight new rail cars of the 7000 series, the vanguard of 740 more, are finally in service. And Tuesday, for the first time, paying customers got a close-up look.
Snapping cellphone photos in the Blue Line’s Franconia-Springfield station at 7:12 a.m., B.J. Bagaria of Springfield was delighted, even giddy.
As scores of commuters eagerly awaited its maiden journey, the advanced-technology eight-car conveyance eased into the crowded station. Bagaria, 45, a records clerk at a Washington law firm, bent forward on the platform. Craning his neck, he peered in wonder through the windows of the empty train, too excited to finish a thought.
You’d think they built it just for him.
“Oh, look at the seats! The old seats are sticky. If something gets on it, you don’t really want to sit on it. It looks like these seats are —
“Oh, the blue! I love the blue. The problem with the old series, they kept matching the decor of the cars, where here, with the color, you can do —
“Oh, I like those seat backs! I mean, that is going to be so nice on the —
“And look at the hand rails! You know, my wife is short. She has trouble reaching up and grabbing the tops ones. These go all the way down to —
“Oh, look at the floors!”
There’s no stained, mildewed carpeting in the “7K” cars; there are no earth tones, no disco-era pop-art color schemes. The armless bucket seats are contoured for the human spine and derriere at rest, and the hand rails were installed with the height-challenged in mind. Less evident to passengers, Metro says, are the cutting-edge safety and reliability features of the 7Ks, their modern electronics, their 21st-century structural design.
“I think it’s sexy, definitely sexy,” said rider Stacey Delgado of Alexandria, who is “40-something” and works for the Commerce Department.
Waiting on the platform near her, Phil Ryan, 49, also of Alexandria, was headed to his job at the Federal Aviation Administration. “I saw it on the news this morning, and I kept saying, ‘I hope we get the new train!’ ” His wife, Teri Ryan, 46, who works in finance near Union Station, said, “Aesthetically, you look at it, and you just want to get on.”
The train’s doors (better engineered than the notoriously balky doors of the older cars, Metro promises) slid open for the Franconia-Springfield throng.
“Lovely,” said Bagaria as he shouldered aboard with the others, some rhapsodic, some disinterested and a few veteran riders oozing disdain.
From the birth of Metrorail nearly 40 years ago, until 2008, the agency bought six batches of cars as the subway system expanded (the 1970s-vintage 1000 series through the 6000 series), for a total of more than 1,100 cars, nearly all of which remain in service. At a glance, it’s hard for an ordinary commuter to distinguish one from another.
Because transit officials wanted each new batch to be mechanically and aesthetically compatible with earlier batches, Metro did not take full advantage of improved technology. And the decor and exterior look of the cars barely changed.
The 7Ks, however, are so radically different that they cannot be coupled with the older cars and will run as separate trains. Acquiring 748 of them will cost about $2 billion over the next several years, Metro said.
Along with other enhancements, the new cars feature digital display boards, showing passengers where they are, where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Count rider David Carper among the underwhelmed.
“For one thing, you see, I’m handicapped,” said Carper, 62, a State Department administrative assistant who suffers from severe arthritis. “People are pretty good about giving you their seats. But the more crowded the train gets, the less they’re willing to do it. This train does not have nearly enough seats.”
The new cars, with slightly wider aisles, have 64 to 68 seats, according to Metro. The older cars, many of them manufactured before passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, have 68 to 72 seats, offering less space for wheelchairs.
Headed to Foggy Bottom on the inaugural 7K train, Carper said: “I also find that the seats are quite hard. The floor, I think, not being carpeted, may potentially get slippery when it’s wet. So there are a lot of things about it that I don’t like. I mean, the tech, it’s great. But there are a lot of practical things I don’t care for.”
The 7K train that departed Franconia-Springfield on Tuesday will operate exclusively on the Blue Line for a while and then be deployed on various lines as needed, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. He said a second eight-car 7K train, due on the rails next month, probably will run only on the Red Line initially before being shifted to other lines on different days, depending on passenger demand.
With mass production set to begin at the Kawasaki Motors plant in Nebraska, hundreds more 7Ks will be delivered to Metro in the months and years ahead. About 300 of the new cars will replace the cars of the outmoded 1000 series, which were declared unsafe by federal authorities after a 2009 Red Line crash killed nine people. And about 100 7Ks will replace the trouble-plagued 4000-series cars.
The remaining new cars either will be used for fleet expansion (but only if officials in the region agree to pay more than $800 million for related upgrades to infrastructure) or more likely will be used to replace another batch of older cars, the agency said.
After a Jan. 12 calamity on the Yellow Line, in which a woman died and scores of other riders were sickened in a smoke-filled tunnel, and after revelations of cash-flow problems, financial mismanagement and inadequate emergency readiness, Metro officials saw Tuesday as a rare bright moment, even amid clouds and rain.
The 7K train’s debut circuit of the Blue Line, from Franconia-Springfield to Largo Town Center and back, went smoothly — suspiciously so, if you ask Carper.
Like any subway commuter, he is accustomed to lurching halts and starts along his route as transit controllers try to keep trains properly spaced. “The ride this morning was staged,” Carper declared. “Generally the train would stop outside the different stations because there are trains ahead of it and all that. It hasn’t done that today.”
He was scowling.
“So this isn’t a typical ride at all.”