Eleven years after the National Transportation Safety Board first advised Metro to get rid of the system’s original rail cars, the last of the 1000-series fleet has finally been retired.
The stragglers were sent to the rail yard to be scrapped June 25, with little fanfare and no nostalgia-imbued send-off from Metro officials. Although the nearly 300 cars are a major part of Metro’s history — they began running when the system opened in 1976 — they had come under intense criticism in recent years after NTSB determined they were not safe in the event of a crash.
The 1Ks were faulted in the deadly 2009 Red Line crash near the Fort Totten Metro station, which killed nine people.
During the crash, one of the cars collapsed in on itself — a phenomenon known as “telescoping,” like an old-fashioned maritime telescope that folds into itself. From the outside, it looked like the aluminum exterior of the car had peeled back like a can of sardines. All of the fatalities occurred in the first car of the 1000-series train. The other train involved in the crash was composed of the newer 3000-series cars.
Acting NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt, who was one of the NTSB board members who oversaw the investigation into the Red Line crash, said it was clear to him, and to others, that fewer people might have died if the cars had been more structurally sound.
“The failure to replace or retrofit the 1000-series certainly contributed to the severity of the crash,” Sumwalt said.
Now that the cars are gone, transportation safety officials say they’re breathing a little easier. Of Metro’s myriad problems and ongoing efforts to improve safety, the retirement of the 1000-series cars means there’s one less thing to worry about.
“Every day that the 1000s have been there, we’ve had an unacceptable risk to the traveling public,” Sumwalt said. “We will all be well served to have those cars going to the junkyard.”
Problems with the trains had been raised even earlier, in 2004, when a runaway train rolling down an incline at more than 30 mph at Woodley Park crashed into another train, injuring more than 20 people.
Two years later, the NTSB concluded that the 1000s in Metro’s fleet were dangerous in the event of the collision.
Patrick Regan, a lawyer who represented many of the victims and family members in the aftermath of the Red Line crash, said it took Metro an unacceptable length of time to replace the trains after the two crashes. Trains outfitted with safety standards from the 1970s simply have no place on modern transit systems, he said.
“It’s a great thing they’re gone,” Regan said, referring to the 1000s. “Is it soon enough? No. It should have happened years ago, but it didn’t.”
Regan said there were many people in the Washington region who, like him and many of the survivors, refused to set foot on a 1000-series car, following the crash.
The conclusion that the 1000-series cars were unfit for the rails affected Sumwalt’s commuting habits, too.
“The truth is, I actually pay attention to the numbers, and I would prefer to get on one that’s not a 1000-series car,” Sumwalt said. His colleagues do the same thing. “Many of us at NTSB, when we’re going somewhere to a meeting, we do consciously see a 1000 and say, ‘Let’s slide back another car or two.’ ”
After the NTSB investigation into the two crashes, Sumwalt said he had hoped Metro would swap in new, stronger rail cars within three years. Instead, it was eight years before the 1000-series cars vanished, replaced with a fleet of stainless steel 7000-series cars that feature an internal honeycomb design meant to absorb the shock of impact and protect the survivable space inside the train.
Despite the delay, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said the retirement of the last of the cars is “a huge milestone.” At this point, he said, Metro has received 45 percent of its order of the new 7000-series fleet, and the cars that have been delivered so far constitute 43 eight-car trains.
Metro officials say the years it took to replace the 1000-series fleet was a product of the complex and highly regulated nature of procuring new rail cars. The vehicles must be custom-made for each system, and financed, approved, designed, tested, delivered and assembled. By the time the Red Line crash took place in 2009, the process to design and pay for the new trains had already been in motion.
“These cars are very customized cars, and this is very typical for most transit properties,” said Metro board member Robert Lauby, the chief safety officer at the Federal Railroad Administration. “They’re not off-the-shelf at all.”
And when the NTSB recommended that Metro retrofit the old cars with reinforced steel interiors that would fare better in a collision, Metro officials said it would be cost-prohibitive — especially when their goal was to dump the old cars as quickly as possible anyway.
Meanwhile, as they awaited the arrival of the 7000s, Metro officials came up with a stopgap solution: They would “belly” the old train cars, placing the 1000-series cars in positions so they would not be the first or last car in a set. The rationale: If the train was involved in a collision, then the more resilient, newer cars on either end would absorb most of the impact, protecting the weaker cars on the inside of the train. Even so, Metro did not perform adequate engineering analysis to determine whether there was any scientific basis to conclude that a 1000-series train surrounded by newer train cars would prove significantly safer for passengers.
And that’s not quite how it works, Sumwalt said. There’s a significant risk that in the event of a crash, the shock of impact would pass through the outside, sturdier cars and transfer to the interior, aluminum-skinned cars, causing a pancake effect in which the older cars would experience intense damage in their sandwiched positions.
“That’s not really solving the immediate problem,” Sumwalt said. “That energy has to go somewhere.”
Lauby said it’s not just an issue of reliability. Brake defects, door malfunctions and defunct air-conditioning units had long been a problem for the vintage cars.
“It’s not only about crashworthiness. The cars were unreliable,” he said.
In Metro’s most recent vital signs report, which measured performance from January to March 2017, the 1000-series trains logged an average of 74,354 miles between defects that caused a significant delay — the worst performance of any member of the fleet, followed closely by the 4000-series cars, which also were officially retired from the system in June.
Still, Sumwalt said he was pleased that Metro officials accelerated their timeline to retire the oldest cars from the system, bumping up the deadline from the end of this year to the end of June.
“Those cars have outlived their life, and it’s a good thing [Metro] made the decision to phase them out ahead of time,” he said.
Despite the cars’ worrisome reputation, there are a few riders who are sorry to see them go — such as Peter Darmody, who works for Metro as a construction project manager. For years, he has managed a Facebook page called “Friends of the 1000 Series,” where like-minded train geeks post pictures of 1000-series cars they encounter on the system.
Darmody said he’s sad to see the old trains go — especially because he remembers when he first encountered them, when he went to the official opening ceremony of the Metro system 41 years ago.
“The orange 1970s scheme inside the cars — it’s kind of funky. It looks more like a living room,” Darmody said. “I just can’t get excited about the new trains. They feel sterile.”
He’s never been fearful of the old cars (“The most risky thing people do is drive a car,” he pointed out), and he‘ll miss something special about Metro’s original model of trains: the expansive windows on both ends. If you sit at the back of a 1000-series train at an aboveground station, you get an expansive view that’s particularly stunning while going over the Potomac.
“I know the trains have a bad history,” Darmody said. “But there’s still some nostalgia there.”