As former Maryland transit executive Paul J. Wiedefeld prepares to become Metro’s new general manager next week, a host of problems awaits him at the beleaguered agency, including a severe budget crunch, daily operational breakdowns and a long list of costly, safety-related infrastructure upgrades that federal officials say are urgently needed.
Among the latest issues to arise are design flaws in Metro’s new 7000 series trains, involving brittle door bolts and loose seats, which have slowed production of the high-tech rolling stock, exacerbating a chronic shortage of rail cars during rush hours and putting the transit agency behind schedule in the long-term modernization of its fleet.
Besides making it harder for Metro to solve an existing problem of not being able to operate enough cars during rush hours — which has contributed to especially poor subway performance recently — the production slowdown could delay one of the agency’s most important and long-awaited safety measures: the scrapping of 270 cars that date to the birth of Metrorail in 1976 and are not considered “crashworthy” by current standards.
The trouble with the 7000s, and the broader issue of a shortage of working rail cars at peak travel times, illustrate the difficulties Wiedefeld will face in trying to improve Metro and restore public confidence in the nation’s second-busiest subway.
The shortage results from too many rail cars sitting idle in Metro maintenance yards because of a dearth of spare parts, which is related to the agency’s financial struggles, officials said. A faster influx of 7000s would help alleviate the problem.
After years of engineering work and funding debates over the $2 billion 7000 project, followed by months of testing the first batch of eight cars, Metro approved the start of mass production last spring, with the goal of buying 748 of the cars by 2018. The gleaming, stainless steel 7000s are so technologically advanced that they cannot be coupled with older cars and must operate as separate eight-car trains.
By now, under initial projections, Metro should have acquired more than 100 of the much-ballyhooed, next-generation cars, with at least a dozen additional cars arriving monthly from a Nebraska factory. But only 68 of the cars have been delivered, 40 of which are in service (comprising five trains). And while the builder, Kawasaki Rail Car, works to correct the defects, Metro has lowered its estimate of how many 7000s it will receive per month in the immediate future.
The agency is now three to four months behind in its acquisition schedule, Deputy General Manager Rob Troup said in an interview. And with an anticipated delivery rate of about eight cars per month instead of 12 to 16, at least in the near future, the project will continue to lose ground until the design flaws have been fixed, Troup said.
“We’re in conversations with Kawasaki, and they’ve put together a plan to deal with the quality issues,” he said. After the problems have been rectified, “we think they’ll have a good acceleration plan going forward regarding production,” to eventually catch up and stay on schedule. “From our discussions with them, I’m very confident that we will not miss our end date” for acquiring 748 cars in the next three years, Troup said.
As for when he expects production to begin accelerating, Troup said, “I would hate to give an estimated time and then have to retract it.”
Repeated attempts to reach a Kawasaki representative for comment were unsuccessful.
When 7000s arrive, they undergo a two- to three-week “commissioning” process, involving test runs on Metro’s tracks, before starting passenger service. Of the 68 cars now on hand, a dozen are in testing, a pair of eight-car trains are being used for operator instruction and 40 cars are carrying fare-paying riders. By the original schedule, Metro was supposed to have 100 to 112 of the 7000s at this point.
The defects in the seats and doors weren’t evident during the commissioning of early batches of 7000s, said Troup, who is Metro’s No. 2 official and top engineer.
“A car comes in, you run it through its tests, and it’s fine,” he said. “Then you get a few thousand miles under its belt, you notice that the vinyl is starting to separate from the seats,” because of a faulty gluing process. As for the door bolts: “If the metal isn’t cured correctly, it can crack under stress, and that’s what we saw happening here. You don’t want it too soft, but you don’t want it too hard. And we had an issue with embrittlement.”
When the flaws began showing up in 7000s that already had been delivered, the cars were put in Metro maintenance shops and repaired by Kawasaki technicians, Troup said. Meanwhile, at the plant in Lincoln, Neb., he said, the 7000 assembly line has slowed while the company works to refine the gluing and metal curing.
“Obviously, I want everything to go perfect,” Troup said. “I want everything to be coming off the assembly line right. But this is not unusual, to have these types of issues pop up when you’re taking delivery of something this big and complex.”
Including the 40 in-service 7000s, Metro’s subway fleet numbers 1,134 cars, many of which, on any given day, are undergoing maintenance. To operate efficiently during rush hours, Metro says, it needs to have at least 954 cars on the rails. On that score, the agency performed dismally in July, August and September, according to an in-house statistical report covering the first three months of Metro’s fiscal year.
The quarterly analysis, issued last week, shows that Metro met its minimum rail car requirement on just 10 of 64 weekdays in the period. And the shortage of working cars, along with other factors, led to the lowest on-time performance rate for the subway since Metro began publishing quarterly reports five years ago.
“When the availability target is met, scheduled departures of all 8- and 6-car trains from end-of-line stations is possible,” the report says. “When not enough rail cars are available, train lengths are first shortened, which can contribute to crowding. When rail car availability dips further and there are not enough trains to depart from end-of-line stations, headways (time between trains) increase,” causing delays for commuters.
Besides the car shortage, Troup said, reasons for the slowdowns included track maintenance; a Sept. 21 fire in a subway power station, which led to weeks of speed restrictions for many trains; and the Aug. 6 derailment of a train that wasn’t carrying passengers. That accident was caused by a track defect, and trains were disrupted for days while workers scanned the rail network for similar flaws.
Metro considers a 91 percent on-time rate to be satisfactory. The overall rates systemwide were 84.4 percent in July; 82.8 percent in August; and 78.9 percent in September, the report says. September was the worst — 68.2 percent on the Orange Line; 77.1 percent on the Silver Line; 73.3 percent on the Blue Line — and Orange Line trains were awful throughout the quarter: 75.7 percent in July; 77.1 percent in August.
The car shortage is a byproduct of another major problem that Wiedefeld will soon confront, stemming from a highly critical report issued by the Federal Transit Administration last year that described Metro’s mishandling of federal funds.
Among other improper practices, Metro had been routinely violating federal procurement rules, the FTA said. Until the agency proves that it has rectified numerous financial management deficiencies, the FTA is restricting Metro’s access to federal grants, which has added to the transit system’s money woes.
In trying to right the situation, Metro executives ordered the agency to adhere to strict federal purchasing rules not only in spending federal dollars, but also in spending money contributed by Washington-area jurisdictions. Although federal rules don’t apply to those local funds, the agency apparently was erring on the side of caution.
Money for rail-car parts comes from the agency’s operating budget, which is almost entirely local funds. John Shackelford, Metro’s procurement chief, said that having to abide by complicated federal rules with local money — including seeking competitive bids for every purchase — has created a seemingly nonsensical situation, hindering his ability to quickly secure replacement parts for disabled cars.
Troup said Metro’s inventory of spare parts is far smaller than the standard size for a major transit system. The result: One day last week, for example, 62 rail cars were out of service, many for lack of repair parts.
Metro board members could vote this month to ease the procurement rules on local money after Shackelford pleaded for relief. If he could simply buy parts from the original manufacturers, without a protracted bidding process, “we could place the orders a lot faster while making sure the price is still reasonable,” he said.
As for the 7000s, as Metro acquires 748 of them over time, it plans to scrap 556 older cars, for a net increase of 192 cars in its fleet. The first batch of 270 cars to be junked will be Metro’s originals: the 1000 series. After a 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people, all of whom were in 1000 cars, the National Transportation Safety Board declared the cars unsafe and called for Metro to get rid of them.
That NTSB finding gave rise to the 7000 program. And if the new cars were being delivered on schedule, the gradual retirement of the 1000s would be starting about now. But Troup said the process won’t begin until 40 to 50 more 7000s have been delivered.
When that will be, he couldn’t say.