Passengers wait aboard a 1000 series Metro car at the Vienna Metro station on Wednesday. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

Metro’s original 280-plus rail cars, in use since the subway’s birth but deemed unsafe after a deadly crash in 2009, are finally headed to a scrap yard, having ferried commuters across 40 years from the disco era to the digital age, a journey of 2 million miles with more than a few bumps along the way.

The Washington area’s underground transit network, an economic engine and a daily aggravation, is old enough to have outlived its inaugural fleet of chocolate-striped, brushed aluminum, 36-ton conveyances — those balky, screechy, un-“crashworthy,” asbestos-tainted vehicles known as the 1000-series cars.

It’s a watershed moment for the transit system.

The long-delayed junking of the “1Ks,” as Metro calls them, started Feb. 9, with two cars per week being hauled to a scrap yard in Baltimore. As the fleet of 1Ks gradually dwindles over the next few years, the cars will keep carrying riders until the last one is gone.

Their end is nigh.

A 1000 series Metro car at the Vienna Metro station on Wednesday. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

Farewell, many thanks.

And good riddance.

“This is the first time in Metro’s history that we’ve ever retired rail cars,” said Dan Stessel, a spokesman for the agency. Waxing a bit, he said: “The 1Ks have served this region for four decades. . . . I think people will eventually look back on them the way people in other cities, with more mature transit systems, look back with delight on their historic rail cars.”

Maybe someday.

“But we know, at this moment, folks are happy to see them go.”

A burst of technology

When the subway opened on March 27, 1976, it was just five stations along the embryonic Red Line — from Farragut North to Rhode Island Avenue. For the next five years, as the system expanded to three lines and more than 40 stations (roughly half its current size), the 1Ks were the only cars on the rails.

The first of the 1000 series cars are trucked away from Metro’s Greenbelt rail yard by United Iron & Meta. The cars are bound for a scrap yard near Baltimore. (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority)

From 1981 to 2008, with the subway continuing to expand, Metro purchased an additional 840 cars in five batches (the 2000 series through the 6000 series), each group similar in appearance to the 1Ks but with better safety features.

That gave Metro 1,100-plus cars, all mechanically compatible so that cars from different series can be mixed and run together. These are the trains so familiar to Washingtonians: drab gray with grimy carpeting and vinyl seats in a ’70s palette of earth tones. Transit dweebs can tell which model of car they’re riding in by the big serial number on the exterior sides and interior end doors, starting with a 1, or a 2 and so forth.

Now, after years of design and engineering work, Metro’s newest generation of cars, the technologically advanced 7000 series, has debuted. Ninety-six of the 7Ks, out of an eventual 748, have been delivered, with more coming each month. Despite recent glitches that have slowed production, Metro said, the cars have begun arriving from the factory at a sufficient pace to allow for the disposal of the ancient 1000 series.

Oh, when those 1Ks were young, in the years of plaid pants, patchwork caftans and platform shoes: Bureaucrats in the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter administrations were commuters then, and Metro was the toast of the town, the transportation crown jewel. Later, the ailments of age set in. Planning failures, decades of infrastructure attrition and poor management reduced the transit system to a beleaguered object of scorn.

Through that span, the 1K cars have trundled a combined 600 million miles, an average of about 2 million miles each as they near their final stop. Today, the nation’s second-busiest subway has six lines and 91 stations.

“It’s certainly the end of an era, no question,” Stessel said. “They have a distinctive character to them that is unique to Metro. Even that high-pitched squeal they make when they’re braking — that’s unique to the 1Ks.” (Here, Stessel emitted a high-pitched squeal, then chuckled.) “That sound you hear as the train pulls into the station and is slowing down, that squeak: No other cars make that sound.”

Over the years, Metro wanted each new series of cars to be mechanically and visually similar to those previous batches so that cars built in different decades could be used together. But that meant limiting technological improvements and sticking with an aesthetic design that was conceived when bell-bottoms were hip.

That practice was finally abandoned with the newest cars, the 7Ks, which are unlike the older cars in virtually every meaningful way.

Built of gleaming stainless steel and with modern ergonomic interiors, the 7Ks are so technologically sophisticated that they can’t be coupled with the older cars. The 7Ks run as separate trains, several of which are on the rails now. They are harbingers of a huge transition, the biggest change in engineering and industrial design in the subway’s history.

The 7K will be the template for Metro’s future rail cars. Meanwhile, as each older series completes its 40-year life span and is decommissioned, the antiquated, ash-and-mud-colored behemoths that riders have long been accustomed to will gradually disappear until the last of them is junked around the middle of the century.

On Feb. 9, that slow path to extinction began, with the 1000-series cars.

Little protection in the 1Ks

The demise of the 1Ks is coming none too soon, as federal officials see it. The cars are potential deathtraps, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

In Metro’s worst disaster, on June 22, 2009, Red Line train No. 112, rounding a bend near the Fort Totten station at about 47 mph, slammed into the rear of a stopped train. The operator of No. 112 and eight passengers in the front of the train, riding in a 1000-series car, were killed.

Unlike all of Metro’s newer cars, the 1Ks lack a “crash energy management design,” which “includes features designed to control collision energy to protect the occupied volumes of the rail car from crushing,” the NTSB reported. In other words, the old cars aren’t “crashworthy,” and woe be the riders caught in one during a major collision.

The design of the 1Ks “offers little occupant protection against a catastrophic loss of survival space” and “contributed to the severity of the occupant injuries and fatalities,” the NTSB said. The board urged Metro to retire the cars.

That was an impetus for the development of the high-tech 7000-series cars, the first eight of which debuted April 14.

Meanwhile, since 2009, the 1Ks have stayed on the rails. A steadily decreasing number of them will remain in service for a few more years during the scrapping process. At the same time, more and more 7Ks, being built in Nebraska, will be trucked 1,200 miles to the nation’s capital.

“Because of concerns about the crashworthiness of the 1000-series cars,” the NTSB said, Metro, after the Fort Totten disaster, “began placing the cars in the middle (belly) of trains with cars of a later design on either side.” This practice of “bellying,” frowned upon by the NTSB, is “intended to reduce the vulnerability of the cars to catastrophic damage during a collision by providing a ‘buffer’ of more crashworthy cars around them.”

But that won’t go on indefinitely.

Twice a week since Feb. 9, on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, a truck pulling an oversize flatbed trailer has arrived at Metro’s Greenbelt train yard.

Each day, another 75-foot-long rail car, 11 feet wide and weighing 72,000 pounds, is loaded aboard. And off it goes, north on I-95, bound for the United Iron & Metal scrap yard in West Baltimore. So far, six of the 280-plus 1Ks have been hauled away.

Those half-dozen 1Ks had been out of passenger service for a long time. The next four to leave will also be “non-revenue cars,” as Metro calls them. The first 1K to be junked from the active fleet is slated to depart Greenbelt on March 15, and the transit agency is planning a media event — “a little send-off,” Stessel said.

In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority puts museum-piece subway cars, some dating to the Depression, back on the rails occasionally, giving straphangers a nostalgia trip. Asked whether Metro intends to mothball any of the 1Ks to roll them out, say, in 2076 for the subway’s centennial, Stessel replied, “No, not at the moment.”

But Metro isn’t opposed to selling them to the public, he said.

“If someone wants to make a diner out of one of these or use it for a school trailer or something? If someone can facilitate getting it off the property and is willing to make a reasonable offer, we’d entertain that. We’ll listen to anyone.”

The 1Ks are the only cars in the fleet with asbestos-containing material, located in a mechanical area, Stessel said. It is “a very small amount” of “non-friable” asbestos, he said, meaning that there’s no imminent danger of hazardous fibers floating loose unless the material is heavily disturbed, as with a saw, drill or hammer.

At the scrap yard, after the asbestos is removed and carted to a waste facility, controlled mayhem involving an arsenal of ­industrial-strength demolition tools ensues.

“We don’t sell anything as parts,” said Aaron Hill, president of United Iron & Metal, which will be paid $1.34 million to dispose of the cars. “We’re not set up for any disassembly. We just cut and torch and chop and tear apart.”

And when the company sells what’s left, it’ll get the going rate for remnants of Metro’s history — about $130 a ton for steel, around 40 cents a pound for aluminum.