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Metro cutting back on eight-car trains

Some Metro riders will find the trains more crowded this summer because of Metro’s new maintenance program. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)
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Your rush-hour train may be more crowded as Metro conducts several maintenance programs that will reduce the size of the rail fleet over the summer.

All this week, Metrorail has cut its eight-car trains to sixes. Metro Deputy General Manager Rob Troup ordered the hundred cars in the 4000 series pulled from service to undergo special safety inspections after riders reported seeing doors on two cars open while the trains were moving. Without those cars in service, Metro can’t operate the eight-car trains that normally appear at rush hours along the Red, Orange, Blue and Green lines, transit spokesman Dan Stessel said Wednesday.

But even after this week-long special inspection of the 4000s, riders will still see fewer eight-car trains on Mondays and Fridays through the summer because of a new maintenance strategy, Stessel said.

The rail cars with the worst maintenance histories are going to get more time in the maintenance yards. This cut in car availability will mean six-car trains on the Red, Orange and Green lines, but Metro plans to keep the same level of eight-car service riders have been experiencing on the Blue Line, Stessel said.

I’ll give you more details about the plan and its effects, but first I’d like to say something about Metro’s communication. Many riders first heard about this maintenance and service strategy on Monday when train operators made announcements about the shortening of trains on Mondays and Friday.

Riders are used to hearing train operators say things like, “Stand clear. Train moving forward.” Historically, the train loudspeakers are not the riders’ primary source of information on strategic changes in safety, maintenance and customer service programs. For one thing, many people hear only garbled versions of those speaker announcements. And when the brief announcement was done, I’ll bet no one went to the train intercom to ask a followup question.

Stessel said that Troup is going to announce all these things in the public forum provided by the Metro board committee meetings on Thursday. And that’s fine. He should do that. But telling the board on Thursday isn’t the same as fulling informing the ridership on Monday, when the riders were first affected by the 4000 series safety inspections.

Here’s how Joseph Antos of Gaithersburg described to me what he heard:

On Monday, during the morning rush on the Red Line, the operator said that Metro is limiting service to six-car trains on ‘Monday, Wednesday, and Friday’ because of low ridership. I get on at Shady Grove, and by Rockville all seats were filled—and by Twinbrook the aisles were crowded. Clearly, there were plenty of people trying to get to work Monday. And maybe after the schools close it might make sense to eliminate eight-car trains on Mondays and Fridays, even during rush hour. But Wednesdays?

That matches up with the interpretations from other riders aboard Red Line trains Monday, but it’s different in several significant ways from what Stessel said in our talk Wednesday.

The safety inspections of the 4000 series throughout this week stem from door-opening incidents on May 31 and June 4. Those trains were removed from service when the reports were received. Troup then wanted all the cars in that series inspected for potential door problems. The timing of these inspections was about safety and had nothing to do with low ridership.

The maintenance program that will stretch into the summer will affect the length of trains on Mondays and Fridays, Stessel said. Ridership is generally about 10 percent lower on those days, partly because people work different sets of workdays, partly because they take three-day weekends, or they pick one of those days to telework.

Also, the rush hour ridership generally declines during summer vacation season, with schools on recess and Congress out of session.

The Blue Line will be the exception to the Monday-Friday cutback on eight-car trains because trains on that line operate 12 minutes apart, the biggest gap between trains in the Metrorail system.

Even with the summertime decline in ridership, some trains throughout the system are going to be more crowded than usual. The far west side of the Orange Line, at Vienna, Dunn Loring and West Falls Church, probably will be one of the places riders will notice the effect of the shortened trains.

At the Red Line’s Silver Spring station during Monday morning’s rush, trains originating three stations away at Glenmont were often crowded, with standees in the aisles. As the gaps between trains increased after 9 a.m., this became even more noticeable. Metro’s train-tracking computers had not adjusted to the new reality. The next train information signs on the platform often displayed “8” cars for trains just leaving Glenmont, probably based old schedule information. But by the time the train approached the Silver Spring platform, the electronic board displayed the same train as a “6.”

The upside for riders is the possibility that train breakdowns will occur less frequently because the cars are better maintained. This summertime maintenance program isn’t just about the 4000 series cars. “It’s about giving maintenance personnel more time with the least reliable cars, no matter what the fleet,” Stessel said. “The goal is more reliable service.”

So if the strategy works as Metro hopes, the same number of trains will be operating each weekday, and they’ll become more likely to stay on schedule.

You can partly blame the Silver Line for getting us into this fix. The line opened last summer without any new rail cars. So Metro has to stretch its existing fleet of 954 cars. One of the ways to accomplish that was to limit the time cars spent in the shop for routine checks. But routine checks are a way of discovering problems with brakes, doors and air-conditioning before the trains enter service for the day.

A visual user’s guide to Metro’s new 7000 series of rail cars, starting with five ways they are different. And maybe better. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

The new strategy will give more attention to those issues on the worst-performing cars. But while it comes at a time when the ridership dips, it’s still happening before the newly arriving 7000 series rail cars have had a major impact. (The 7000 series trains operating on the Blue and Red lines are not affected by the eight-car train cutback.)

Stessel said that saving money is not part of the strategy on the rail-car cutbacks. A six-car train uses 25 percent less power than an eight-car train, he said, but the cost savings isn’t enough to have a significant effect on Metro’s finances.

This maintenance effort may not be the only one to affect service this summer. The National Transportation Safety Board may have more findings stemming from the Jan. 12 smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza that will require Metro to launch new maintenance programs. Among the possible consequences is a return of midday track-sharing as trains make their way around work zones.