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Metro board hires safety advisers to review transit agency’s practices amid federal investigation

An NTSB team has spent two days at a Metro car maintenance facility to disassemble and inspect wheel sets of a train that derailed

A 7000 series Metro rail car is seen in the final stages of testing at a Kawasaki plant in December 2014 in Lincoln, Neb. The series of cars is now under investigation for safety defects by the NTSB and has been pulled out of service by Metro. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Metro’s board will hire outside experts to scrutinize practices and procedures at the transit agency as leaders try to restore public confidence shaken by the discovery of wheel assembly failures and the suspension of more than half its fleet.

The board’s announcement Wednesday came as National Transportation Safety Board investigators spent a third day trying to determine why wheels on nearly two dozen 7000-series rail cars had shifted, putting the trains at greater risk for derailments and other incidents. The NTSB said it called in manufacturer Kawasaki Rail Car and subcontractor ORX, which installed the cars’ axles and wheels, to help with the investigation.

The investigation team — which includes Metro safety experts and investigators from the independent Washington Metrorail Safety Commission — spent Monday and Tuesday at a Metro maintenance facility, where NTSB spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris said the group disassembled and inspected wheel sets of the Blue Line train that triggered the probe when it derailed last week.

No one was injured in the derailment, which prompted the evacuation of 187 passengers outside the Arlington Cemetery station, but it led the safety commission to pull all 748 of Metro’s 7000-series cars out of commission. The service cuts have further crippled an agency reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, creating crowded conditions and leaving many commuters searching for other methods of travel as more workers return to offices.

Prolonged disruption could be a drag on pandemic recovery for Metro and D.C. region, leaders say

Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said Wednesday that the board planned to hire consultants to serve as safety advisers, reviewing the agency’s communications, roles and responsibilities, inspections, training, reporting practices and overall safety procedures.

He said in a statement that the independent review is part of the board’s role of ensuring Metro is operating at “the highest levels of safety for our customers and employees.”

What happens next for Metro? The Post answers your questions.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she received a briefing Wednesday from Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, adding that she wasn’t surprised the board chose to turn to consultants.

“I don’t blame them when there were signs of issues since 2017,” she said. “I don’t blame them for wanting to be close to this issue.”

Wheel assembly on Metro rail cars had failed repeatedly, NTSB says; reduced service expected all week

Holmes Norton said Wiedefeld told her the cars, delivered from a plant in Nebraska between 2015 and 2020, had shown “earlier wear than expected” but that the reasons weren’t clear. She said Wiedefeld didn’t share information on when the suspended cars might return to service.

“What I can’t get out of him because I don’t think he knows is what the safety commission will require” before cars are allowed back in service, she said.

Max Smith, spokesman for the safety commission, said Wednesday evening that Metro has yet to submit a plan for addressing the safety issues and getting cars back into service.

Elected officials and Metro customers have expressed frustration over what the investigation could mean for Metro’s future and a lack of information about when the agency’s fleet and service levels might be restored. Metro officials have said an NTSB agreement limits what it can disclose.

The transit agency has indicated that rail service will remain limited until at least Sunday. Officials have not said why federal investigators indicated the agency knew of problems since 2017 but did not report them to the safety commission or remove the series earlier.

Metro suspends more than half of its rail cars after investigation uncovers safety problems

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) on Wednesday called on Metro to inform local leaders, businesses and the public of how the agency will “prevent the failures that led to this incident from recurring.” He said members of Congress are monitoring the investigation and discussing whether lawmakers need to increase oversight of the transit system.

In the meantime, he urged Metro to increase bus service and work with regional government leaders to create or add bus lanes to make up for the decreased rail service.

“It is simply unsustainable to cut train service in half without a significant corresponding increase in bus service,” he said in a statement.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Metrobus has capacity available for transit users seeking alternatives to Metrorail. Bus ridership, she said, is about 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Ly said transit officials already gave the bus system a boost in August, when Metro increased the frequency of buses on 36 lines and restored several routes. The shift pushed bus service to 97 percent of what it was before the pandemic, Ly said.

“All of our available operators and buses are already in service,” she said.

The suspension of 60 percent of Metro’s rail cars has forced the transit agency to run the 91-station rail system using 40 1980s-era train sets.

Metro continues to operate trains at 15-to-20-minute intervals on the Red Line and 30 to 40 minutes on other lines while the 7000 series remains sidelined. Silver Line trains are operating between the Wiehle-Reston East and Federal Center SW stations.

Messages left Wednesday with Kawasaki Rail Car and ORX were not returned.