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Metro to submit plan that could allow suspended cars to return to service

The agency is working to return some older trains that had been in storage or undergoing repairs to alleviate crowding

A 7000-series Metro rail car. The series has been pulled from service amid a National Transportation Safety Board investigation. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Metro’s top executive said Monday he expects the transit agency to submit a testing plan this week that would be a step toward bringing troubled rail cars back into service.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said the transit agency expects to provide a proposal to the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission — the agency that monitors Metro safety — laying out how it will oversee the return of its 7000-series cars. The safety panel needs to approve the testing procedures before Metro follows up with a mitigation plan for how to safely return the trains to service.

Wiedefeld’s comments came as the transit agency continues to face questions over the Oct. 12 derailment and problems with wheel assemblies of a rail car series that entered service between 2015 and 2020. National Transportation Safety Board investigators have said Metro knew of a problem for years, while Metro has said it had been in contact with the manufacturer, Kawasaki Rail Car, about the issue since 2017.

NTSB investigators are trying to determine why wheels on several 7000-series cars shifted, putting trains at greater risk for derailments and other incidents.

Wiedefeld said during a Monday briefing that Metro is also working to return some older trains that had been in storage or undergoing repairs in an attempt to alleviate crowding. He said the transit agency is working to place 2000- and 3000-series cars that entered service as far back as 1982 into service after inspections.

The suspension of the 7000 series has forced the transit agency to run the rail system using about 40 train sets, operating trains every 15 to 20 minutes on the Red Line and every 30 to 40 minutes on other lines. Silver Line trains are operating between the Wiehle-Reston East and Federal Center SW stations.

“I understand from a customer perspective, it’s clearly not what we want to offer, but it is the safest thing that we can offer,” Wiedefeld said of service levels. “We want to get as many of the existing fleet we have out there to deal with the immediate pressure, but the real solution is getting the 7Ks inspected and monitored in a way that we’re all comfortable from a safety perspective.”

The agency is also working to return its 6000-series fleet to the tracks. Those cars had been pulled from service in November after two train separations on the Red Line last year. Wiedefeld said their return is slow — partly because of challenges in getting the part that needs to be replaced — but he said the agency is adding about one train set every two weeks and expects to add about a dozen sets over the next two months.

On Monday, Metro service began with 31 trains, plus an additional train to address crowding on the Green Line, Wiedefeld said.

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said he is encouraged by progress being made in working with the safety commission to return the 7000-series cars.

“Hopefully [we can] get some of those cars back as quickly as possible so we can increase service and reduce those headways,” said Smedberg, adding that he’s heard from riders about long waits and crowding. He said he waited 35 minutes for a train on Friday.

Federal investigation into suspended rail cars puts focus on inspections, maintenance

Wiedefeld said Metro is meeting with the NTSB and Kawasaki on Tuesday to look at out-of-compliance wheel sets and to provide data to be analyzed by federal investigators.

He highlighted other efforts he called “early actions” to enhance the inspection process. He said Metro is investing in “more sensitive, more accurate inspection equipment” that will be used by maintenance crews. He said the agency is also transitioning from a paper-based inspection process to an electronic system.

Metro has said basic rail service will continue through at least Sunday, which would be two weeks after it began. The transit agency hasn’t set a timetable on boosting service back to normal levels.

No one was injured in the Oct. 12 derailment, which prompted the evacuation of 187 passengers outside the Arlington Cemetery station. Wiedefeld said Monday neither the train operator nor anyone else at the transit agency knew the train had previously derailed at least twice on the same day, which the NTSB had noted in a briefing one week earlier.

NTSB investigators recovered brake parts at two other locations on the train’s route during their investigation.

“Yes, there were three derailments of that train where that wheel, in effect, climbed off of that rail, but the operator did not know that, nor would anyone else,” Wiedefeld said.

Metro extends lower service levels for another week amid derailment probe

With all 784 cars out of service in Metro’s latest series, the transit agency is operating with 268 rail cars, or about 22 percent of its roughly 1,200-car fleet. Nearly 250 are from its 2000 and 3000 series. Between 10 and 15 percent of available rail cars are typically out of service on any given day for maintenance or repairs.