Days after a train derailment triggered a federal investigation, Metro was aware of wheel assembly defects in two rail cars that continued picking up passengers, officials said. The cars stayed in service until independent safety inspectors learned of Metro’s oversight, then ordered the two cars and the rest of the series out of service.
The Oct. 17 incident and the compressed timeline in which the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission ordered the suspension of about 60 percent of Metro rail cars were revealed Tuesday during the commission’s monthly meeting. The agency monitors Metrorail safety and was created by Congress in 2017 after safety failures.
The details raise questions about the urgency, awareness and response of Metro toward wheel assembly failures that have been found in more than 50 of its latest model rail cars over four years, including one car that went off the tracks Oct. 12 outside the Arlington Cemetery station. No one was injured and 187 passengers were evacuated, but the incident sparked a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
NTSB officials have said the defect — in which the distance between wheels widens outward on their axles — could have resulted in a catastrophic accident.
Safety commission chief executive David L. Mayer said Tuesday that Metro told the commission and NTSB about the defect for the first time while it was conducting emergency inspections of all 748 of its 7000-series cars, with the goal of clearing them for the Monday commute on Oct. 18.
The transit agency told investigators it had discovered between two and five defects annually during routine inspections between 2017 and 2020. The number of failures jumped to 18 this year, but Mayer said Metro had not disclosed them to the safety commission, as required — including during an audit of Metro’s rail car inspections, maintenance and best practices the commission released last month.
“This issue was not included in materials provided by [Metro] as part of our recent rail car audit, nor disclosed during our many audit interviews, nor is it mentioned at any of the regular and frequent discussions before the derailment between our vehicles experts and Metrorail staff,” Mayer told commissioners Tuesday.
By the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 17 — with about half of the 7000-series fleet inspected — Metro’s review had uncovered several car axles with wheel gauge defects in which wheels had moved outward, Mayer said. By evening, he said, inspections were turning up more.
As the commission’s inspectors reviewed a list of cars that Metro said were being held from service for failing inspection, they found two that remained in service that afternoon — both hooked to the same train, Mayer said. Commission officials told Metro, and the train was pulled out of service.
NTSB officials were concerned Metro had somehow left the two cars in use, spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris said.
“The investigative team was made aware of the two cars that were released by mistake, as well as [Metro’s] efforts to capture those cars as soon as they knew of the issue,” she said. “We were concerned, and this was taken into consideration in conversations with [the safety commission] regarding the status of the 7000-series fleet.”
The safety commission then ordered Metro to pull the entire series offline that evening. The cars will remain out of service at least through Sunday, forcing Metro to operate basic levels of service with lengthy waits between trains.
Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said the transit agency has changed how it marks and secures cars that are flagged during inspections.
“If a rail car is found with a noncompliant wheel, in addition to signage on the outside of the equipment, we have added a tag inside the operator compartment on the throttle that requires a supervisor to authorize any movement of the car,” he said. “There is also a new tracking mechanism for all 7000-series rail cars found to be out of alignment.”
Mayer said the NTSB is also reviewing Metro’s evacuation procedures from the Oct. 12 derailment. The transit agency has had recurring troubles with evacuations and communicating with passengers onboard during emergencies, which he said prompted the review.
On Tuesday, safety board commissioners also expressed frustration over Metro’s other recurring safety lapses after hearing a fresh round of reports about emergencies over several months in which the transit agency didn’t cut power to tracks despite knowing people were on or near them.
“Washington Metro’s been around a long time and had over 40 years of operating trains and essentially responding to emergencies and evacuating passengers,” said commissioner Robert Lauby, formerly the Federal Railroad Administration’s chief safety officer. “And yet again, in this particular accident investigation, we’re finding a failure to use incident command system, failure to communicate problems just in making plans to recover the trains in the emergency.”
Commission Chairman Christopher Hart, a former chairman of the NTSB, asked staff to determine whether other transit agencies have as many repeated procedural failures or violations as Metro to better understand if the agency is an “outlier” on safety.
“This report is so full of failures to comply, it just leaves me wondering are we seeing failures to comply because they don’t know the rules? Because they don’t like the rules?” Hart said. “But it’s just very troubling to see so many failures to comply with rules that are there for the safety of everybody involved.”
Jannetta said Metro created a new desk in the rail operations control center that, starting in January, will have control over track power to ensure they are not energized when workers or others are present. The transit agency is also rewriting its rules and safety manual with more rigid standards, Jannetta said.
An agencywide review of standards and procedures, as well as how well employees know them, will be completed by Nov. 5, he said.
The removal of more than half of Metro’s rail cars from service — as well as the suspension and gradual return of the agency’s 6000-series cars after two train separations last year — has forced the agency to reduce service and rely on cars that are more than 30 years old.
Mayer has said the widening of wheelsets is a progressive problem that surfaces after a period of time or miles. His agency has allowed Metro to come up with a plan to bring the 7000 series back into service without knowing a cause for the defect, possibly through frequent inspections of wheels and axles.
The transit agency expects to provide its proposal to the safety commission Wednesday, Jannetta said. He said Metro’s inspection of the fleet has turned up 20 axles out of alignment. He did not say if the defect had caused the wheels to move.
Inspections by the NTSB of all but 200 of the cars more than a week ago had also found 21 widening wheelsets.
Metrorail operated on Monday using 33 trains that serviced about 151,000 passenger trips. The transit agency is pulling more 2000- and 3000- series trains from storage to increase its available stock, Jannetta said.
Trains are operating 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.
Metro has said reduced service levels will be in place at least until Sunday, which would be two weeks after the 7000-series cars were pulled out of Metro’s roughly 1,200-car fleet. The transit agency hasn’t provided a timetable for when normal service might return.