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Metro lays out early plan for reincorporating suspended series of trains

The return would ease a train shortage that has hobbled the region and frustrated transit riders for two months

Metro general manager Paul J. Wiedefeld in November explains the wheelset inspection process Metro is testing in hopes of reinstating about 60 percent of Metro's rail cars. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Metro plans to reintegrate its suspended line of trains gradually — by slowly replacing older models with 7000-series cars that will decrease wait times to less than 15 minutes — after the agency gets permission to begin using them again.

The early plan, presented Thursday at Metro’s board meeting, marked the first time Metro officials have publicly said how they will reincorporate more than half of the agency’s suspended rail-car fleet. The return would ease a train shortage that has hobbled the region and frustrated transit riders for two months.

As the agency formulates an exit strategy from its largest crisis in six years, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Thursday that he does not know when the suspended cars will be reinstated by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission. The watchdog agency ordered all 748 cars in the series out of service in October after a National Transportation Safety Board investigation discovered a dangerous wheelset defect in several cars.

“We hope to know more about the timing of the return before the Christmas holiday, but all steps in the process must be satisfied to proceed forward,” Wiedefeld said.

Wheelset inspections of Metro railcars require precision and time, Metro says

The NTSB continues to investigate a malfunction that causes wheels fixed to axles to move outward, making cars more likely to slip off tracks. The defect — which has been found in more than 50 wheelsets — came to light Oct. 12, when a Blue Line train derailed outside Arlington Cemetery, prompting the evacuation of 187 passengers and the federal safety board’s probe.

Investigators have not determined what causes the widening, which surfaced during routine inspections in 2017 before proliferating this year. The widening does not affect all cars, but investigators said they cannot predict where it will appear.

The safety commission, which has authority over Metrorail safety, has let Metro develop a plan to put unaffected cars back in service. Transit officials are proposing to inspect cars about every eight days to ensure none show signs of the defect.

Metro tested this screening process last month, running two weighted, out-of-service trains through the system.

“Metro Safety Department and rail car maintenance engineers are busy reviewing the data and incorporating observations from the test period into the final inspection plan,” Wiedefeld told board members Thursday. “The proposed plan will include more frequent wheelset inspections, which must be reviewed and accepted by the [safety commission] before the 7Ks can return to service.”

Wheels of derailed Metro car had moved far beyond agency’s safety limits, NTSB investigation shows

He did not say when Metro might turn in the plan, but the transit agency has announced it does not expect a resolution before the end of the year. After the safety commission approves Metro’s plan, Wiedefeld told board members riders shouldn’t expect the rail system to quickly return to previous service levels.

He said as the 7000-series cars are brought into service, train arrivals will increase to every eight minutes on the Red Line — up from 12 minutes now — and 15 minutes on other lines now serviced every 20 to 30 minutes.

“I want to emphasize that the 7Ks’ reintegration will be gradual,” he said. “It will not happen all at once. We are planning incremental service improvements as the 7Ks are phased in.”

The 7000-series cars will replace many of the older rail cars Metro has pulled out of storage. Rail cars in use during the suspension include cars from the 1980s and Metro’s 6000 series, which are slowly being phased back in after repairs and inspections prompted by at least three train separations in recent years.

Metro proposes fare cuts to lure riders in budget that assumes slow return of passengers

The board on Thursday also moved a budget plan forward for fiscal year 2023 that includes a $2.3 billion operating budget, an increase of $182 million. It includes operating expenses for the 11-mile Silver Line extension, tentatively scheduled to open early next year, and the addition of the Potomac Yard Station in Alexandria.

The plan also includes fare cuts aimed at recruiting riders to the system after historic drops in passenger counts since the start of the pandemic. Metro plans to offer $2 late-night rail fares starting at 9:30 p.m. to benefit workers, and discount monthly passes to attract commuters splitting time between telework and the office.

The transit agency would also offer riders two six-month promotions under the plan: discounted seven-day passes and a bonus of $5 for every $25 added to SmarTrip cards.

Board members approved scheduling public hearings on the budget proposal in January and February, with a vote expected in March.

Board member Lucinda Babers, the District’s deputy mayor for operations and infrastructure, has said the SmarTrip promotion doesn’t reach riders who need it most: those unable to add $25 at one time. Finance Committee Chairman and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said the promotion is being included for the public to weigh in on.

“The board has the discretion to do any of these things, depending on the public input, or not do them,” he said. “I think it’s an important point. … Just because we are going out and advertising these fare proposals doesn’t mean that we’re automatically going to do all of them."

Metro considers changing the name of the White Flint station to North Bethesda

Board members also voted to change the name of the White Flint Metro station to North Bethesda, which was a request from Montgomery County officials. Business and government leaders said the name change is part of a rebranding to attract businesses long after the namesake White Flint Mall was torn down.

A Metro survey of Montgomery County residents showed 40 percent of respondents approved of the name change. Board Member Tracy Hadden Loh said she understood why many found the name confusing, as the Bethesda station sits three stops away.

“We have a Farragut North and a Farragut West. We have Pentagon and we have Pentagon City,” she said. “The board and the jurisdictions are propagating this problem throughout the system by having a West Hyattsville and Hyattsville Crossing. And now we’re going to propagate it even more by having a Bethesda and a North Bethesda. This is not great.”

Metro staff and some board members said the public typically doesn’t like name changes, adding that the White Flint name no longer represents the area. Montgomery County will pay $332,000 for the name change, which is the cost for Metro sign and map changes.

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