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Metro safety commission orders cars out of service, saying agency didn’t follow terms of plan

The commission directed Metro to overhaul its return-to-service plan for its 7000-series rail cars

A technician carrying the tool used to measure the wheelset on 7000-series cars walks away after demonstrating the process during a news event. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission ordered the transit agency’s flagship 7000-series cars out of service Wednesday for the second time in less than three months, saying Metro hadn’t followed the terms of a plan to safely reintroduce the cars after a derailment.

Commission spokesman Max Smith said that in at least two cases, there had been minuscule movements in the cars’ wheels that should have led to them being pulled from service, but that Metro failed to take action. In all, five 7000-series cars out of 40 that were being used for passenger service had, in some way, not met the terms of the safety plan, he said.

“We caught this,” Smith said. “The idea behind the plan is that Metro should be implementing it so there’s nothing to catch.”

In an order issued Wednesday, the commission directed Metro to overhaul its return-to-service plan for the series, saying the plan should spell out “additional protections and internal oversight” to ensure cars that fail safety inspections are kept out of service.

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

Metro had gradually been reintroducing the cars in recent weeks, subjecting their wheels to weekly, then daily inspections, holding out the promise that the rail network was on its way to recovery. But the new safety order is another setback at a time when Metro is seeking to recuperate from its worst crisis in six years as it tries to lure back riders during the pandemic.

Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said the cars had been pulled from service so the agency could revise its inspection criteria.

“We’ve paused use to clarify the confirmation process for measurements once wheelsets are identified as requiring additional follow up within our criteria,” he wrote in an email.

While 210 of 748 cars in the series had been approved to return to service, Jannetta said the move was not expected to affect Metro’s service levels. The transit agency is running trains about every 12 minutes on the Red Line and 20-24 minutes on other lines.

Metro had announced Dec. 23 it was pausing the reintroduction of additional cars and switching from weekly to daily inspections. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said at the time that daily inspections were “the safest course.”

The transit system has been limping along with reduced service levels after the entire 7000-series fleet was ordered out of service in October. A derailment on the Blue Line exposed dangerous defects in wheel assemblies that was causing wheels to spread apart.

Metro lays out early plan for reincorporating suspended series of trains

No one was hurt and the derailment initially appeared to be an isolated incident. But as the National Transportation Safety Board began an investigation, it discovered the defect appeared to be widespread, affecting dozens of wheel assemblies in recent years. The fleet was abruptly pulled from service, leaving Metro to rely on decades-old cars to run a bare-bones service.

Metro then carried out tests using out-of-service cars to determine how often they needed to be inspected to ensure the defect didn’t develop unnoticed between standard 90-day inspections.

The safety commission approved a plan this month that allowed Metro to gradually begin reintroducing the cars, subject to weekly wheel inspections and other criteria. A safety consultant hired by the agency then recommended the daily inspections.

Metro says derailment risk found in other model of rail car is ‘outlier’

The NTSB is continuing to investigate the derailment and its underlying causes, working with Metro, manufacturer Kawasaki Rail Car and its suppliers. It’s still unclear why the wheels were moving on their axles, but outside experts and Metro veterans said it’s unusual.

Metro knew about the problem as far back as 2017, although it initially appeared in a small number of rail cars. A group of senators has asked Metro to turn over a detailed timeline showing what steps it had taken since then to address the problem.