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Metro working on plan to bring suspended cars back into service

Safety commission said transit officials have not said when it could request reinstatement of its 7000 series

The specialized bar used to measure the distance between wheels of the suspended 7000-series cars. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Metro hasn’t submitted its latest plan that would return more than half of its fleet to service and end a train shortage, officials from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission said Tuesday.

The independent regulatory agency said its experts are working with Metro as the transit agency tests new technology to screen the width between the wheels of its 7000-series rail cars. The cars were pulled from service Oct. 17 after a defect that causes wheels to shift outward was uncovered by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) while investigating a train derailment that occurred five days earlier.

The 7000 series is Metro’s latest and most advanced model of rail car. All 748 cars remain suspended by the safety commission, forcing the transit agency to use older models while operating at a reduced service level.

Metro says train shortage to last three more months while agency seeks ‘root cause’ of defect

The suspension had been briefly lifted last month after Metro came up with a plan for daily inspections of cars it put back into service. The rare defect was found more than 50 times between 2017 and 2021, including several found by the NTSB and Metro during emergency inspections after the derailment.

But the safety commission reinstated the suspension after it said Metro deviated from its safety plan. Metro, meanwhile, said it wants to look for more accurate and efficient ways to measure the distance between wheels, such as using devices embedded or inserted into the track. The transit agency had been doing measurements by hand, which Metro said was too time-consuming. Metro leaders have said they don’t plan to put the trains back into service until April.

“It is up to Metrorail to determine the time needed to gather the information and tools that it needs to develop and implement a safe return-to-service plan as required under our order,” safety commission chief executive David Mayer told commissioners at their monthly meeting Tuesday. “Metrorail has not provided a specific timeline for when it plans to submit their return-to-service plan, and our order does not contain any deadlines.”

Metro officials said Tuesday the transit agency had no update on the status of its plan.

The NTSB is collecting and reviewing data to determine what might be causing the defect, which continues to stump investigators. NTSB spokesman Keith D. Holloway said this week that no other cases of similar malfunctions have been uncovered at other transit agencies.

Metro said its work into the investigation also is moving forward.

“Our staff continues to work with external experts to analyze data we’ve collected over the last few months to understand root cause analyses of the 7000-series rail cars,” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Tuesday.

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

Also Tuesday, safety commission officials updated commissioners on actions Metro has taken to fix problems raised in audits and other investigations, including at its Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC).

In September 2020, the safety commission released a 50-page audit of the ROCC, the central nerve and traffic control center for Metrorail, that noted deep cultural, communication and organizational issues dating to the 1980s that it said harm passenger safety, employee morale and retention. The audit accused ROCC managers of being resistant to safety recommendations made over the years by state and federal oversight agencies, including the Federal Transit Administration.

The audit, which prompted rebukes from Capitol Hill, noted more than 20 issues Metro needed to address. Transit officials responded by restructuring leadership at the ROCC while vowing to transform its workplace culture.

Metro’s rail control center a ‘toxic workplace’ where procedures put riders at risk, safety report says

The safety commission’s chief operating officer, Sharmila Samarasinghe, said improvements include better communication among ROCC controllers, although communication among other personnel remains an issue. She said “chaos” and “confusion” within the ROCC during emergencies — a deficiency the commission raised in late 2019 — has also been addressed.

Metro is working on increased recruitment and retention, as well as boosting diversity within the ROCC, and has several months to demonstrate its efforts are working, Samarasinghe said.

The audit had pointed out that controllers were overworked because the center was short-staffed. Over a year, the audit found the ROCC had lost 13 controllers or controller students out of about 38.

Ly said Metro is making strides. The transit agency now has 49 certified rail traffic controllers, up from 31 in September 2020.