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Metro orders measurement devices that could hasten an end to train shortage

Three automatic wayside stations are on order to inspect rail car wheels and axles

Metro officials discuss problems with wheelsets on 7000-series trains. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Metro has ordered new devices that transit officials say could speed screening of rail cars for safety issues and hasten the end of a train shortage that started in the fall.

Transit agency General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld told Metro board members Thursday the agency plans to install three wayside stations in the Metrorail system that could measure and inspect rail car wheels and axles. The measurements would determine if any part of the cars’ wheels or truck assembly have shifted, which puts trains at greater risk for derailment.

All 748 of Metro’s most advanced rail cars, the 7000 series, have been out of service since mid-October, when a defect that pushes wheels outward was discovered on a derailed train. It was then found on several other cars during inspections.

“It may be a tool for us to bring the 7Ks back,” Wiedefeld said, but he didn’t discuss the timing of their return. Metro has said the cars won’t return before April.

Steep ridership losses will force changes to Metro service after pandemic, transit leaders say

Without the 7000-series cars, Metro has been forced to cut train frequencies, in some cases relying on 40-year-old cars pulled from storage.

The defect surfaced Oct. 12, when a Blue Line train derailed near the Arlington Cemetery station. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found the wheels of the car had shifted 2 inches, which experts say is rare. Emergency inspections and a search of records found the malfunction — which occurs sporadically and without warning — had been discovered dozens of times since 2017 but wasn’t considered a safety hazard until the derailment.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, a regulatory agency that oversees Metrorail safety, suspended the series Oct. 17 while allowing Metro to put cars into service when it devised a process to bring them back safely. After developing a screening protocol to inspect wheels daily, Metro was allowed to restore the cars Dec. 14. But the commission halted the effort about two weeks later, when officials discovered Metro wasn’t following its inspection protocols.

Transit officials had also found the daily task of inspecting and hand-measuring car wheels with a team of three technicians too slow and burdensome. Wiedefeld announced Jan. 13 that Metro wouldn’t seek reinstatement of the suspended cars for three months, focusing instead on finding the cause of the defect and testing how to automate wheel inspections.

Metro working on plan to bring suspended cars back into service

Wiedefeld told board members Thursday that Metro technicians and engineers are continuing to search for a cause but have started to suspect multiple factors. He said it was too early to make conclusions and did not provide details.

“We’re deep, deep into data analysis and collection with the independent review,” he said. “There are different theories that the research team is exploring. … They’re starting to get to the point where the root cause may be a series of root causes that come together in a unique circumstance.”

The absence of the modern cars brought a 15 percent drop in riders in November and December, more delays and more breakdowns or other mechanical problems, according to a transit performance report presented Thursday. On-time performance has fallen from 91 percent to 71 percent without the latest train series, according to Metro’s report.

The automated wayside stations Metro purchased are detection systems used by large railroads, rather than transit systems. Railroads use the devices to detect failing wheel bearings, brake shoe problems, side-to-side weight imbalances and wheelset defects, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The wayside stations Metro is purchasing will be able to analyze how cars’ truck assemblies are performing, take wheel profile measurements and have wheel temperature detectors, Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said.

Wiedefeld said the system would give Metro “in-track” ability to inspect and analyze cars. The system initially will be used to gather data on the 7000 series but the hope, he said, is that it becomes a regular part of Metro’s safety checks.

“It shows quite a bit of promise to help us have a better understanding of the data that we are seeing,” he said. “It will give us live information, but hopefully, as we start to understand this better, it’ll be a tool to bring back the cars sooner.”

Wiedefeld did not say when that might happen.

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

Metro Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader said Metro expects the first device to be delivered soon, adding that the transition has identified three sites for installation.

Transit officials on Thursday also provided board members with an update on the Silver Line. The second phase of the extension, spanning nearly 11 miles and connecting Metrorail to Dulles International Airport, has been delayed, but project planners said Metro’s punch list of final details continues to be whittled down.

Metro board member and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) asked Metro project managers if an opening date had been targeted.

“At this moment, we still wouldn’t be able to estimate when we think it’s likely that we’ll start service, right?” Letourneau asked.

“No sir,” said Andrew Off, Metro’s vice president of capital delivery.

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg asked Wiedefeld if Metro had enough trains to service the extension if the 7000-series cars are unavailable when the line opens.

“Yes,” Wiedefeld said. “Even at the state we are today.”