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Metro outlines plan to gradually return suspended rail cars through summer

Transit officials also said the Silver Line extension to Loudoun County would be delayed until at least summer

Metro technicians in Greenbelt, Md., demonstrate in November how the spacing between wheels on the 7000-series rail cars is measured. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Metro unveiled a plan Thursday that would gradually ease a train shortage through the summer, proposing a path to service beginning in May for its suspended rail cars as the transit agency records its highest ridership levels of the pandemic.

The plan outlines the eventual return of Metro’s 7000-series rail cars, which have been sidelined since a Blue Line train derailed in October. The transit agency said it is continuing to work toward a long-term solution to a five-month train shortage that has removed 60 percent of its fleet amid a federal safety investigation.

Metro’s proposal has been in the works for three months but offers no cause or solution for the mysterious defect that has plagued the wheels of nearly two dozen 7000-series cars, forcing all 748 out of service. The plan is Metro’s most detailed accounting yet of how the agency hopes to begin emerging from its biggest crisis in seven years, coming amid reduced public confidence and a pandemic that has battered its finances.

The tentative timeline for the return of increased rail service came during a Metro board meeting Thursday in which transit officials said the Silver Line extension to Loudoun County would be delayed until at least summer because of “nonnegotiable” construction issues. The 11-mile extension, built by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, has faced numerous delays and originally was scheduled to be completed in July 2018.

Metro’s new proposal for boosting rail service doesn’t provide immediate service upgrades but relies on adding trains over several months to reduce wait times that are frustrating commuters. Metro had previously said the 7000 series would not return before April.

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Faced with trains and stations becoming increasingly busy — as well as the task this year of opening the six-station Silver Line extension — Metrorail is hoping for quick approval from its regulatory agency for an automated wheel screening system to test, then reinstate, its 7000-series cars.

The safety commission suspended use of the cars until Metro could prove it solved the problem or could operate the trains safely. Metro experts and safety commission officials say cars can return safely if they are regularly monitored for the slightest signs of wheel movements. The defect’s slow progression allows for early detection long before it becomes significant enough to derail a train.

If Metro’s plan — which had not been submitted Thursday — wins the support of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the transit agency would reduce Green and Yellow line waits to 15 minutes by May with an influx of older trains, while gradually phasing the 7000 series into service this summer. By the end of summer, transit officials said, the returning cars would help to reduce waits on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines to 15 minutes, with less time at stations served by multiple lines. Those wait times are comparable to off-peak frequencies before the pandemic.

“As Congressional and regional leaders have made clear, our ability to work together toward our common goal is crucial as our customers, businesses, employers, and governments are counting on us to get back to work and restore normalcy following the worst public health crisis in a generation,” Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said in a letter laying out the plan to the safety commission.

Metro says multiple factors likely to blame for rail car defect

The suspension of Metro’s most advanced and previously most reliable cars has challenged the agency at a time when ridership and revenue continue to suffer from the prevalence of telework. Still, demand is high among riders for frequent and reliable service as passengers seek social distancing onboard and the shorter wait times they were accustomed to before the pandemic.

Trains that had been running at 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels have recently been carrying more passengers, creating standing-room conditions during peak hours, partly because of the limited number of trains in the system. On Tuesday, Metrorail reported about 245,000 trips, the biggest daily total since the pandemic began and nearly 40 percent of early 2020 levels.

Metro is the nation’s third-largest rail transit system, with a fleet of about 1,200 rail cars. The 7000-series cars, built by Kawasaki Rail, entered service in 2015 at a cost of about $2 million apiece.

Metro’s recent troubles began when a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the derailment outside the Arlington Cemetery station revealed that wheels on one car had shifted two inches farther apart, causing them to slip from the track. Investigators ordered emergency inspections of the fleet and learned that a small number of cases had been found during routine inspections as early as 2017. Then, last year, occurrences of the flaw grew significantly.

Metro orders measurement devices to hasten end to train shortage

In December, the safety commission lifted its suspension, allowing Metro to use the cars under a plan that would monitor the wheels for increased spacing or shifting through daily inspections.

But the commission reimposed the suspension about two weeks later, when inspectors learned that Metro was not following its plan. Metro also determined that hand-measuring the spacing between wheels daily was unfeasible.

Transit officials at the time said they would take three months to search for the cause of the malfunction while scouring the railroad industry for technology that could automate the measurements.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Thursday the cause of the defect continues to elude Metro’s engineers and experts, who suspect a mix of factors. Wiedefeld said Metro’s investigation is in a testing phase that includes re-creating operational conditions that might shed light on the flaw.

“As the cause appears to be a combination of factors, I do not expect a near-term solution,” he said.

Metro working on plan to bring suspended cars back into service

With ridership, road congestion and gas prices rising, Wiedefeld said Metro’s immediate strategy to head off crowding on trains involves restoring 50 of its 6000-series cars, which are mostly unavailable since the model was taken out of service in November 2020 because of multiple train separations.

The transit system has rebuilt much of the “coupler” system, and it began slowly phasing in the cars in October. Wiedefeld said Metro hopes to have the 50 additional cars back in service by May, if the safety commission certifies them. The cars would provide an additional seven or eight six-car trains, on top of at least 50 that Metro has in service.

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

At the same time, Wiedefeld said, Metro will work toward getting the safety commission’s approval for a digital gauge to measure wheelsets that Metro plans to use along multiple automatic wayside inspection stations. The stations, which will be installed along the track in the coming weeks, take measurements as trains pass.

Metro plans to use both the automatic and manual measurement methods until it can slowly shift fully to the automatic measurements.

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

Smedberg on Thursday urged the safety commission to act quickly.

“We cannot wait until the end of these safety processes and protocols to get approvals,” he said. “We need timely decisions to be made as we go, or this will continue to drag on.”

Safety commission spokesman Max Smith said his agency is in daily contact with Metro, but added that the commission can’t act unless Metro submits a plan to operate the trains safely.

“[Metro] has not submitted a 7000 series return-to-service plan to us as required by and described in our order, so we do not have any specific action item,” he said. “We continue to work with them closely to make sure that they’re sharing information with us and that we can provide any feedback as soon as we can.”

Silver Line extension takes a large step forward with completion of rail yard at Dulles Airport

Wiedefeld also told the board Thursday that because of continuing issues with construction of the Silver Line, he does not expect passenger service to begin on the line’s second phase until at least July.

While the transit agency had not set a date for when the extension would begin carrying passengers, earlier timelines laid out by the agency indicated service could begin in the first half of this year.

“This is critical to getting people out of cars as they head back to work to alleviate road congestion,” Smedberg said. “But it’s also very critical to the region’s economy.

Thursday’s update from Metro was a stark contrast to the update offered to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Board at its meeting last week. Board members were told the Silver Line was continuing to move forward and that outstanding issues were being resolved.

MWAA officials said they continue to work closely with contractors to fix issues standing in the way of opening the rail line. In response to criticism of MWAA’s management of the project, authority spokesman David Mould noted the complexity of building the rail line.

“A project of this size and this importance is a very complicated thing,” he said. “A lot of issues are expected to come up. We believe that everyone is working well together. We believe we are making good progress toward the goal of providing a safe, reliable system.”

The delay is proving costly for the airports authority. Last week, project officials told the board it paid Capital Rail Constructors, the contactor responsible for building the rail line, an additional $4 million for its continued oversight of the line, which will continue until Metro is ready to move to the next phase in the project’s completion.

The issues Metro has raised include a lack of building occupancy certificates, missing certifications for a yard signal system and orange, boot-shaped cable connector assemblies that provide power for the rails.

“I know the board shares my extreme disappointment that we will not be cutting the ribbon together on the Silver Line this spring,” Wiedefeld said. “The reality is, we don’t control when the airport and their contractor finish their work. We don’t control that. So once they do that, once they’ve done their work, then we get in to do what we do.”

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large) said delays have become commonplace for the project.

“I’m very frustrated by this latest setback,” he said in a text message. “While these new specific problems may fall on [the airports authority] and the contractor, at the end of the day, my frustration throughout these non-relenting delays is with all parties involved.”

Metro’s next rail cars to be built at new $70 million Maryland plant

Also Thursday, Maryland state Sen. Malcolm L. Augustine (D-Prince George’s) lodged a complaint with Metro’s board about Hitachi Rail’s process in choosing a Hagerstown site to build Metro’s 8000-series cars. The company announced last week it selected a 41-acre site for a 307,000-square-foot factory that will assemble 256 Metro cars starting in 2024. The $2.2 billion contract for the project, which includes an option for 800 more cars, included a stipulation that a plant be built in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Augustine, a former Metro board member, said the county was interested in the factory and asked Hitachi about the selection process twice last year, but did not get a reply. Augustine said a site within Metro’s service area would have created local jobs and increased cooperation and synchronicity between Metro and Hitachi.

“I have not heard back from Hitachi on this matter, but I felt it very important for me to bring this to your attention for immediate review and we will be doing the same from Annapolis,” he said.

In a statement Friday, Hitachi Rail officials did not say whether Prince George’s was considered for the factory. The company selected the Hagerstown site because of its proximity to Washington and other rail markets across the Northeast, the statement said. The company plans to use its Hagerstown factory to build cars and trams for other agencies after the Metro contract.

“We firmly believe our decision will benefit not only Washington County but the State of Maryland and the nation,” the statement said.

Metro board votes to replace agency’s top watchdog without comment

Metro board members also unanimously approved a $2.2 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2023, which begins July 1. The budget is funded with nearly $1.2 billion in subsidies from Maryland, Virginia and D.C., $375 million in revenue and $681 million in federal coronavirus relief money. The budget includes fare cuts and discounts intended to lure more riders, including $2 fares from 9:30 p.m. until close and discounts for weekly and monthly passes.