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Return of Metro’s missing trains builds optimism among riders

The small number of 7000-series trains that returned to service Thursday didn’t shorten wait times, which is what riders want most

A rider waits for an arriving Yellow Line train at the Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro station June 16 in Washington. (Justin George/The Washington Post)

The long-absent silver trains showed up like an apparition Thursday, emerging from Metro tunnels to surprise passengers waiting at stations along the Green and Yellow lines.

The series, Metro’s latest and most advanced, has been sidelined since October because of a safety issue affecting the rail cars’ wheels. Thursday was the second time in eight months the 7000-series trains had carried passengers — the first instance lasting only days in December before they were quickly removed a second time.

On Thursday afternoon, Charles Preston’s cheeks flexed a smile that his black medical face mask couldn’t cover as he walked down the Georgia Avenue-Petworth station stairs. He quickly boarded one of six 7000-series trains that returned to service for the first time this year.

“It’s bigger and it’s cleaner and it’s newer and there’s more fresh air,” said Preston, 63. “It’s fresher.”

Suspended Metro trains to return Thursday amid eight-month shortage

The sleek and modern trains were a source of optimism for riders who have grown weary of double-digit wait times amid the suspension of the series, which makes up 60 percent of Metro’s fleet. Many riders Thursday saw their reappearance as a harbinger of normal service to come, even if that reality remains at least weeks away.

Metrorail’s regulatory agency has allowed it to bring back eight trains, or 64 rail cars, while the other 684 cars remain grounded until Metro can develop an automated system capable of performing daily wheel measurements of every car in use. Metro has installed machines for that purpose, but further testing and configuration of that system is required, the agency said.

Transit officials say the eventual return of the 7000 series and the accompanying reduction in wait times is a significant step to grow ridership as Metro faces a pandemic-induced revenue shortfall starting next summer.

The trains Metro has been allowed to bring back under a manual inspection plan will serve as reinforcements during the shortage. On Thursday, Metro ran 52 older-model trains in addition to its latest series, agency spokesman Ian Jannetta said.

Until the full fleet is reinstated, service levels are unlikely to rise to what riders were accustomed to before the pandemic, when trains arrived every three to six minutes, on average, and on-time performance hovered near 90 percent.

Metro will reinstate some 7000-series trains during summer

“Obviously these are much nicer trains, so that’s nice,” Logan Circle resident Matthew Martin, 29, said while riding a 7000-series train Thursday on the Yellow Line. “But I’d say the priority that we hear and we talk about most is reducing the wait times.”

Lauren Elliott, 28, moved to D.C. from Salt Lake City a few weeks before the 7000-series trains were pulled. Riding one of the trains Thursday, Elliott said their absence has meant a significant increase in the amount of time she spends commuting.

“It looks newer and cleaner,” she said. “But I feel comfortable in both. It’s getting you from Point A to Point B.”

The returning trains were a welcome milestone for the transit agency and riders. The sight created a buzz that extended to social media.

“7Ks are back,” Metro tweeted just before 7 a.m. The agency posted a video message from interim general manager Andy Off, who boarded one of the trains at the Huntington station on his way to work.

“Super thrilled for this day,” Off said. “Been a ton of work to get us here. We really appreciate our customers’ patience and the hard work of our front-line folks that put in all the effort to get us to this point. Have a safe ride.”

Riders and observers marked the moment with a mix of sincere excitement, mild anxiety and hollow praise.

“I AM ON A 7000 SERIES TRAIN REPEAT I AM ON A 7000 SERIES TRAIN IS THE END IN SIGHT,” tweeted user @Brontosaurus_DC.

“Well here goes nothing,” CQ Now and Roll Call Washington correspondent Niels Lesniewski tweeted aboard another.

“May the odds be ever in your favor,” replied Kathryn Watson, a CBS News White House reporter.

“Just hope those wheels on those 7000 series trains don’t fall off!” Twitter user @VTrduong replied to both.

The suspension of the 7000-series trains occurred after the National Transportation Safety Board investigated an Oct. 12 Blue Line derailment and found that wheels on the model had moved outward from their axles in nearly 50 cases dating back to 2017. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, an agency Congress created to oversee Metrorail safety, pulled the series five days later. The defect, which does not affect all cars, progresses slowly and can be caught before it becomes a safety risk. The commission allowed Metro to put the trains back into service if it could demonstrate a way to do so safely.

Elected officials and many riders expected the issue to be resolved quickly, but the origin of the defect remains unknown.

In December, the commission let Metro put the series back into service under a plan that included daily wheel measurements and inspections. The reinstatement was short-lived; when the commission found Metro deviated from its inspection plan, it imposed the suspension again.

Metro officials received permission in May to try again using more precise digital measurements, leading to the return of trains Thursday.

The trains, which slightly larger than Metro’s previous six models, drew stares and comments Thursday. It was the first time Metro had run eight-car trains — compared with six — during the shortage, and passengers often crowded into cars with the most passengers, seemingly unprepared for the extra space offered by the additional cars.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we do have eight cars,” a train operator announced at one point on the Yellow Line. “We do have eight cars. You can use all doors.”

Juanita Torrence, a longtime Metro rider who volunteers for the National Museum of American History, said she enjoyed how clean the 7000-series trains seemed. She was happy for the return of the series’ digital screens and to hear the calm, automated voice announcing the next station — features missing from earlier train models.

The ride filled her with cautious optimism that the train shortage could end soon.

“It adds a sense of normalcy to life,” said Torrence, 77. “I’m just very happy to see the new trains back, and I hope all the problems get solved.”