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Metro asks for permission to run more trains

The agency asked the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission for an increase in the number of 7000-series trains it’s allowed to operate

A rider waits for an arriving 7000-series train at the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station in June. (Justin George/The Washington Post)

Metro is asking its regulatory agency for permission to operate more trains, hoping the additional service could ease a rail car shortage that has created long wait times for more than nine months.

The transit agency wants to change the number of suspended 7000-series trains used in daily passenger service, Washington Metrorail Safety Commission chief operating officer Sharmila Samarasinghe said Tuesday. The proposal would require amending Metro’s agreement with the commission that outlines how many cars it is allowed to operate.

The request comes as more people are returning to offices and Metro is under new leadership that has prioritized the reinstatement of a series that comprises 60 percent of its fleet. General Manager Randy Clarke, who in his third week at Metro, has said the return of the 7000 series is key to Metro’s recovery amid a pandemic that has hurt ridership and shifted commuter habits.

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The safety commission, created by Congress to oversee Metrorail safety, suspended all 748 of 7000-series cars after the National Transportation Safety Board found a defect in several of the cars during a derailment investigation. The defect makes trains unstable by pushing wheels outward, but its sporadic and slow-progressing nature led the safety commission to allow Metro to operate 64 of the cars each day, provided their wheels are inspected daily.

The allowance, enough for eight trains, was based on Metro’s staffing constraints. The transit agency did not disclose how many cars it wants to operate, but safety commission spokesman Max Smith said Metro is seeking an increase. In June, the transit agency had sent the commission a request to run more cars on July 4, but Metro pulled the request back before the commission could make a ruling.

Samarasinghe said Tuesday during the safety panel’s monthly meeting that the commission is evaluating Metro’s proposal. Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said in a statement the agency will continue to work with the safety commission on the safe return of the cars, but didn’t disclose details of its request.

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Clarke, who has been soliciting guidance from riders during station meet-and-greets, faces several other challenges that include Metro’s record of recurring safety violations, luring back riders who shifted to telework and replacing fare revenue shortfalls that could force Metro to cut service next year. The agency has also tentatively pledged to open the long-delayed Silver Line extension to Loudoun County late this year.

Clarke has said returning the 7000-series trains is a crucial first step before tackling other looming issues. The transit agency this past weekend ran 7000-series trains for the first time on a Saturday or Sunday.

Transit engineers are continuing to install and test automated wayside inspection systems — devices embedded in or near the track that could conduct instant wheel inspections and precise measurements on hundreds of cars in a short period. Once ready, Metro hopes the systems will persuade the safety commission to allow for the return of all missing cars.

Samarasinghe on Tuesday told safety commissioners the panel is regularly consulting with Metro on the testing.

Safety Commission Chief Executive David L. Mayer said Metro’s manual inspection process has improved significantly in recent weeks after the commission found Metro wasn’t following its own inspection protocols in early July, which prompted Metro to briefly pause operating the small number of 7000-series trains.

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“Since Metrorail resumed use of the 7000-series cars and passenger service, each of our spot checks on individual rail cars has shown that the safety record-keeping has been kept up to date,” Mayer said. “We have observed that Metrorail has more consistently placed seven or eight 7000-series trains in passenger service on weekdays over the last two weeks.”

Ridership on the rail system is hovering at about 45 percent of pre-pandemic levels, with trains operating about every 10 to 15 minutes on most lines.

While aiming to shore up Metro’s rail fleet, Clarke in recent days has also shuffled the agency’s leadership ranks. He announced the hiring of a chief operating officer earlier this month, while two longtime members of Metro’s senior staff are no longer with the agency, Metro officials confirmed.

Lisa Woodruff, who worked at Metro for 31 years, had been senior vice president of business process development before her recent departure. She was cited last month in a Metro internal investigation into how 257 train operators ended up without recertification — a Metro requirement for operators every two years. Chief Safety Officer Theresa Impastato told board members in July that Woodruff and former chief operating officer Joseph Leader made the decision to give operators blanket waivers in March 2020 because the pandemic limited classroom training.

Both should have discussed the waiver with Metro safety and department leaders, Impastato said.

An unrelated 2020 safety commission audit into Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center alleged Woodruff had coached employees in the control room about what to tell auditors — a charge she has denied. Woodruff was cleared in December 2020 after Metro hired an independent law firm to investigate the audit’s allegation. She made $276,000 a year, Metro officials said.

Robert Potts, who had been with the agency for nearly nine years, recently left Metro after serving as senior vice president of Bus Services. He made $227,674.

The circumstances of their departures couldn’t be determined. Ly said the agency could not discuss personnel matters, and attempts to reach Woodruff and Potts were not successful.