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Metro gets OK to add more suspended trains with less frequent inspections

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission allowed Metro to run as many as 20 of the agency’s 7000-series trains.

A 7000-series train approaches the Georgia Avenue/Petworth station platform in June. (Justin George/The Washington Post)

Metro can run up to 20 of its suspended 7000-series trains under an agreement amended Friday, potentially adding a dozen more trains to daily service while shortening wait times for commuters.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission announced that it approved Metro’s request to reinstate more trains while also allowing the agency to reduce the frequency of time-consuming inspections, from daily to every four days. The decision came days before Metro will shut down the Yellow Line and several stations for eight months as part of a bridge and tunnel construction project.

The closure will create lengthy detours for some riders between D.C. and Northern Virginia, but also will allow Metro to reallocate trains elsewhere — alongside the increase approved by the safety commission. The transit agency has spent months working on plans to boost service levels as it tries to lure back riders who abandoned transit during the pandemic.

In a statement, Metro said Friday’s approval from the regulatory agency that oversees rail safety was a “significant step” in the restoration of its fleet. The 7000 series is Metro’s latest and most advanced model, making up nearly 60 percent of the system’s rail cars. All 748 were suspended in October when a federal investigation into a derailment uncovered a defect in several cars that causes wheels to move outward.

The cars are slowly being returned under the watch of the safety commission. Friday’s approval means riders can expect to see more 7000-series trains beginning Sept. 12 — two days after the Yellow Line shutdown, Metro said.

“In my frequent conversations with Metro customers, I hear over and over that more frequent service and more 7000-series trains on the tracks are a top priority, and that’s what we’re working to deliver,” Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said in the statement.

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While the increase is an improvement, the bulk of the cars remain sidelined as Metro works through the staff-intensive process of inspecting each car that returns to service.

The inspections require precise measurements of the distance between car wheels on an axle. Transit engineers are testing automated wheel inspection systems that could quickly perform inspections on dozens of cars in short order, but Metro officials don’t know when those systems might be ready or if the safety commission will approve their use.

When Metro first proposed putting the cars back into service under a screening process in December, the agency received the safety commission’s approval for weekly wheel checks. A consultant for the transit agency, however, recommended that Metro perform inspections daily, leading Metro to begin the more frequent checks.

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The daily regimen quickly fell apart when the safety commission found Metro was deviating from its screening guidelines, coming as transit officials lacked tools for such precise measurements. In May, the safety commission allowed Metro — this time using digital measurement devices — to try again, permitting the use of up to 64 cars, or eight trains, each day.

During that time, no trains have failed an inspection because of the defect, which investigators say does not affect all cars and surfaces only after a period of usage.

Safety commission spokesman Max Smith said in a statement the changes to Metro’s return-to-service agreement were approved, in part, because “trains in passenger service primarily on the Yellow and Green Lines beginning in June have had no identified wheel migration in Metrorail inspections.”

The spotless record factored into the commission’s decision to let Metro reduce the interval of inspections, going from daily to a requirement of inspections after four consecutive service days, Smith said. The amended agreement also allows for Metro to phase in 7000-series trains on the Red Line for the first time, rather than only on the Green and Yellow lines.

While Metro welcomed the changes, the number of new trains allowed was less than Metro’s initial request. The transit agency had sent the commission a proposal for bringing back up to 35 total trains — 27 more than what’s currently allowed. The agency also asked to cut back inspections to weekly. Metro officials did not comment Friday on whether the agency had hoped to add more trains.

In its statement, transit officials said 7000-series cars are still Metro’s most reliable trains. The series had been largely trouble-free except for a wiring issue since joining Metro’s fleet in 2015. Multiple performance reports before the pandemic have indicated the cars led to Metro achieving a nearly 90-percent rate of on-time arrivals.

Metro said that despite their recent troubles, cars in the latest series are about one-fourth as likely to become disabled as older rail cars.

The cause of the defect, which has been found in 50 cars since 2017, remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, Metro and the safety commission. Metro officials have said they believe several factors are responsible — an assessment shared by the safety commission.

Smith said in a statement Friday that “available information continues to suggest there are multiple contributing factors to this wheel migration on 7000 Series cars including factors that could differ across similar elements of the Metrorail system.”