Financial problems sparked by the pandemic, a prolonged train shortage and questions about the stability of Metro’s tracks converged Thursday as transit leaders said they will look outside the agency to help solve a growing budget gap while assuring the public the rail system is safe.
“We will not have enough rail cars to operate the network,” he said. “And that’s just on today’s frequency level — and the frequency that customers are looking for, and to deal with the crowding issues.”
The multiple worries confronting Metro leaders surfaced during a regular Metro board meeting as fallout spreads from the suspension of the agency’s 7000-series cars. Their removal has coincided with an increase in commuters returning to offices but has left Metro unable to lure back hundreds of thousands of riders at a time when the agency is desperate for fare revenue.
Clarke said the latest casualty of the train shortage could be the planned late fall opening of the 11½-mile Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County. The project — which only recently came under Metro’s control — is years behind schedule with a price tag of more than $3 billion, but the line is expected to begin carrying passengers to six new stations before the end of the year.
Metro has moved a portion of its fleet elsewhere in the system during the six-week closure of six stations south of Reagan National Airport. Those trains will be reallocated to the stations when they reopen in late October, which would leave Metro unable operate at current service levels without additional trains. The addition of the Silver Line extension would leave the fleet too thinly stretched across the system, Clarke said.
Metro’s ability to bring back its 7000-series rail cars, which are the agency’s most advanced and make up 60 percent of its stock, depends upon the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the regulatory agency that issued the order suspending the model last October.
The Kawasaki Rail-built cars were pulled after a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into a derailment uncovered a wheel-widening defect found about 50 times during inspections over four years. The NTSB, which is working with Metro and the safety commission, continues to investigate the defect but has allowed Metro to use up to 20 eight-car trains each day from the series for passenger service, provided they have their wheels screened every four days.
The wheel inspections are done manually, creating a staffing challenge that limits the number of trains Metro can return. Transit engineers are installing and testing automated wayside inspection systems to speed the screening process and possibly aid in the reinstatement of the remaining 588 suspended cars. Clarke said Thursday that system is progressing but isn’t ready to roll out.
Though fewer trains are in service, ridership has increased in recent months as more workplaces summon employees back to offices. Metrorail ridership has increased 10 percent since Labor Day and recently hit a pandemic-era high of more than 290,000 daily trips — although that number is 44 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
The eight-month closure of the Yellow Line for bridge and tunnel repairs has allowed Metro to redeploy trains throughout the system amid rising demand, but Clarke said 12 additional stations coming online this fall — combining the Silver Line and those currently closed on the Blue and Yellow lines — would be too much to handle.
“It’s just a simple math equation,” Clarke said after the board meeting. “We need X amount of trains to deliver X amount of service, and now we’re adding even more miles of track for new service. So we need to bring more trains back to the system.”
The bump in riders is also being felt in other ways during the train shortage. Metro Assistant Chief Safety Officer Jayme Johnson said the threat of crowded trains is increasingly a health concern during the pandemic.
“We are not overcrowded at this moment,” Johnson said. “However, the data that I’ve been seeing over the last couple of weeks — specifically on the Red Line at certain times during rush hour — is where those figures, or number of customers in the rail car, has grabbed my attention. And I would say that there is a growing risk of overcrowding.”
Johnson said solutions would need to be addressed with the safety commission. Clarke said Metro plans to submit a new plan to the commission asking for an increase in the number of 7000-series cars the transit system can use.
Officials with the safety commission and Metro have said they are part of a collaborative partnership, but a revelation made during a safety commission meeting this week prompted Metro to push back on any assertions Thursday that its tracks are unsafe or are a key part of the federal investigation.
On Tuesday, safety commission chief executive David L. Mayer told commissioners during their monthly meeting that the federal investigation unearthed a 2015 report from a Metro engineering consultant. The consultant had studied wheel movements in Metro’s fleet and cited problems with the assembly of wheels, axles and “restraining rails” — rails within track turnouts or switches that distribute the lateral force generated when trains negotiate curves.
The report for the first time shifted some of the focus off the 7000 series and raised new questions about the safety of Metro’s tracks. It also revealed Metro had been dealing with wheel movements on its cars before the agency has said they began appearing — as well as on older models of cars.
Mayer said the safety commission hadn’t been aware of the report before the current NTSB investigation because it preceded the commission’s existence by three years. He also said current Metrorail engineers were unaware of the report until it surfaced during the investigation.
The report called for adjustments to the rail flangeway widths on the track, Mayer said. Setting the proper width “is critical to ensuring that no unnecessary force is placed on the wheel flange by a restraining or guard rail,” he said. The report, he said, indicated that the force applied to wheels from “these improperly placed restraining rails” can cause wheels to shift apart. Mayer said Metro never addressed the issue, even after its own quality assurance department twice raised questions about Metro’s standards for restraining rails, calling for new engineering studies and track-design criteria.
On Thursday, Metro sought to assure its board and the public that the track system is safe, and said it willingly provided the NTSB with the 2015 report in November. Since then, federal investigators haven’t raised track concerns that might threaten passenger safety, Johnson said. The safety commission also said the restraining rails do not pose a danger to passengers.
“During that time, it’s important to acknowledge that neither the NTSB nor the [safety commission] had issued a single directive to Metro to change any aspect about wheel size or track configuration,” Johnson said. “This is because the root cause remains unknown. If hazards were to be identified at any time during the investigation, the NTSB assured me that they could issue urgent and early recommendations, and no such recommendations have been made to date. ”
Metro officials said the track issues are not being investigated, while acknowledging that a number of factors might be causing wheels to widen on their axles. Metro officials on Thursday did not address whether they believe the claims in the 2015 report are valid, but Clarke pushed back on the safety commission’s statement that Metro had been unaware of the report before the investigation.
“You can’t hide a report that you actually gave to other people. I think that’s really important,” he said. “Number two, there’s nothing in the report that leads to a root cause.”
Clarke said Metro has put together a team of track, rail and power engineers to review Metro’s rail system and the complex relationships of all its parts.
“If a root cause was track, it actually would be much better for us than vehicles because we would go out and change the rails and we’d be moving on,” he said.
The loss of fare-paying commuters to telework is projected to leave Metro with a $184.7 million budget gap starting next summer — if Metro wants to continue operating at current service levels, then increase service when its full fleet returns. Board members were given a first look at the agency’s financial state Thursday as they begin planning for next fiscal year’s budget.
While the operating budget shortfall could require Metro to eliminate positions or cut underused bus routes, it is smaller than the $300 million to $500 million deficiency the agency began bracing for months ago — a gap that shrank with the help of $627 million in remaining coronavirus relief funding, rising ridership, federal grants and funding from the infrastructure law.
Transit officials say the shortfall should not significantly affect service but could require Metro to lean on other sources of revenue, including the continued leasing or sale of transit agency land for development. Metro board members signed off Thursday on allowing staff to negotiate with General Services Administration officials to build a headquarters for the FBI on 40 acres Metro owns in Greenbelt — if the federal government selects the site, which is one location under consideration.
Crime and fare evasion complaints continue to hound Metro, problems that Clarke said riders often discuss with him. He said riders will begin to see more transit police on trains, buses and in stations. He also asked Metro staff members to see whether station fare gates can be altered to deter fare-jumpers, saying he plans to announce a proposal next week to tackle fare evasion issues.
But even a decrease in fare evasion is unlikely to make up for a growing gap between revenue and service costs after next year. Metro’s financial projections show the gap growing to $527 million in fiscal 2025, then widening each year without significant increases in revenue or funding.
Thursday was the first time board members called on the larger Washington region — looking outside the purview of Metro — to offer more funding assistance or support if residents want transit service with increased frequency and reliability.
“It’s becoming clearer and clearer the financial structure is simply not sustainable for the future,” Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said.