HAGERSTOWN, Md. — As wind swept over 35,000-pound concrete panels propped up around Hitachi Rail’s future assembly line in Western Maryland on Tuesday, gusts nearly toppled a large red Japanese daruma doll meant to signify good luck.
“We need good luck,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said later, after helping to fill in the doll’s left eye with a black pen.
“Yes, we do,” Clarke said. When the factory opens in the first quarter of 2024, the other eye will be filled in, completing the symbolic tradition, company officials said.
Hogan joined state and local leaders, Metro officials, and Hitachi executives to mark the company’s $70 million investment in a rail-car assembly line that, at full capacity, will be able to build 20 cars each month. As Metro reels from a pandemic-era ridership drop and wheel problems that pulled its newest trains from service, the transit agency is looking to its eighth generation of rail car as its oldest models near the end of their life span.
Metro has ordered 256 of the 8000-series rail cars at an average of $2.15 million apiece, with an option to purchase up to 800. The first cars are expected to come off the assembly line and be handed to Metro in 2025.
Metro’s contract with Hitachi, which could total $2.2 billion if all 800 cars are purchased, includes a clause requiring cars to be assembled in the Mid-Atlantic region. Hitachi officials have said they plan to continue making rail cars at the Maryland site after Metro’s contract ends.
Hitachi officials said the 300,000-square-foot facility about 70 miles northwest of Washington will be its main rail-car factory in North America. The site will have up to 460 employees working directly for Hitachi as part of a broader economic lift to the area.
“The job-creation potential and associated economic benefits are an absolute game changer for this region and for the entire state,” Hogan said. “Hitachi’s success truly is Maryland’s success.”
The 41-acre site near cornfields and a FedEx distribution center has enough open space for an 800-yard test track. The insulated concrete walls stand halfway around what will be a cavernous workspace that will have raised rails, allowing workers to easily reach beneath the cars.
Tuesday’s event came at a low point for a transit agency struggling through safety and financial challenges amid a pandemic that has slashed ridership numbers in half. Clarke said the new cars will be an integral part of the rail system’s future, one that will see a rebound in passengers as the region and the nation continue to build a reliance on transit.
“I’m convinced the future’s bright,” he said. “We’re becoming more transit-oriented. We’re building closer to rail stations and bus stations. We’re reducing parking.”
While the future of Washington commuting may no longer involve trekking five days a week to a downtown federal office building, Clarke said that Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are becoming increasingly crowded in the system, while demand for weekend service is recovering quickly.
The crowded trains have been a source of tension in recent days with the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the rail system’s regulatory agency, which has limited the number of 7000-series trains it can operate. Metro board members expressed frustration over a year-long rail-car shortage that transit officials say has exacerbated budget shortfalls.
Clarke said Tuesday that Metro is working to restore riders’ confidence in the system amid long waits for trains.
“I ask people to have a little patience with us,” he said.
As Metro slowly returns 7000-series trains to the system, it’s also preparing for their successor.
The steel shells for the 8000-series cars will be shipped from Italy to the Maryland factory, then outfitted with components sourced from across the country and around the world, company officials said.
The new cars will have heated floors, WiFi service, phone-charging ports, additional straps to grab for passengers standing near doors, easily changeable digital maps that can alert passengers to system issues, and more cameras inside and out to improve security and help train operators. The rail cars will also be more able to withstand crashes than the 1980s-era models they will replace, transit officials said.
The cars in Metro’s first order are slated to replace its 2000- and 3000-series cars, the system’s oldest models. Rail cars have a life span of about 40 years. The cars will be Metro’s eighth generation of rail car since the transit system opened 46 years ago.
Designed to match the all-silver 7000 series, the 8000-series cars will have similar bench seating and wide aisles, as well as upgrades including improved braking and increased ventilation and filtration systems to combat future pandemics, in addition to ordinary colds and the flu, Metro officials said.
Each car will be able to seat about 68 passengers. Hitachi Rail said the cars will be quieter and more energy efficient than Metro’s previous models.
Metro’s next generation of rail car has been overshadowed by the plight of its 7000-series cars, which account for 60 percent of its fleet. That series, built by Kawasaki Rail between 2014 and 2020, was suspended more than a year ago by the safety commission.
While investigating a Blue Line derailment that occurred in October 2021, the National Transportation Safety Board discovered a defect in some cars that pushes wheels apart on their axle, creating instability. The cause of the slow-progressing defect hasn’t been determined, although investigators say several factors are probably involved. The safety commission has allowed Metro to operate up to 160 cars daily from the series under conditions that include regular wheel screenings.
Metro is planning for wheels on the series to be screened indefinitely. The transit agency is testing automated wayside inspection systems that officials hope can screen wheels instantly and on a regular basis, and eventually allow all 748 cars to be reinstated.
The year-long suspension continues to hobble the transit system as Metro scrambles to find enough trains. The agency this month said it wouldn’t be able to simultaneously reopen six stations next week that were temporarily closed for a construction project and also open the 11.5-mile Silver Line extension this year without more trains.
Metro’s long search for a manufacturer of the 8000 series began in late 2018 and was marked by protests from lobbyist groups, overtures from a Chinese rail manufacturer and the passage of a federal law that limited whom the transit agency could partner with.
In selecting Hitachi, Metro is also turning to a former partner: Three of its first four models were built by Breda, a company later sold to Hitachi Rail, a division of Tokyo-based Hitachi Ltd. Hitachi Rail has a U.S. headquarters in Pittsburgh and holds contracts to build a new rail system in Honolulu and rail cars for transit systems in Miami and Baltimore.
Strolling not far from an orange Hitachi earthmover and towering crane, Joe Pozza, president of Hitachi Rail North America, said he hopes the nation’s surge of transit funding under last year’s federal infrastructure bill will help to keep the Washington County site busy far into the future.
“We’re looking to get ingrained here pretty quickly and be successful together,” Pozza said.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said the imported shells for Metro's 8000-series cars will be made of aluminum. They will be made of steel.
More coverage: Air travel, transit, railroads
Maryland mishap: 798,000 license plates promote Philippines gambling site
Debt ceiling: Ailing transit agencies to keep pandemic funding in deal
Auto-braking: Administration seeks automatic emergency braking on all new cars
Boeing: Max families can seek damages for victims’ suffering in the air
Amtrak: Testing difficulties delay launch of faster Acela trains