Safety commission approves Metro plan to put more trains in service
More trains expected to support increased ridership and rail expansion to Dulles Airport
A Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority train pulls out of a station in Washington. (VCU Capital News Service)
Metro officials will be able to put more trains into service as passenger demand grows and rail cars are increasingly overpacked.
On Tuesday, the transit agency was given the green light to operate more of its 7000-series trains after the latest phase of its return to service plan was approved by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.
“With this approval and close collaboration on the Silver Line extension safety report, Metro will be able to set an opening date in the near future,” said Metro General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Randy Clarke in a statement. “I want to thank the safety commission for their collaboration on reaching this important safety milestone, so we have a clear path forward.”
Metro’s plan for returning the 7000-series trains was created after a Metro car derailed from the system’s Blue Line between Rosslyn and Arlington Cemetery last October. The commission, an oversight committee created by Congress, ordered hundreds of rail cars taken out of service, and the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the incident.
On Sept. 2, the commission allowed Metro to begin running 20 of its 7000-series trains daily on three of the agency’s six lines — Red, Green and Yellow. The newest approval will allow Metro to put all 748 of its 7000-series trains into service for the first time since last October and operate them on all lines.
Metro officials have said additional trains will support increased service as well as the Silver Line extension out to Dulles International Airport, which they hope to open before Thanksgiving and the start of the busy holiday travel season.
Metro said 694 rail cars have been inspected more than 72,000 times and have operated safely over 3 million miles.
According to an Oct. 13 report, 60.1 million passengers rode Metrorail in fiscal year 2022, which is 61% higher than forecasts and more than double the ridership in fiscal year 2021. Average weekday ridership in fiscal year 2022 was 186,000 and weekend ridership was 119,000. Those averages are also more than double numbers from fiscal year 2021.
As the number of riders has increased, so has tension between Metro and the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission over Metro’s desire to put more trains in service and open several new rail stations on the Silver Line in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
Sharmila Samarasinghe, deputy CEO and chief operating officer for the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, previously rejected an Oct. 13 request by Metro to return trains to service, saying the system’s plan was “not supported by available safety information.” Metro hit back in a release that said the commission had provided “confusing direction” to the transit agency and faulted it for the delay.
Lawmakers including U.S. Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine had grown increasingly frustrated with the debate. In an earlier statement, the two told the agencies that billions had been spent to construct the rail extension and it was time to get work done.
In a joint statement, the senators said they were pleased with the agreement Tuesday evening.
“This plan, if carefully followed, will allow the safe and timely opening of the Silver Line to Dulles by Thanksgiving, assuming the remaining routine matters are handled diligently,” they wrote. “Once open, the Silver Line will alleviate road congestion and enhance access to economic, entertainment, and travel opportunities in the region — all without compromising rider safety.”
The rise and fall of 7000-series trains
The first 7000-series rail cars appeared on Metro lines in 2015 after the system began phasing out older models, such as the 30-year-old 1000-series cars.
Produced by Kawasaki Rail Car Inc., each 7000-series rail car cost an average of $2 million. It can be differentiated from other cars in the rail system by its blue and gray interior, padded vinyl seats and seat-back hand grasps. The 7000-series car also has digital screens with route maps as well as screens that provide current and upcoming station information. Space was increased for aisle traffic, wheelchairs and seated and standing passengers. Trains also included closed-circuit cameras.
But after the 2021 derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board found the 7000-series rail car’s fourth axle was out of compliance with assembly specifications. The board also investigated other trains and found similar defects.
The investigation also revealed that Metro was aware of problems with wheels moving out of alignment on its earlier rail cars, according to an engineer’s report in 2015.
Before the safety commission approved the agency’s first phase of its return to service plan, Metro said it had inspected 234 of its 7000-series cars 24,000 times. No trains returned to service have failed daily back-to-back measurements, according to a Sept. 2 statement from Metro. However, the agency said it is working to develop track technology to stream real-time data about the rail cars.
Metro has called its 7000-series rail cars the “safest, most reliable trains available to move customers throughout the region.”
In March 2021, Metro agreed to a $2.2 billion contract with Hitachi Rail Washington LLC to construct 256 anticipated 8,000-series rail cars.
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