Metro now says the 7000 Series rail cars that have been sidelined since a derailment last fall are not expected to return to service until this summer at the earliest, under a plan laid out by Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld Thursday.
Wiedefeld laid out the proposed timeline during a Metro Board of Directors meeting Thursday, but cautioned there is no short-term fix for the beleaguered 7000 series rail cars, which make up more than half of Metro’s fleet, and that the transit agency’s proposed timeline requires approval from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.
Metro has not yet submitted the plan to the safety watchdog.
In the near term, Metro plans to use older 6000 Series rail cars — which were also pulled out of service a year before the derailment after two earlier incidents where rail cars came uncoupled.
By May, Metro hopes to put and additional 50 of the 6000 Series cars back into service, which would allow Green and Yellow Line trains to run every 15 minutes.
Under the current limited service, Red Line trains run every 10 minutes; all other lines run every 20 minutes.
Wiedefeld said crowding has been seen on the Green and Yellow lines as more riders return to the system amid a broader return to workplaces as the COVID-19 pandemic eases.
At the same time, Metro said it will seek to work with the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission on a plan to carry out daily inspections of the 7000 Series train cars, which account for 60% of Metro’s fleet, and to gradually begin to return them to service this summer.
If the 7000 Series cars are cleared to return to service, service on the Blue, Orange and Silver Lines would also improve to 15-minute headways by the end of the summer, Wiedefeld said.
Metro’s plans required the approval of the safety commission.
Last fall, the safety commission ordered the 7000 Series out of service following the derailment of a Blue Line train in a tunnel near Arlington National Cemetery. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the derailment, has faulted problems with wheelsets on the new rail cars that shift too far apart on their axles.
Metro said it plans to use new digital gauges to manually inspect 7000 Series wheelsets every day. A longer-term plan is to install automated wayside inspection stations, which would take measurements as trains passed by to automatically identify any issues.
Both approaches require an OK from the safety commission. Wiedefeld and the Metro Board of Directors wrote a letter to safety commission leaders Thursday laying out their proposed timelines.
“The restoration of 7000 series rail cars is vital to our ability to improve frequencies to match the ridership demand anticipated with post-pandemic travel to workplaces … it is our hope that WMSC will work side by side with our Safety and Metrorail staff to ensure that any matters of concern that arise for WMSC will be satisfactorily addressed throughout the process in order to meet the optimum timetables for the safe delivery of service for customers,” the letter stated.
Speaking to reporters after the board meeting, Board Chair Paul Smedberg said, safety commission personnel are already working with Metro staff on the ground. “We need them to make any approvals that they can so we can, in effect, check things off the list,” he said.
There has been a bit of a back and forth between between Metro and the safety commission over bringing the 7000 Series trains back to service.
In December, the safety commission approved a plan to gradually restore the 7000 Series trains to the tracks, but then ordered Metro two weeks later to pull the 7000 Series cars again after the commission found Metro was returning trains to service that had failed the original inspection plan.
In response to the Metro Board letter Thursday, safety commission spokesman Max Smith said the commission “remains committed to carrying out our safety oversight responsibilities in the most timely and appropriate timeframe to assure safety” but that Metro has not submitted a plan to the safety commission for safely putting the 7000 Series trains back on the tracks.
The statement went on to say: “WMATA has not submitted a 7000 Series return to service plan to us, as required by and described in our order. As with Metrorail’s initial return to service plan that was accepted in December, the WMSC has directed Metrorail to continually share information during the return to service planning process to ensure that any issues are identified and addressed as early as possible. The WMSC has consistently provided productive, quick feedback in open discussions, and will continue to do so. The timing of the WMSC’s work is wholly dependent on Metrorail’s information sharing and progress on completing its work.”
So far, more than five months after the derailment, Wiedefeld told the board no root cause for the wheel problems has been identified.
“While the cause appears to be a combination of factors, we do not expect near-term solution,” Wiedefeld said.
The plan to restore 7000 series car and gradually build back service comes as more riders return to the system. On Tuesday, Metro said it recorded about 245,000 trips on the system — the highest ridership since the pandemic began. Overall, though, ridership is at just 30% of pre-pandemic levels.
Wiedefeld gave his remarks shortly before the Metro Board approved a $4.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2023, which begins in July. Measures in the budget include $2 weekend rail fares, $2 late-night rail fares and free bus-rail transfers.
‘No-go issues’ delay Silver Line extension
The general manager also shared his “extreme disappointment” in confirming that the long-delayed Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport would have to be pushed back yet again — and might not even happen by the summer.
Earlier this year, it was estimated the 11.4-mile, six-station Phase 2 extension would open in the spring. However, Weidefeld said there are three “no-go issues” that still need to be addressed.
“We will not be cutting a ribbon together on the Silver Line this spring,” Wiedefeld told the board.
One is a certification of occupancy for the buildings that make up the new stations, which Wiedefeld said is the responsibility of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
“That is something that we have zero control over,” Wiedefeld said.
Another is an issue with pieces of equipment called “orange boots,” which is where two power cables come together. Problems with similar equipment elsewhere in the system was cited in the deadly 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident, Wiedefeld said.
Pressed to give a realistic timeline for when the Silver Line extension would open, Wiedefeld said, “I would love to give you a date. I can’t.”
He said there is still “significant work” to be carried out by the airports authority and the safety commission needs to give final approval.
Wiedefeld added, “It is a summer date. If things don’t go well, if the airport cannot get the work done, that pushes that further.”
Metro Board Chairman Paul Smedberg said he was “deeply dismayed” at the delay.
Wiedefeld, who took over running the Metro system in 2015, is retiring this summer.