Metro finally has retired its 41-year-old rail cars — seven years after federal inspectors said they posed “an unacceptable risk” to subway riders and were partially to blame for the transit system’s deadliest crash.
Late last month, the transit agency removed the last of its 1000 Series (its oldest) and 4000 Series rail cars from the tracks and replaced them with the sleek, safer 7000 Series. Metro officials had told federal inspectors that they were contractually obligated to keep the antiquated rail cars in service until 2014.
Metro “is constrained by tax advantage leases, which require that [Metro] keep the 1000 Series cars in service at least until the end of 2014,” the transit agency told the National Transportation Safety Board in a letter in 2007.
Two years later, eight passengers and a train operator were killed when a train barreled into a stationary train at the Fort Totten Metro Station, slicing through the older rail cars and hospitalizing as many as 52 people with crash-related injuries.
The NTSB determined that the design of the 1000 Series rail cars contributed to the loss of life at Fort Totten in June 2009 by making it easy for a train to crush the end of a rail car like a collapsing telescope and creating an “essentially non-survivable” situation for the passengers inside.
But Metro was aware of the crash survivability flaw long before the Fort Totten disaster. The NTSB cited the same telescoping rail car problem after a 1996 accident at the Shady Grove station and a 2004 accident at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan station.
What’s more, a January 1982 accident that killed three passengers demonstrated the 1000 Series rail cars’ inability “to withstand relatively low-speed side impacts,” which the NTSB identified after a 1977 accident. The 1982 accident report said neither Metro nor Rohr, the manufacturer, ever tested the rail cars for side-impact crash resistance and that the 1000 Series’ aluminum sidewall and underframing were inadequate.
Metro has come under increased federal scrutiny for safety concerns in recent years, with the Federal Transit Administration directing officials on safety matters. On Monday, the House of Representatives approved the launch of a safety commission to oversee Metro.
The D.C. region’s subway system opened in July 1976 with 300 of the 1000 Series as its first rail cars serving just five stations on the Red Line. Metro had started planning to replace the 1000 Series at least 15 years ago, telling the NTSB in 2002 of plans to retire the cars between 2012 and 2015.
However, the federal safety board — which has no binding regulatory authority — recommended in 2006 that Metro retire the cars sooner or retrofit them for “crashworthiness collision protection.”
Metro’s response, in the 2007 letter, said a retrofit was unfeasible and tax advantage leases required using the cars until 2014. The transit agency also said that anti-climbers — modifications that prevent rail cars from collapsing and riding over other cars in collisions — on the 1000 Series would prevent telescoping-type crashes.
The 2009 Fort Totten crash disproved that assertion. Photos of the aftermath of the accident show some rail cars crushed and compacted with another rail car topping them.
Instead of retiring or retrofitting the 1000 Series after the Fort Totten disaster, Metro started “bellying” them: placing the older cars in the middle of the trains with newer cars on the ends to buffer them in crashes.
But bellying was disproved as a safe alternative with a November 2009 accident at the West Falls Church rail yard.
The NTSB report said three of the four bellied 1000 Series cars experienced “significantly greater damage than the newer series cars as a result of the collision” and concluded that bellying “does not provide appreciable crashworthiness benefits and is not an acceptable substitute for removing the cars from service.”
Metro’s chief vehicle engineer later told the NTSB that no engineering analysis had been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of bellying in preventing catastrophic damage in a collision.
Metro spokesman Ron Holzer told The Washington Times that the transit system had bellied the 1000 Series cars until they were removed from service last month.
In July 2010, Metro contracted with Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. to build the 7000 Series cars. The first 7000 Series train ran on Metro’s tracks in 2014.
Mr. Holzer said in an email that replacing the 1000 Series took so long because rail cars are designed for individual transit systems and are not “off the shelf” products.
“The introduction of Metro’s first 7000 Series train in 2014 was the result of a project that spanned more than six years from early design and engineering, securing funding, acquiring necessary approvals, vehicle testing and certification,” he said.
A ‘standardization’ issue
Metro now has 368 of the 7000 Series cars, equivalent to 46 eight-car trains. The transit system purchased 748, and up to 20 new cars are delivered per month. Metro also operates 358 Breda-built 2000 and 3000 Series, 192 CAF-built 5000 Series and 184 Alstom-built 6000 Series.
The fiscal 2018 budget lists the 7000 Series rail car procurement project at $1.7 billion from 2005 to 2024. That equates to about $2.3 million per car.
The 7000 Series cars are helping to increase Metro’s reliability, according to the agency’s “Vital Signs” statistics from the first quarter of the year. The new cars excelled on the rail fleet reliability metric, measured as the mean distance between delays.
The stainless steel cars also meet tougher crashworthiness standards and absorb maximum energy in the event of a crash. They also are equipped with anti-climbers that will help prevent telescoping.
They have event records — a federal requirement cited in many of the NTSB reports that the 1000 Series did not meet — and digital surveillance systems.
“In addition, each individual rail car, as well as the overall vehicle design, manufacturing and testing, is undergoing a rigorous Safety and Security Certification process as required by the Federal Transit Administration,” Mr. Holzer said, quoting a 2014 press release.
But the 7000 Series cars are not without their own safety concern, one that Metro has known about for more than a year.
In July 2016, a vision-impaired rider fell into the gap between two rail cars thinking it was an open train door. The older series have chains in the gap that can be detected with canes. The 7000 Series rail cars use a combination of spring-style chains and rubber “wings” that do not fully bridge the gap — leaving a space that a visually impaired rider using a cane can mistake for an open rail car door.
Six months earlier, the FTA office of civil rights told Metro that the rubber barriers may not meet Department of Transportation regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Metro tested the barriers in August. In September, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld told the FTA that Metro “remains confident in the safety and accessibility of the design and in its compliance with all applicable law,” but it would install chain barriers anyway.
He said the manufacturer would install chain barriers before delivering new cars, and the current ones would be retrofitted with the chain barriers over the next eight to 15 months.
Ten months later, there are still 7000 Series cars without chain barriers.
Mr. Holzer called it a “standardization” issue. He said Metro worked with the accessibility community, the FTA and Kawasaki to design a new intercar barrier, which is similar to the spring-style chain barriers. But the design is not finalized, and there is no specific date for retrofitting the rail cars.
Mr. Holzer promised that Metro would do so “in a timely manner,” expected to be less than a year.