Metro finalizing plan to test railcars idled after derailment

Metro is finalizing an inspection plan to test a series of railcars it removed from service that caused a train derailment earlier this month, an agency spokesperson said Wednesday.

The Washington-area transit system must have a plan in place that “adequately detects any anomalies” before they become a safety problem and then test the plan prior to returning the railcars to service, according to Metro spokesperson Ian Jannetta.

Earlier this month, Metro removed all of its 7000-series railcars, or about 60% of its fleet, for safety reasons after a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found that faulty wheel assemblies caused a Blue Line train to derail Oct. 12.

The train had lifted off the tracks twice earlier that day before the third and final derailment, according to NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. The train’s wheels shifted too far apart on their axles, a recurring problem with other 7000-series railcars, she said.

The Blue Line train was carrying 187 passengers when it derailed in a tunnel between Rosslyn and Arlington National Cemetery. One passenger was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, Ms. Homendy said.

Mr. Jannetta said Metro had 31 trains operating Wednesday and that the agency is trying to get more trains on its tracks. About 70% of the trains arrived within two minutes of their scheduled times, he reported. The transit system has been using older railcars in the meantime, including 2000-, 3000- and 6000-series railcars.

He added the agency does not have a timeline to offer at this point on when the 7000-series railcars will be returned for service. However, Mr. Jannetta said Metro is very close to submitting a final plan to the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.

The transit agency will provide an update Thursday at the board of directors meeting.

Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld said Monday that the investigation into the root causes behind the faulty wheel assemblies is ongoing. The agency is currently testing nonconforming wheel sets, he added.

Mr. Wiedefeld said there was no evidence that anyone, including the train operator, knew about the wheels of the Blue Line train lifting off the rails prior to the derailment. He said the issue wasn’t pinpointed until officials later spotted markings on the rails.

Metro finished inspecting all of its 748 7000-series railcars earlier this week and discovered a total of 20 axles to be out of alignment, Mr. Jannetta said on Tuesday. He described the issue with the axles as an “oversight” and the Blue Line train derailment as a “clearly inexcusable” occurrence.

However, the NTSB last week reported 39 failures this year after emergency inspections. That was the number of failures reported after only 514 of the 748 railcars had been inspected. When asked about the discrepancy, Mr. Jannetta said he cannot speak for the NTSB.

Other trains inspected by Metro had similar problems with the wheel assembly dating back to 2017. Preliminary inspections found two wheel assembly failures occurred in 2017, two in 2018, four in 2019, five in 2020 and 39 this year — a total of 52 failures, Ms. Homendy said last week. She noted numbers are preliminary though and could change.

The Washington Times has reached out to the NTSB for comment.

Metro said last week that reduced rail service will continue through at least the end of the month. Trains will continue to run every 15 to 20 minutes on the Red Line and every 30 to 40 minutes on all other lines through at least Oct. 31, the transit agency said. Silver Line service will continue to run only between Wiehle-Reston East and Federal Center SW.

Adding older rail cars could theoretically restore up to 40% of the fleet and deal with the “immediate pressure,” Mr. Wiedefeld said. But he said the real solution is to get the 7000-series railcars inspected, monitored and back into service as safely and quickly as possible.

Mr. Wiedefeld acknowledged on Monday the inconvenience for Metro riders. “I understand from a customer perspective, it’s clearly not what we want to offer, but it is the safest thing that we can offer,” he said.

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