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New Metro Proposal Would Scale Back Plan For All 8-Car Trains During Rush Hour

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Under a 2013 plan, Metro had planned on running all 8-car trains during rush hour by 2020. That may no longer happen, though.
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Under a 2013 plan, Metro had planned on running all 8-car trains during rush hour by 2020. That may no longer happen, though.

Faced with declining rail ridership and demands for fiscal restraint from elected officials in Maryland and D.C., Metro is developing a proposal to scale back plans to run all 8-car trains during rush hours, a key piece of the transit authority’s Momentum expansion program approved in June 2013.

The proposal being developed by Metro staffers would designate an additional 220 new railcars for replacement of the existing fleet instead of full expansion to longer trains during the busiest travel times.

Under the alternative, 55 percent of rush hour trains would haul eight cars — still an improvement over the current 35 percent of 8-car trains that run during the morning commute. The Blue and Orange Lines would get all 8-car trains, and the Red Line would stay at 50 percent.

Shoring up existing service before expansion

The alternative scenario is the result of pressure from the new administrations of Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser in D.C. and Republican Governor Larry Hogan in Maryland, who are pushing the transit authority to fix its finances and reach a state of good repair before focusing on expansion.

The Momentum program was devised to alleviate excessive crowding on the busiest lines, a top complaint of frustrated rail commuters, but rail ridership actually has declined 10 percent over the past five years.

“We need to pay attention to its basic, existing system first before we need substantial expansion,” said Michael Goldman, Maryland’s representative to Metro’s board of directors. Goldman has questioned the necessity of expanding to all 8-car trains if it means keeping older, unreliable railcars in service.

Metro currently has 528 modern, technologically-advanced 7000-series railcars on order from Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. in Lincoln, Nebraska. The first new train will debut on the Blue Line April 14, and another 56 7000-series cars are expected in service by the end of June, Metro officials have said.

The first 64 new railcars were designated for fleet expansion to accommodate the opening of Phase I of the Silver Line.

By Feb. 2017, Metro expects to replace all 300 of its 1000-series railcars with the 7000-series. In service since the 1970s, the 1000-series are the most unreliable in the fleet. Then Phase II of the Silver Line — expected to open in 2018 — will require 64 more 7000-series railcars along with the full replacement of 100 4000-series cars.

In all, that accounts for the 528 railcars on order.

Still lacking consensus

By June 30, Metro must exercise a contract option with Kawasaki for an additional 220 7000-series railcars — at about $1 million per car less than current market price. While transportation officials representing the jurisdictions of Virginia, Maryland, and District of Columbia have agreed in principle to fund the purchase, there is no consensus on the best use.

D.C. and Maryland officials are pushing Metro to forgo its program to reach 100 percent 8-car trains. They prefer Metro replace more of the older, less reliable rolling stock instead of expanding the fleet by 220 cars.

In response to this pressure, transit authority staffers are developing a scenario to replace 192 5000-series railcars and 28 2000-series railcars. (The 5000-series arrived starting in 2001 and are due for a mid-life overhaul around 2020. The 2000- and 3000-series were delivered from 1981-88 and have been rehabilitated. The 2000-series are the second most reliable railcars after the 6000-series).

Metro would have fewer trains than first planned, but those trains would have fewer clunkers.

“The total size of the fleet would not increase, but it would provide opportunities for expansion because by having a newer, less maintenance-prone fleet, you could actually keep more railcars in peak periods on the rails,” Goldman said.

In a statement, a Metro spokesman said no decisions have been made about the alternative scenario.

“Any new plan for the additional 7000-series cars is subject to Federal Transit Administration review and approval,” said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.

“This scenario recognizes financial realities and is based on revised ridership estimates, as well as updated timetables for completing required capital work to support additional service. Our funding partners are being asked to consider how to take advantage of this limited-time opportunity to purchase 7000-series cars at about $1 million-per-car less than current market price. It seems prudent to consider replacing less reliable cars while preparing for future growth,” Stessel said.

Metro has asked its jurisdictions to each pay between $30 million and $100 million per year for six years to cover the cost of the additional 220 railcars, but the alternative scenario would save money on traction power upgrades and rail yard space required under a full expansion.

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