Dozens of Metro's 7000-series train cars sit in the West Falls Church yard.
As the Washington region approaches almost a full work week with Metro running at a fraction of its usual capacity, the transit agency says it has no update on when it will submit plans to fix the sidelined 7000-series trains and get them back on the rails.
The plans, which would have to be approved by the independent Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, are a key step in getting the transit agency's newest trains, which make up 60% of the fleet, rolling again. Once Metro submits that report, the public will know more about how long reduced service impacts could last and if trains may come back individually after inspections or if they'll have to get approval for the whole fleet.
"Time is required to ensure we are getting that plan right," wrote Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld in a note to employees on Tuesday obtained by DCist/WAMU. "That means we identify any wheels out of alignment, isolate the cars securely, and have a data-driven plan for more frequent inspections of the fleet, and ultimately, identify the root cause."
The agency's 6000-series trains have been out of service for nearly a year after they ran into issue with couplers after multiple trains separated. It is not clear if the 7,000-series fleet could also be off the tracks for that long.
And with no timeline in hand, public officials, employers, and riders are left wondering what to do, how to alleviate crowding, and how to get around.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Virginia) wants Metro to maximize bus service across the region, arguing "it is simply unsustainable to cut train service in half without a significant corresponding increase in bus service." He suggested Metro increase bus service and create temporary bus lanes where needed.
"In the meantime, I urge regional employers who have not already done so to maximize telework options, and to be patient as workers endure a week of difficult commutes," Beyer said in a statement.
But in a statement Tuesday, Metro said all of its available buses and drivers are already in service.
The D.C. Department of Transportation said in a statement late Tuesday that it has not seen an increase in traffic that would warrant pop-up bus lanes. They also haven't talked to WMATA about the issue. DDOT attempted to operate some on Rhode Island Avenue during a shutdown three years back with mixed results.
Metro told WJLA that it expects to have more 2000-series and 6000-series trains available next week to help aid service. The 2000-series were in "cold-storage" during the pandemic and need to go through a reboot and safety inspection before going back into service. The 6000-series were out for nearly a year because of issues with couplers; each rebuilt coupler needs inspection and approval from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.
Salim Furth, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, says regional leaders should waste no time planning ahead.
"Many of us have become comfortable working from home, but that should not lead to complacency," he wrote in an opinion piece. "Numerous folks cannot do so. Putting alternatives in place by November 1st — two weeks from the announcement — requires that planning and implementation begin now."
The removal of the 7000-series trains from service comes at a time of transition for the region, which is still dealing with pandemic-related disruptions, but attempting to claw its way back toward normalcy. Metro is key to that recovery, argues Joe McAndrew of the Greater Washington Partnership, a coalition of big business leaders in the region.
"If it is long term [getting the 7000-series trains back], it is going to be very, very challenging and is an additional blow to the region's reopening and recovery," he said. "It's devastating."
McAndrew says Metro needs to put all its energy into getting the railcars back on the rails by 2022 when most are expected to come back to the office, but the region should also plan for the worst.
"We have to as a region, work and think collaboratively," he said. "This is employers, this is the public sector, the federal government, and our transportation providers, figuring out how we can go ahead and scale up transit options that can get to and from job centers in a rapid fashion."
Before the pandemic, Metrorail logged about 600,000 trips every weekday. Rail ridership had seen a slow but steady rise in recent weeks, consistently hitting more than 200,000 riders before the news broke late on Sunday.
By Tuesday, Metrorail ridership saw a drop of about 22% compared to the prior week, recording 159,000 trips as riders dealt with headways of up to 40 minutes across the system (aside from the Red Line, which saw shorter waits). Riders report mixed levels of crowding on buses. Traffic also appears to be more snarled than usual.
Advocates have been calling for the transit agency to nix peak-pricing during the rough stretch ahead, but Metro says it's too complicated to change the systems in the short term.
Meanwhile, it appears that some Metro employees are frustrated with the tightly controlled investigation process from the National Transportation Safety Board, which bars the transit agency from commenting publicly on the case. In the internal memo to employees, Wiedefeld addresses that frustration.
"Some of you have expressed to me your frustration with certain reports that inaccurately interpret comments and facts regarding recent and historic events. While the NTSB process (as a matter of federal statute) makes clear that they alone may comment publicly on the Blue Line derailment investigation, let me assure you that we have been involved every step of the way, and we will have an opportunity to deliver more information in due course," he wrote.
He urged patience, adding: "While the stream of reporting on our service is constant, it's absolutely crucial that we present confirmed data, with certainty in our professional judgments, and with actionable information for our customers and stakeholders. Doing that, while participating in and respecting the investigatory process, takes time and patience. In our business, it's more important to be right than to be fast."
Metro's largest union, ATU Local 689, also put out a similar statement.
"There are many that have never supported public transit that look to moments like this as an opportunity to cynically attack public transit itself," the union wrote in a statement. "We understand that we'll need to redouble our efforts to get riders back into the system and we're fully committed to that.
"We know that public transit is essential to the future of this region. Our riders have had their commutes completely re-arranged by this incident. Though it was massively disruptive, we stand by the call to pull those trains out of service, because it prioritized safety."
Meanwhile, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said in a statement this week, she's talking to congressional leadership about having a hearing about the 7000-series trains. It would not be the first time Metro has been hauled into Congress over safety issues.
Metro's board also met in a closed session for the second time this week. The board says it's hiring a safety consultant to serve as advisors on issues concerning the safety, operations and organizational accountability of Metro.
"Areas of focus will include, but are not limited to: safety reporting, communications, inspections, roles and responsibilities, regulatory requirements, hazard identification, employee training, safety performance indicators/targets, and procurement," said Board Chair Paul Smedberg.
The transit agency's board is made up of people appointed by the D.C. mayor and council, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the Maryland governor, and the federal transportation secretary. Some are elected officials and others are citizens with skills in management, communications, planning, finance, oversight, disability issues, and more. Because appointees get chosen by different entities at different times, there are not always skillsets covered, leaving glaring holes.
There hasn't been a train safety expert on the board since Bob Lauby left in 2018. He now serves on the Metrorail Safety Commission. Federal appointee Devin Rouse from the Federal Railroad Administration was versed in railroading but is also off the board.
Alternatives to consider
McAndrew says it's frustrating that there are few answers on the future of the 7000-series train at the moment. But he says there are only so many options to get people around the region.
"We've got to try and maximize and squeeze out the best that we can (from what we have) to try to move hundreds of thousands of people that would have taken Metro previously," he said.
If this thing goes on for a while, here's some options to consider.
Bus: Metro is touting its 20 "high-frequency" routes that are running every 12 minutes. Local transit providers like Alexandria's DASH, Montgomery County's RideOn, D.C.'s Circulator, and more could also be an alternative.
Adjusting schedule: You may be able to miss the crush of commuters waiting on the platform if you can adjust your schedule to go in a little earlier or later than the usual peak periods.
Check MetroHero or other apps: You can avoid waiting on the platforms for up to 40 minutes by checking WMATA's or third-party MetroHero's apps for real-time arrival information. Check the train arrivals while you're getting ready if you can.
Bike or walk or scoot or moped: It's not an option for everyone, based on ability and distance to your destination, but Capital Bikeshare may be a good option if they're available in your neighborhood. There are also numerous scooter rentable e-scooter, e-bike, and moped companies that can get you from here to there. Mopeds in D.C. will get you farther and faster than a scooter.
Drive: Roads will be awful if everyone resorts to driving as the region fully reopens, but it likely will be an option many will take.
Employer flexibility: Many are calling for employers, including the federal government, to continue to telework during the service impacts and delay full returns to work.
Shuttles and van pools: McAndrew says vanpools have been popular for some employers and may need to pick up the slack from Metro in some way or another. He also touted shuttles, like those used by hospital employees, but unfortunately, those often rely on ferrying employees to and from... Metro stations.
VRE/MARC commuter rail: Another decent bet for those living in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, but unfortunately once you get to Union Station or other stations most of those riders transfer to... Metrorail.
Commuter buses: A service that surely was hit hard during the pandemic could see a big resurgence.
Uber/Lyft: A pricey option and an option that could be limited as the services face driver shortages.
Slugging: If you live in far-off suburbs and have to travel the interstates, check out the park and ride lots for slugging (basically hitching a ride with strangers who are going near your same location, which works best for areas with big employee populations).
More bus lanes: McAndrew says DDOT, VDOT, MDOT, and local jurisdictions have the ability to put up jersey barriers and cordon off lanes on streets with high bus demand. The question is will it be needed, and if so, is there the political will to do it?
Charter bus replacements: Metro has called in out-of-state buses and drivers to fill the gap during scheduled station reconstruction that shut down train stations for months at a time, though no such endeavor has been announced at this time.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.