New cars, power upgrades bring more long trains to Blue, Orange lines

WASHINGTON – Metro riders on the Blue, Orange and Red lines will see more service in coming years after the Metro Board’s Finance Committee approved a plan Thursday to order 220 extra new rail cars and to invest in some power system upgrades.

The revised plan, which the committee approved by voice vote, comes after the Federal Transit Administration reluctantly gave Metro permission to phase out 5000 Series cars early due to air conditioning and other maintenance issues.

Metro’s Interim General Manager Jack Requa believes expanding the 7000 series fleet, which only includes two eight car trains in active service so far, will help riders.

“We see this as a great opportunity to get the 5000 Series cars out of the system earlier than if there was a mid-life overhaul, that will increase reliability and will actually increase the amount of service that we’ll be able to provide,” Requa says.

Letters from the FTA to Metro call reliability concerns a worthy goal, but say that the federal agency is more concerned about the safety and reliability of Metro’s infrastructure.

The compromise among board members approved by the committee Thursday will lead to more eight car trains on the Blue and Orange lines, plus more trains on the Red Line that will allow all rush hour trains to run to and from Shady Grove. Right now, some trains turn around at Grosvenor to return toward Silver Spring.

Maryland Metro Board Member Michael Goldman, who had called some regional spending into question as part of other recent budget negotiations, says the changes show Metro is committed to adding more eight car trains and service, even if it may take longer than originally planned.

“We’re not going to stop with our eight car train project with our power upgrades on the Blue and Orange Line, but we’re going to take another step forward after that and begin the process of power upgrades on the Red Line, so that the Red Line can eventually have [all] eight-car trains as well,” he said.

The adjustment to the capital improvement program includes $430.6 million dollars in additional spending for the new rail cars between fiscal years 2019 and 2021 in addition to $231 million in spending on rail power upgrades beginning in fiscal year 2017.

The board had planned for nearly all of the spending when it approved the original 2016-2021 program last month, hoping that the FTA would approve the rail car purchase.

The decisions to use most of the 220 extra 7000 Series cars to replace the 5000 Series rather than expand the fleet, and on how to invest in power upgrades, means it will likely be a decade or more before Red Line riders see all eight-car trains at rush hour.

“It’s still there, it’s just being deferred,” Metro Board Chairman Mort Downey says.

“It’s being implemented first on Blue and Orange where there is an immediate problem, but it also needs to be done across the system, and probably will require additional cars in the fleet, but that’s all for future discussion,” Downey says.

Metro data shows Orange and Blue line trains have the highest number of riders per car.

Previously approved 7000 Series cars will help replace the oldest 1000 Series cars that were recommended to be replaced after the 2009 Red Line crash and the 4000 Series cars that have been plagued by maintenance issues including doors opening while trains are in motion. This week, Metro pulled the 4000 Series cars from service for inspections after three incidents in the last few weeks including one where a train operator kept going even after a passenger had said a door was open.

“The proposal to expand service at a faster rate maybe was a little unrealistic from the standpoint of two things, one is from a financial standpoint and the time to make the improvements in the system to make it 100 percent eight-car compatible. Again, ridership has not grown at the rate that was anticipated,” Interim General Manager Requa said after the meeting.

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