Metro safety and service came under congressional scrutiny Wednesday as lawmakers pressed transit agency leaders about the handling of issues related to a derailment last fall that’s led to months of long delays for riders.
Metro’s new, 7000-series rail cars were pulled from service after a derailment near the Rosslyn station last October. The issue has been linked to a wheel problem first discovered in 2017. The rail cars make up nearly 60 percent of Metro’s fleet.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, said Metro has “jumped from crisis to crisis” adding that its operations reflect a culture of “mediocrity.”
He and other lawmakers had lots of questions related to how the problem with the derailment was discovered and why no one alerted top Metro officials, even though it potentially put riders at risk.
“Metro needs to do better,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, noting his comment reflects the consensus of many of his constituents in Maryland.
All 748 of Metro’s 7000-series rail cars have been sidelined as a safety review related to last year’s derailment continues, leading to long waits on station platforms, since so many rail cars are out of service.
The rail cars are not expected to return into service until April, at the earliest.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said it was hard to understand why a problem with the rail car wheels that was identified several years ago failed to go up the chain of command.
Instead it was initially a discussion that took place between lower-level Metro officials with the manufacturer of the 7000-series rail cars, Kawasaki.
“That’s like if I’ve got … an oven that’s not working and is a fire danger for the house and I just report it to the oven manufacturer,” Raskin said. “And I don’t tell anyone in the house that the oven is a danger to life or limb.”
Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld noted that the initial problem dealt with only two wheels out of thousands and that it was believed the issue could be dealt with under the warranty.
“But that’s not acceptable,” he said, noting that procedures are now in place to make sure potential safety issues are flagged so they can go up the chain of command.
Wiedefeld plans to step down as the head of Metro later this year, after leading the transit agency since 2015.
Connolly praised him for his leadership during a difficult period for Metro. Wiedefeld led an extensive effort to upgrade the rail system, called SafeTrack.
Wiedefeld said he knows all of Metro’s challenges have taken a toll on its customers.
“I understand the inconvenience caused to our customers and thank them for their continued patience,” he said.
A nationwide search for Wiedefeld’s replacement is underway.
Meanwhile, the response to the derailment has compounded a severe drop in Metro ridership due to people working from home during the pandemic.
“Today, ridership is just under 30 percent of pre-COVID, pre-pandemic levels and bus ridership is about 40 percent,” Wiedefeld said.
Federal workers, who at one time made up close to 40 percent of Metro’s passengers, have played a large role in the drop.