Metro’s fancy new railcars were supposed to be rolling by now

After more than a year of running tests and blowing past expected deadlines, Metro promised Thursday that it was only a few weeks away from announcing the launch date for a new series of advanced railcars.

The stainless steel 7000-series subway cars represent a planned $2 billion modernization of Metrorail’s stock. The transit agency hopes to introduce 748 of the cars over the next three years as part of a plan to run all eight-car trains during rush hour, while also replacing the transit agency’s oldest cars, which date to the 1970s.

Eight of the new cars, the first batch acquired by Metro, have been undergoing tests since early 2014.

The planned acquisition of the new cars will allow Metro to scrap cars that date to the 1970s while also expanding its rail fleet, which currently numbers just over 1,100 cars, most built in the 1980s, ‘90s and early 2000s.

The lifespan of a subway car is about 40 years.

The 300 oldest cars, called the 1000-series, were implicated in a deadly 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people. The National Transportation Safety Board said the old cars are insufficiently “crashworthy” by modern standards.

The sleek, new cars will come equipped with digital screens that show their current location and their progress toward the destination. Most important, experts say, the cars are structurally designed to better hold up in a crash.

Metro officials had earlier predicted that the new cars would start carrying passengers by mid-January. But at a meeting of the transit agency’s board of directors on Thursday, officials said that testing was still ongoing, and some board members expressed frustration with the delays.

Tom Downs, a member of the board’s safety and security committee, and a former Amtrak chief executive, said transit authorities had a “responsibility” to tell the public “when they can expect to see the 7000-series cars on the rails.”

After the fatal collision near the Fort Totten station, the NTSB advised Metro to scrap the 1000-series cars “as quickly as possible,” Downs said.

Six years later, those cars are still in operation, but Metro officials say that safety risks have been minimized because they have “bellied” the oldest rail cars — meaning they have placed them in the middle of trains, with newer, sturdier models acting as buffers.

“It’s not dangerous because we bellied those cars,” Metro’s deputy general manager, Rob Troup, told reporters Thursday.

Interim General Manager Jack Requa assured the Metro board on Thursday that the transit agency would announce a release date within a few weeks.

“We’re all waiting,” Downs said.

According to Metro’s working timetable, 56 of the new cars are expected to be in service by this summer. But each batch of four cars, arriving from the Kawasaki Rail Car factory in Nebraska, will have to go through testing on local tracks before the cars can take on passengers.

The Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors Metro’s safety, said it had finished its own review of the new railcars, but that Metro still needs to complete the cars’ safety certification — a step that Metro officials say has already happened.

“That is in their mind,” said the committee’s chair, Klara Baryshev. “In our minds, it is not.”

The new year has gotten off to a rough start for the transit agency.

On Jan. 12, an incident in a tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station trapped scores of passengers on a smoke-filled train. One passenger died of smoke inhalation, an autopsy found.

Preliminary findings by the NTSB determined that the transit agency mishandled the operation of ventilation fans during the event, causing the noxious smoke to move toward the train and linger over it while passengers struggled to breathe.

The incident, which has spawned a $50 million lawsuit, among others, is under investigation by the NTSB. Last weekend, several other unrelated smoke incidents caused extensive delays and evacuations and earned the embattled transit agency another tide of criticism.

As of Feb. 7, there were 86 open accident or incident investigations, Baryshev told Metro’s board of directors on Thursday.

Metro’s leadership also is in flux. The board is in the process of selecting a new general manager after Richard Sarles retired in January. In addition to managing Metro’s response to the ongoing NTSB investigation, the next general manager will come under immediate pressure to secure the extra $1.47 billion that Metro needs for 220 of the new cars.

Metro officials expect to resolve the funding issue by the time the D.C. Council and the Maryland and Virginia legislatures finalize their budgets in spring.

The offer price for the remaining cars will expire in June, and transportation experts fear that the price could spike after that.

“We all agree that there are improvements that need to be made, but that’s not an excuse for not funding the system,” said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

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