Car 1000 departs Rhode Island Avenue. Photo by the author.

With the tragic crash Monday of two Metro trains, WMATA has come under fire for the crashworthiness of its oldest railcars, the 1000 Series. These cars began arriving on site in 1975, and have been carrying passengers since opening day, more than 33 years ago.  Metro plans to retire all 1000 Series cars by 2014.

In the last three decades, the 1000 Series cars have been involved in two collisions, one in 2004 at Woodley Park and one earlier this week near Fort Totten. In both of these crashes, telescoping occurred, severely compromising the passenger compartments. After the 2004 crash the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a number of recommendations. One of these recommendations was that WMATA take steps to retrofit or retire these railcars.

Unfortunately, it’s been impossible for WMATA to implement this recommendation. There are just under 300 cars remaining in the 1000 Series, comprising approximately a quarter of Metro’s rail fleet. With ridership reaching all-time highs and money as tight as ever, Metro cannot remove these cars without substantially cutting back service.

Earlier collisions

In 1996 during a January snowstorm, a train running in the automatic mode was unable to stop at Shady Grove due to icy rails. Parked approximately 400 feet north of Shady Grove on the outbound track was a gap train. The outbound Red Line train was carrying only two passengers, both in the fourth (last) car. Because of the ice, the train blew through the station at about 36 mph, hitting the parked gap train a few seconds later. The collision of the train telescoped the front car by 21 feet and killed the operator. No passengers were on board the first car and no one at all was aboard the parked gap train.

An NTSB analysis of the factors leading up to and subsequent to the crash included an examination of the wreckage. The collision took place while the train was travelling between 22 and 29 mph. The forces involved in this collision caused a structural failure, which the NTSB report describes in detail:

When [the lead car of T-111] struck the gap train, the attachments and fasteners securing its end underframe assembly to the side sills failed, and the side sills moved outward. On [the lead car of the gap train], the end underframe assembly remained attached (at least partially) to the side sills, which allowed the structure of [the lead car of the gap train] to transmit inertial forces to the end underframe of [the leading car of T-111] that were greater than it received. As a result, the body and some detached sections of the underframe of [the lead car of T-111] continued forward after the initial impact. This forward motion, combined with the outward movement of the side sills, allowed the body shell of [the lead car of T-111] to telescope outside the body of [the gap train]. As the collision progressed, the end underframe of [the lead car of T-111] began to act as a steel bumper for [the gap train], buckling the floor of [the lead car on T-111] and causing the remaining components of the car’s underframe to fail.  (NTSB Report on Shady Grove Collision, Page 65)

Based on this description, photos from the crash in 1996 at Shady Grove and the crash Monday near Fort Totten, it sounds like a similar structural failure occurred. Despite the similarities and despite NTSB’s warnings about the 1000 Series, however, all cars involved in the 1996 Shady Grove Collision were in the 3000 Series, not the 1000.

Another incident with similar consequences for Metro’s rollingstock occurred in November 2004. In this collision, a non-revenue train (Train 703) proceeding northbound toward Shday Grove was stopped in the tunnel between Woodley Park and Cleveland Park awaiting the train at Cleveland Park to depart. It appears that the operator’s inattentiveness allowed the train to roll backwards toward Woodley Park, where Train 105 was servicing the platform. The last car of Train 703, struck Train 105 at about 36 mph, and telescoped 20 feet over the lead car of Train 105.

The wreckage at Woodley Park bears a striking resemblance to both the Shady Grove and Fort Totten collisions. Due to the similarities, the NTSB report on the Woodley Park Incident makes many references to the Shady Grove Collision.

NTSB recommendations

In their post-accident report for the Shady Grove Collision, the NTSB made several recommendations to WMATA and other agencies. One of the recommendations was that WMATA undertake a “comprehensive evaluation of the design and design specifications of all series of Metrorail cars with respect to resisting carbody telescoping and providing better passenger protection, and make the necessary modifications…” (emphasis mine).

The WMATA study concluded that it would be infeasible to retrofit the existing fleet. For the 1000 Series, it was considered impractical because they were (and are) due to be scrapped. The report also noted that modifications to the 2000, 3000, and 4000 Series would be cost prohibitive to undertake. In 2002, as a result of these findings, NTSB classified the above cited recommendation (R-96-37) as closed with an acceptable action. NTSB determined that WMATA’s study met the “intent” of the recommendation.

Two years after WMATA’s study and action were validated by NTSB, Train 703 crashed into and overran Train 105 at Woodley Park. This crash involved the oldest railcars in the WMATA fleet, the 1000 Series. The NTSB report on the Woodley Park Crash focused on the structural deficiency of the 1000 Series. The Board feared that the 1000 cars were susceptible to telescoping, which could lead to “a catastrophic compromise of occupant survival space.”

The NTSB, with recommendation R-06-2, encouraged WMATA to “either accelerate retirement of Rohr-built [1000 Series] railcars, or if those railcars are not retired but instead rehabilitated, then the Rohr-built passenger railcars should incorporate a retrofit of crashworthiness collision protection that is comparable to the 6000-series railcars.”

Criticism of crashworthiness

It is clear that the “catastrophic” loss of survival space feared by the NTSB occurred Monday. This has led many in the media to criticize Metro for leaving the 1000 Series in service. And while these cars are clearly at the end of their life, Metro has little choice but to leave them in service, at least for the next 5 years.

Only with the addition of the 184 cars that make up the 6000 Series, was WMATA able to eliminate four-car trains and add several eight-car trains to ease overcrowding. An immediate retiring of the 1000 Series (without replacement) would take 290 cars out of service, meaning a return to four-car trains on some lines, and perhaps a reduction in train headways.

Anything more substantive, such as a program of retrofitting or replacement takes time and money. In fact, Metro is already on the path to such a program. Currently they have an RFP out on the 7000 Series, Metro’s largest car order ever, 648 new cars and the rehabilitation of the 100 cars in the 4000 Series. Once the 7000 Series cars are delivered, Metro will retire the 1000 Series.

Railcars take time to build. Metro can’t just walk down to the nearest railcar dealership and test drive one. They’re all custom built and are manufactured on demand. As a result, factories have to start producing cars, and even the process of assembling them takes quite a bit of time.

Some have accused Metro of ignoring NTSB and by so doing, contributing to the deaths and injuries sustained on Monday. But the truth is there were really no acceptable alternatives for Metro. Even if Metro had ordered the new 7000 Series railcars the day of the Woodley Park Accident in November 2004, it is unlikely that any would have entered revenue service before the middle of 2009. And because of the time it takes to process new railcars, it would take two to three years for all cars to arrive in Washington.

And although the Woodley Park Crash happened in 2004, the NTSB report was not released until March 2006. According to Metro’s report on the 7000 Series cars, due in in 2012, the development of specifications started in the third quarter of FY2007 (early calendar year 2007), less than 12 months after NTSB’s report.

Metro has not dragged its feet on this issue. It absolutely cannot afford to retire the 1000 Series before the arrival of at least 300 of the new 7000 Series cars because so doing would reduce service to unacceptably low levels. It could not have accelerated the acquisition of the 7000 Series due to financial woes, and is even now working its way through the more-than-five year process to get new cars.

Service versus safety

Some have suggested that in the wake of Monday’s crash, Metro should sideline (sidetrack?) its 1000 Series trains. This is not a realistic proposal, but public pressure could still force it to be considered.

Based on ridership, the spare ratio, and certain service standards, Metro can calculate how many railcars it needs to operate. According to WMATA’s Fleet Management Plan (2006), Metro expected to need 1120 railcars to operate on a given day in FY2009, which ends next week. Right now, WMATA has 1128 railcars. However, in FY2010, which starts July 1, Metro will need an estimated 1144 railcars to operate satisfactory service. Since the actual number of available cars is lower, this means more crowded trains. Essentially, we already have fewer cars than we need, and we will continue to be until the 7000 Series cars start to arrive in 2012.

Removing the 1000 Series would take Metro’s fleet size down to 838, meeting only 72.3% of the demand for railcars. Without the 1000 Series, four-car trains would reappear on the Blue and Yellow Lines, and eight-car trains might just disappear from the Red, Orange, and Green Lines.

But there are other concerns. The 1996 NTSB report encouraged WMATA to look at all railcars. Also note that WMATA’s study concluded that it couldn’t retrofit the 2000, 3000, or 4000 Series to improve their crashworthiness.

Remember, that only two 1000 Series cars have ever telescoped. The first time was in 2004. 1996’s Shady Grove Crash involved two trains comprised of 3000 Series cars. Plus, the 2000 and 3000 Series cars were manufactured by the same company consecutively. Any fault that the 3000 Series has in structural design, the 2000 Series likely has as well. Does this mean that the 2000 and 3000 Series cars are as dangerous as the 1000 Series?

That is unclear from the NTSB reports. However, the similarities of the three crashes involving two different series of railcars is a bit unnerving.

If the 1000, 2000, and 3000 Series cars are unsafe, that would be a major problem for Metro, because together they make up over 56% of the fleet. We can’t take all of them out of service, and the 7000 Series won’t be able to replace all of them.

And since the 4000 Series have not yet been overhauled, they might not fare as well as we’d like. They’re due for rehabilitation in FY2014, which might bring them up to satisfactory standards. But until that work can be undertaken, might Metro consider pulling those cars? The 4000 Series is made up of 100 cars, almost 10% of Metro’s fleet.

One piece of vital information can be gleaned from NTSB’s 2006 report (on the 2004 Woodley Park Crash): They only consider the 5000 and 6000 cars to be good enough.

Any replacement car should be designed with crashworthiness components for absorbing maximum energy in a collision and to transmit minimum acceleration to passengers without override or telescoping, as found in the current 5000- series railcars and specified for the 6000-series cars. (NTSB Report on the Woodley Park Collision, Page 49)

If we removed all of the cars likely to telescope in a collision, we’d only have the 374 cars making up the 5000 and 6000 Series. The last time Metro had that few cars, was in the early 1980s, when the Red Line stretched from Silver Spring to Van Ness, the Orange from Ballston to New Carrollton, and the Blue Line from National Airport to Addison Road.

Conclusions

Both the 1000 and 3000 Series have been involved in eerily similar telescoping incidents. NTSB has recommended that Metro reinforce the 1000, 2000, 3000, and 4000 Series. It is unclear if any of these vehicles is safer than the 1000 series car lost in Monday’s crash. It is clear, that NTSB is not happy with their sturdiness.

Without even one of these series, Metro would have to cut back service. Without any of them, Metro would be virtually crippled. The 5000s and 6000s are not a large enough part of the fleet to operate a 106-mile system with 86 stations and more than 700,ooo daily riders.

Criticism toward Metro for continuing to use the 1000 Series is frequent these days, but it does not consider that there would have been no way to design, order, build, test, and put into service 300 new railcars between March 2006 (when the NTSB suggested it) and June 2009, when the first fatal crash involving a 1000 Series car occurred.

Metro is between a rock and a hard place on this one. So is the riding public. Unfortunately, there are no right or absolute answers, although you can be sure that the NTSB report following this accident will make recommendations as if there are. We should be prepared to hear them suggest we retire all but the 5000 and 6000 Series. If we hear that, we can be sure that the cars won’t be retired. It could take close to a decade to replace that many cars in the fleet. Reduced service for that long on the Metro would cripple Washington.

We’re all upset that this crash happened. The sturdiness of the lead car did not cause the crash, but it contributed to its severity. Metro should take whatever steps are necessary to ensure passenger safety, but the 1000 Series is here to stay – at least until 2014. In the meantime, riders should remember that Metro is still the safest way to travel in the Washington area.

See also:

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.