Blue-chip consultants at McKinsey & Company recently released a preliminary report on Metro performance. It dives into paratransit, the HR back office, parking, and other issues, but the one that most impacts commuters each day is rail car maintenance. If Metro doesn’t do a better job of fixing its rail cars, it’s going to keep losing riders.

Metrorail on-time performance. On-time performance can vary and drop more when there are fewer rail cars available for service. Graphic by the author, data from WMATA.

Get better at fixing the rail cars, improve daily service

According to the report, 63 percent of all rail line delays are due to railcar failures. 36 percent are caused by trains not being dispatched, and 27 percent are caused by trains being removed (offloaded) from the line. These delays and car failures lead to fewer trains available for passengers to board and more crowding, making the system less enjoyable— or functional— to ride.

The five most common rail car failures, according to the study, were propulsion, door, HVAC, brake, and pneumatic subsystems. Any one of these failures might cause a train car not to be dispatched from a rail yard or could lead to a train being offloaded and taken out of service during the day. Since rail cars operate in married pairs, a problem with one means that both in the pair would have to be pulled off the line.

One of the problems identified by the report is the high number of repeat failures in rail car components. McKinsey stated causes of this include below-average quality control/quality assurance processes, repair protocols that don’t fully determine the root cause of the issue, and maintenance staff that are less experienced than in the past due to turnover. Any one of these issues identified would be a problem, but the three put together mean that rail car reliability is likely nowhere near where it should be.

Graphic showing repeat failures of rail car components. Image from WMATA via WAMU.

Metro is building a new two-mile test track near Greenbelt station primarily to ensure the new 7000-series rail cars work as expected when they’re received from Kawasaki, but it could also double as a certification track for cars post-repair. As it stands today, rail cars do not undergo a “checkout” period to verify that the issue they were in the shop for was actually fixed.

Once the test track is finished, rail cars that have had their brake or propulsion issues worked on at the various yards could be checked out for additional issues and for an extra quality assurance step. Verification testing to check if the work was done successfully could be one way to help find recurring issues when they happen, before the cars are placed back into revenue service.

Railcar availability issues caused 36% of delays

The report noted that over a third of all rail delays were caused by not having enough cars available to run in service. Whether the cars are out for work or sidelined because WMATA doesn’t have the parts needed to fix them, the lack of cars means fewer trains run for passengers to use.

The graph below shows how many of Metro’s trains didn’t operate in each month of 2015, as well as some of the top delays noted in Metro’s daily service reports. The number of trains not dispatched only dips below 100 a few times, around October and November. Given each 6- or 8-car train can hold anywhere from 800 to 1000 people each, a train that’s not dispatched from a rail yard leads to less capacity to move people and creates gaps in service causing passengers to end up waiting longer.

Stacked graph representation of the top 5 delay-causing rail issues according to WMATA’s Daily Service Reports. Graphic by the author, data from WMATA.

The rail dispatching issue is relatively new, having only started becoming a more significant issue in 2014 and 2015. One reason the report points out that might cause this is the sometimes-significant delays in the parts ordering process, in part due to FTA requirements. At times there have been up to around 70 cars out of service awaiting work since the parts were not in stock.

Last 4 years of delays for the top 6 causes of rail delays, according to the Daily Service Reports. Graphic by the author, data from WMATA.

One of the main priorities the report wants Metro to focus on is to get better at figuring out the root-cause of issues when they occur, and use that information to help fix and prevent it from recurring on other rail cars. Getting better at fixing cars the first time would get them in and out of the shop bays faster, and keep them from coming back. More focus here would help keep the related issue of mechanic experience under control.

The track side of the system has had a spotlight pointed on it in recent months, primarily by the FTA with hundreds of inspections being performed to make sure the tracks are in good order. But Metro needs to be just as focused on keeping their rail cars in working order - not just to say that they did, but to reduce the number of delays that passengers feel, and make the experience of riding Metro better. Focusing on improving rail car maintenance won’t be quick, but the dividends it will pay by providing better service to passengers will make it worth it.


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Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.