Image by Matt’ Johnson licensed under Creative Commons.

To close out 2016, we’re reposting some of the most popular and still-relevant articles from the year. This post originally ran on May 25. Enjoy and happy New Year!

Last summer, I took my first ride on one of Metro’s new 7000 series railcars. They’re impressive, but had I gotten my way back in 2006, when I was WMATA’s interim General Manager, that ride would have never happened.

It’s not that there’s something inherently wrong with the 7000 series, at least no more than there is with any of Metro’s other models. The 7000 series is sleek, clean, and efficient. I particularly appreciate eliminating the carpets and the new displays.

The problem is that the 7000 series is yet another kind of railcar that Metro needs to know how to maintain. When that’s the case, as opposed to a fleet full of the same kinds of cars, it’s a nightmare. 

How transit agencies buy railcars

Starting with its first cars, the 1000 series, Metro has bought its fleet in batches, or series. A quick check of Wikipedia can give you the deep dive on the manufacturers, numbers, delivery dates, and the like. The agency has gone back out to market six more time since it bought those first cars, with each successive lot of cars given a new designation: 2000, 3000— you get the picture. 

When I was General Manager, we were just finishing delivery of our order of 6000 series railcars. And they had bugs.

Here’s the thing about modern transit vehicles: Because each series is bought in a separate procurement, usually after a substantial period of time, the cars’ design evolves. Metro then asks a (shrinking) set of global manufacturers to bid for each new design, and once a company gets a contract, it must set up a factory in the United States to construct the order. This factory never gains any economies of scale or long term experience.

The fact is that the best railcar you will get out of this process is the last one delivered. And, frankly, the manufacturers generally just figure out how to build the car when the contract term ends. 

Federal Transit Administration regulations require that the agency run a new bidding process to select a new manufacturer every five years. Never mind that the existing manufacturer has the most expertise in building that car they’ve been building for five years; if a new company comes in cheaper, the agency may have to let that one start building cars, even if that’s a surefire way for bugs to come back in.

Many railcars make maintenance harder

One day during my tenure, I was showing a Washington Post reporter, Lena Sun, through a railcar maintenance facility and we met a railcar electrician. He summed up the stupidity of having so many models quite succinctly, waving his hands around his shop and saying, “See all these tools? It is because we have six different kinds of railcars on the system, and each one is just a little bit different. So I need a different set of tools, and parts, and manuals for each one of them.”

This is why Southwest Airlines only flies the 737. It is part of their secret to great service, low costs, and high on-time rates. On the corporate side, it increases their bargaining power with suppliers, reduces maintenance cost, increases employee productivity, and streamlines processes. 

We wanted Metro to benefit from this lesson by simply continuing to buy the 6000 series. The plan was to negotiate to buy 100 cars a year, every year from that point forward until the fleet was renewed. Then, taper the buys to 50 cars a year to continually renew the fleet. 

Image by Ben Schumin licensed under Creative Commons.

We even had talks with Baltimore and Miami (the two system who use cars that most resemble Metro’s) to join in the order and make the volumes attractive enough to keep the manufacturer busy, and drive down costs. We were looking forward to the possibility of jointly training and sharing staff, parts, tools and best practices.

If we had continued on this track after 2006, the system would have all new 6000 series cars by now. But the 7000 series was revived shortly after I left.

Would this have fixed Metro’s problems? Not all of them, certainly. But railcar reliability is one of Metro’s biggest issues right now, and this could have improved that metric. Also, it could have freed up managers’ attention to focus on the track bed, signals, and power systems— the boring parts that have been given a lower priority than the shiny things (literally) like the new car.

Dan Tangherlini has had a diverse public service career in local, regional and federal government, including service as Director of the District Department of Transportation, interim General Manager of WMATA, DC City Administrator, CFO of the US Department of the Treasury, and head of the US General Services Administration. He recently joined the technology firm SeamlessDocs. Dan is a member of the Greater Greater Washington Board of Directors and lives on Capitol Hill.