A 4000 series car. Say goodbye! Image by Ben Schumin licensed under Creative Commons.

Metro announced on Wednesday that all 1000 and 4000-series railcars will be gone by the end of the month. This is good news, because the 1000s and 4000s don’t work well and have safety problems. However, it’s only possible in part because fewer trains will be running starting June 25th.

More 7000s. Thumbs up.

Metro is still receiving 20 new 7000-series railcars per month, which are replacing the 1000s and 4000s. The 7000s have newer technology that makes diagnosing problems easier, and the contract with manufacturer Kawasaki says they must be more reliable than anything else in the fleet. So far, they’re on track to be that.

It is worth noting that the 7000s are not at the required reliability level yet. “Burn-in time” is typical with new equipment, as the staff begins to learn how to take care of new parts and the intricacies of a new vehicle type.

However, this not guaranteed. The 5000-series cars are largely regarded as lemons. Metro plans to retire these over the next few years, after less than half their expected tenure carrying passengers.

Cutting number of trains. Thumbs down.

Starting June 25th, Metro trains on all lines will come every eight minutes instead of six during rush hour. On the Red Line, trains will come every four minutes (instead of every three) between Silver Spring and Grosvenor. This cut means that Metro will need fewer cars each day since the agency “right-sized” service based on current ridership.

Instead of needing 954 cars available in service every morning, Metro will need 858, a cut of 96. And because Metro is running fewer cars, it can move up the retirement of the 1000 and 4000 cars.  Yay! Well, not really.

Declining ridership. Thumbs down.

The decision to run fewer trains was not driven by a desire to retire these cars, but rather because ridership has been plummeting. Riders are tired of frequent delays and constant track work.

The year-long SafeTrack program is nearly at an end and should eventually lead to reliability improvements. But in the near term, it has driven away riders, many of whom may not return any time soon. And that’s a negative for the transit agency and the region.

Not bellying cars in the middle of trains. Thumbs up.

Because of how they're designed, the 1000s don’t hold up well in crashes. This contributed to the severity of the 2009 Red Line crash in which nine people died. The cars were then bellied (placed in between other more “reliable” cars) as a way to try and appease the National Transportation Safety Board, which told Metro to remove the cars from service immediately. It’s eight years later, and the agency is just now retiring the cars.

The NTSB never considered the bellying to be an acceptable response. In fact, it said the bellying was unlikely to prevent loss of survivable space in a crash, a conclusion supported by the low-speed crash of two trains at Falls Church Yard in November 2009.

With the 1000 and 4000 cars gone, Metro can go back to running single-series consists; that is, all cars in each train are from the same series. In and of itself, that should provide benefits to Metro riders.

First, by making it easier for Metro to assemble trains. Right now, trains can only leave the yard if there are enough cars from other series to be placed on either end of a 1000 or 4000, and it can take longer to assemble trains as pairs of railcars are shunted around to sandwich the older cars.

The other advantage should be an increase in reliability. Mixing the different railcar series has caused issues because their systems are different. Doors close at different rates, interior next stop signs won’t work properly, and braking rate differences can cause a jerky ride.

Fewer delays. Thumbs up.

Many of Metro’s delays are caused by trains breaking down on the line. Even when you’re lucky enough to ride in a newer 6000 or 7000 train, if an older 4000 train breaks down two stops in front of you, you’re still stuck.

By removing the least reliable series in the fleet, the 4000s, the number of delayed trains should go down. And that’s a great step forward.

Fewer series. Thumbs up.

With the retirement of the 1000 and 4000 trains, the number of WMATA series will drop from six to four. In a few years, that will drop to three, when the 5000s also head to the scrap yard. Eventually, the 7000s will make up 58% of the fleet, with the 2/3000 and 6000 series making up 14% and 28% respectively.

Reducing the number of railcar types will make it easier to maintain the fleet. This is a strategy that Southwest Airlines has long used to successfully keep costs down and reliability up.

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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.

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.