Metro’s older railcars will soon reach their end of useful life and need to be replaced, but the agency might buy fewer new ones in the future than they have now. Current ridership trends indicate that the need for more cars might not be there and that Metro has more cars now than they need — or want — to maintain.
Metro hopes to place an order for a new railcar series, the 8000s, sometime next year. In essence, the agency wants some more cars to replace the 2000/3000-series cars, but with few new major features which would separate them from the 7000s.
New cars, but similar look and feel
The agency appears to only be making incremental changes to the cars, instead of taking the opportunity to add big new features which could help the system. Metro Board documents posted online say the cars will have better grab handles, media screens, outlets, and also be more efficient.
Not mentioned in the documents to date are two important features: open gangways and increasing to four doors per side.
Turning Metro’s railcar “married pairs” — two cars semi-permanently coupled together — into cars with open gangways would mean a little more space in the cars to sit and stand. They would also allow riders to walk in between cars safely and to spread out, which would lessen crowding in either individual vehicle.
In response to inquiries from GGWash, Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly says that the agency is not considering the open-gangway design for the 8000-series. “The 8000-series is expected to be a relatively small sub-fleet,” said Ly, adding that “due to the curves on Metro’s system, an open gangway design that would work on our system would not yield any significant increase in capacity.”
The MTA in New York is experimenting with such an open design and is ordering 20 of them in their newest railcar purchase — incidentally, also from Kawasaki, the same company which made Metro’s 7000-series cars.
Rail yard and shop equipment in the Metro system would generally require little retrofit to support two-car open gangway pairs. Railcar lifts are already configured for married pairs, and it wouldn’t cause a decrease in usable yard space or lower optimization. Married quads (four cars semi-permanently connected) would, on the other hand, likely require millions of dollars of retrofitting Metro’s rail yards.
A Metro paper from 2015 noted at the time that adding a fourth door to the side of each car would decrease a 60-second station dwell time by eight to 12 seconds, or by 13-20%. While relatively small, a consistent decrease of several seconds at transfer stations adds up over time and could allow two more trains per hour to operate.
The WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council suggested four doors per side as well as changing the seating arrangement to give more standing space when Metro was designing the 7000-series, but the agency didn’t want to try either idea then.
When asked if Metro was considering an 8000-series design with a fourth door per side, Ly said: “we will need to wait for the RFP.”
The cars which Metro decides to buy for the 8000-series will be with the agency for up to the next 40 years. Stagnation now means the agency will be stuck dealing with decisions it could have changed for four decades to come, while other transit agencies continue to evolve and modernize their railcar fleets. The next railcar procurement likely won’t be until 2040, when the 6000-series cars are nearing their end of life.
New railcar purchase could shrink the fleet
Metro currently has approximately 1,206 (at time of this writing) railcars in service, 352 of which are 2000 or 3000-series cars put into service between 1983 and 1988. With a useful lifespan of 40 years, replacements for these cars will need to start arriving by about 2023. But while the agency currently has 352 of these cars, they’re only looking at replacing 248 of them. The rest could be scrapped without replacement.
Metro appears to be keeping the option open to buy more cars on top of the 248 base, but the slide presented to the Board of Directors notes that the sizes of the two additional purchase options are “based on future ridership projections.” Specifying a smaller base order allows Metro to spend less total upfront in order to confirm the railcar order and spreads out the money needed to exercise the contract options, if they choose to do so, later on.
Metrorail averaged 612,000 trips per day in 2017, down from a peak average of 750,000 in 2008 before the burst of the housing bubble, the federal government’s sequestration, and the Fort Totten crash and subsequent service unreliability. Ridership on both Metrorail and Metrobus continue to be “below expectations” as of the current fiscal year, though the agency says rail ridership has “stabilized as compared to the same time in FY2017,” which was around when SafeTrack was nearing its end.
The frequency decrease from six minutes to eight minutes between trains last year lowered the number of cars Metro needs for peak service by 96, from 954 to 858.
Metro wants to buy the new cars late next year
In order to for Metro to begin receiving the first of the new railcars by 2023 when the older ones reach the end of their lives, they say they need to issue a Request For Proposal later this year, and award the work to a vendor by late next year or early 2020. Metro estimates design and production of the cars should take around 3.5 years, and delivery of the first production-ready car should come in early 2024.
In comparison, Metro initially estimated about 3.5 years from contract award to “conditional acceptance” of the 7000-series cars, which ended up being about six months shorter than how long it actually took. The Board approved the award in March of 2010, and the first production car was delivered in January of 2014.
A base order of just 248 cars would be the third-largest Metro order of railcars, behind the 7000-series (748) and the 3000-series (290) cars.
Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.