Takoma Metro at Night by Jordan Barab used with permission.

If Metro doesn't take “immediate action” to fix rubber barriers between its new railcars, it could lose federal funding. Three people have fallen in between 7000-series cars since 2016 — two of them this year.

After the latest incident of a rider falling, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) ordered Metro to fix the barriers on all of the 7000 series, the newest trains, by the end of this year. If not, FTA is threatening to withhold up to 25% of some federal funding, according to a letter published on Friday, June 22.

Sets of chains link each pair of railcars on both the new 7000s and the older legacy cars. Between each pair of 7000s, though, are rubber barriers which are supposed to serve the same purpose and prevent people from unintentionally falling in between the cars. However, the rubber barriers don’t meet in the middle and have a several-inch gap. They are also flexible to the touch and provide minimal support, making it easier for someone to fall through.

Rubber barriers leave a gap between the 7000-series rail cars. Image by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

In September 2016, Metro said it would fix the cars in the next 8-15 months. Then the deadline changed to summer 2018, and now the agency says it won't be done with the retrofits until November 2019. The FTA says this timeline is not acceptable.

The rubber barriers were originally added between railcar pairs to make creating and splitting up sets of cars in rail yards easier. The chains between pairs adds an additional step for rail employees.

Three people have fallen since 2016

WAMU and the Post wrote about rider David Kosub who fell back on July 29, 2016. Kosub, a visually-impaired rider, told WAMU at the time that he used his cane to find an open doorway on the train: “It felt normal. I put out my hand on the train itself, took a step and fell literally in the gap that I thought was the entrance into the train.”

Kosub, luckily, made it out unscathed.

A second rider earlier this year fell between two cars on March 3 at the Shady Grove station, just before the system closed on Saturday morning. The rider was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries after falling between the fourth and fifth car on the train.

The latest incident, which appears to have triggered the FTA letter, occurred on May 25, 2018 when a visually-impaired rider fell between two cars on a train at Van Ness while using her cane to find an open door on the train. “She mistook the opening between cars…as a doorway, stepped off the platform, and fell onto the track, sustaining minor injuries,” the FTA letter says.

Chains between cars better prevent riders from falling through. Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

A known concern for years

The FTA sent a letter to Metro back in January 2016 requesting documentation from the agency that the barriers were safe and up to standard. A citizen had alerted the oversight body that the gap between cars was too large and were a potential safety concern.

In its monthly report to the full Metro Board of Directors set to be presented this coming Thursday, the volunteer Accessibility Advisory Committee says the group identified issues with the rubber barriers as early as 2016: “Members of the blind community and members of the AAC expressed safety concerns.” The group says their original recommendation from 2011 was that 7000-series cars continue to use the inter-car chains found on the older cars.

When WAMU published their story in 2016, Metro said that the entire 7000-series fleet would receive a retrofit, even though the cars meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. A letter from Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld obtained by WAMU in September 2016 stated, “Cars that are still in production and all future orders will have the chain barriers installed prior to delivery to WMATA, and cars currently in revenue service will be retrofitted over the course of the next 8-15 months.”

The National Capital Citizens with Low Vision (NCCLV) group, which partnered with the AAC to evaluate the safety of the barriers, recommends the agency make improvements to the rubber barriers instead of adding more chains in between cars.

NCCLV suggests increasing the size of the rubber barriers and placing them both higher and lower on the railcar than they are now, and also making them a more visible color. The group says low-vision riders have a hard time seeing the barriers, in part due to ‘limited’ station lighting. “Many riders with low vision are looking for visual as well as tactile clues,” says the report.

The deadline for barrier fixes keeps moving

A Washington Post article from June 2017 reported that Metro’s schedule for installing the chains had slipped, and that it may be ‘next summer’ — summer 2018 — when the cars would be retrofitted. Twenty-one months after Wiedefeld’s letter, no 7000-series car has yet to be retrofitted.

In March, GGWash reported that Metro was planning to begin retrofitting the cars beginning June 2018 and finish the work ‘by the end of the summer as committed.’ Metro now estimates it’ll need until November 2019 now to finish the work, says the new FTA’s letter.

Metro spokesperson Ron Holzer told GGWash one day before the FTA letter was released that the project is set to begin in August, and would be completed in spring 2019. The further delay in schedule “is due to a Kawasaki shortage of material,” Holzer said. “We are working with Kawasaki to identify additional suppliers with the goal of completing the work sooner if possible.”

It is unclear if Metro can retrofit all in-service 7000-series cars by the end of the year to meet the FTA’s deadline. The agency currently has upwards of 540 7000-series railcars in service. They expect to receive the rest, totalling 748, within the next few years.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

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.