A rendering of the 8000-series railcars Metro issued Tuesday. Image by WMATA.

Metro announced on Tuesday, September 4 that the agency is looking to buy anywhere from 256 to 800 new “8000-series” railcars to replace the oldest cars in the current fleet. Overall, the new cars will look very similar to the 7000s with a few minor tweaks.

Metro is asking railcar manufacturers for Requests for Proposal to build at least 256 new railcars, slightly more than the 248 cars the agency said would be the base order in April. The primary purpose of the order is to replace the 2000/3000-series railcars. Those cars were purchased between 1983 and 1988, so the oldest ones will be turning 40 in 2023. Metro’s press release says that the new 8000s will begin to be delivered in 2024.

The 8000s will “build on the success of [the] 7000-series cars,” according to Metro. They won’t have major new features like increasing the number of doors per side or include open gangways, which would increase space for passengers and allow them to walk through cars.

Instead, Metro says the cars are expected to have small tweaks and “popular features” like:

  • New digital advertising screens (“to generate revenue and reduce labor costs”)
  • Digital system maps to replace the paper ones the agency uses today
  • Power outlets so you can charge electronics while riding
  • Additional hand holds for standing passengers
  • Lighting improvements, floor markings, and signage for ADA-reserved space

The Request for Proposals also requires companies to include analysis about different types of seating which could go into the railcars, including if one or both of each pair of cars includes longitudinal seating down either side of the car, instead of the typical 2x2 seating which Metro cars have now.

Metro’s 7000-series railcars are built by Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing at their plant in Lincoln, Nebraska.

A rendering of the interior of the 8000-series railcars. Image by WMATA.

Leaving the agency’s options open

By setting a base order of 256 new railcars and including options to buy up to 800, Metro is able to basically buy as many new railcars as they might need for years down the road. It could allow the agency, as the press release suggests, to potentially replace the 184 6000-series railcars instead of spending money to perform mid-life rehabs on them. The 6000s would begin turning 20 — the median lifespan of a Metro railcar — in 2026, and the agency could justify their replacement if the cost of a new 8000 is similar to or less than the cost to perform those mid-life overhauls.

The agency also says the cars could be used to “support a range of initiatives and scenarios,” including running all 8-car trains and running more trains during rush hours. Metrorail trains used to run every six minutes on most lines before Fiscal Year 2018 (which began July 2017), when they were cut to running only every eight minutes during morning and evening rush hour periods.

Prior to FY 2018, Metro required 954 railcars to run morning and evening service with 6-minute headways. After, that requirement dropped to 858 in FY 2018, and 868 in FY 2019. The agency will have approximately 1,282 railcars once all 7000-series cars are delivered sometime by the end of next year.

More railcars moves the bottleneck elsewhere

Other expenses would filter to the top of the needs list if Metro successfully expands the railcar fleet to run more service, run longer trains, or undertakes some other initiative. Running more, longer trains requires continued power upgrades throughout the rail system. Metro estimated it spent $100 million running 8-car trains between FY 2014 and 2019. More work remains to allow 100% 8-car trains to run before 2023.

Running more trains also requires more operators to run the trains, which could impact Metro’s operating budget because it would need to hire or re-hire employees. Restoring cuts to rail service would require funding either from other parts of the agency’s budget, or additional contributions from local jurisdictions.

Metro expects to award the railcar contract in late 2019.

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.