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Metro Shouldn't Be Railroaded on 1000 Series Cars

Metro Press.jpg
GM John Catoe, in dark suit, left, answers reporters' questions after Tuesday's board meeting. I've never seen so much press at a Metro board. (Thomson)

Somehow, the train wreck investigation is turning into a capital improvement project. An NTSB official on Tuesday reminded people that the safety board has recommended retirement of the 1000 Series rail cars, the oldest in the Metro fleet and the ones that made up the six-car train that struck the other on Monday. After that, a lot of the public discussion focused on whether Metro should have replaced them by now.

Do you remember when the big water main broke in Potomac in December, and it became an argument about America's crumbling infrastructure? The nation's infrastructure may indeed be crumbling, but as Post staff writer Katherine Shaver wrote in May, the pipe broke because it was incorrectly installed, according to a consultant's analysis.

Facts are stupid things.

It hasn't even been 48 hours since the Red Line crash. Post staff writers Lena Sun and Lyndsey Layton have been covering the investigation intensely, but there's very little solid information yet. As they write, the NTSB is looking at everything: the condition of the trains, track and signals; the actions of the operator and her downtown supervisors; the computers that control train movement and recent track maintenance and train-control work.

But Metro board Chairman Jim Graham found it necessary at Tuesday's emergency board meeting to respond to the NTSB and to reporters' questions by defending the transit authority's continuing use of the 1000 Series cars.

The transit authority, he said, has been "relentless" in seeking funding to replace the 290 cars that make up the 1000 Series. Rail cars cost about $3 million each, he said. "We need about a billion dollars to replace them." In the meantime, Graham said, Metro has been taking "all reasonable steps" to keep the cars in good working condition.

But for some of us who are paid to ask questions, it's a lot easier to ask if the cars are old and dangerous than to understand the nuances of train control system and the braking options available with automated train controls.

Those cars do need to be replaced. They're approaching the end of their useful lives, and it would make no sense to fix them again. But at the moment, we have no idea whether the age of the 1000 Series had anything to do with the cause of the accident or its consequences for those aboard.

Many riders are understandably nervous about riding trains after a crash. Our reporters this morning say the end cars seem to be less crowded. With public concern mind, should Metro take the 1000 Series cars out of service, just as a precaution? Those are a fourth of the cars in the Metro system. If you think your transit commute was tough this morning, visualize it with about a quarter of the trains out of service.

Our local governments and Congress should continue working on separate and collective plans to get Metro the money it needs to operate the transit system. Meanwhile, the Metro board may continue discussing questions about the 1000 Series at its regular meeting on Thursday. But based on what we actually know now, we riders would not be well served by any drastic action to sideline a quarter of the rail cars.

Metro has taken these safety steps, which seem appropriate as a precaution: The trains are being controlled by the operators, not the automated system; they are running at slower than normal speeds; they are pulling to the front of the platforms, whether they're six cars long or eight cars long.

By Robert Thomson  |  June 24, 2009; 10:01 AM ET
Categories:  Metro , Safety  | Tags: Metrobus, Metrorail, Red Line crash, WMATA  
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Next: Some Metro Riders Avoid Front, Rear Cars


"The end cars seem to be less crowded." But the end cars are almost always less crowded. And, now that they are pulling to the end of the platform, the front car has even fewer people than body's standing that far forward to get on.

Posted by: DerwoodC | June 24, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

"Facts are stupid things."

Yes. Before the NTSB annoncement though, your paper was busy blaming the conductor without anything more than the speculation of unnamed experts to back up your character assassination. So, the ntsb statement may have been premature, but at least it put an end to the also premature, not to mention heartless, attack your paper visited upon one of the victims.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | June 24, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Maybe the politicians will wake up and give Metro adequate funding. That might be the best solution for this problem of what to do with the 1000 Series cars (which happen to be my favorites for a variety of reasons).

Posted by: FHMetro | June 24, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

"But at the moment, we have no idea whether the age of the 1000 Series had anything to do with the cause of the accident or its consequences for those aboard."

Thanks for pointing this seems that all too often people are looking for quick answers whenever these things happen, but almost never realize that the first answer is often the wrong one.

Posted by: owl1 | June 24, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I think you're a little bit off base, Robert. The impression I get from what your colleagues report is there was and is concern about the tendency of the 1000 series cars to collapse in collisions. That is what happened to the front car of the colliding train--and to the passengers inside.

You have a point--people tend to draw conclusions right away before everyone has all the facts--but I think there is good reason for people to question right away whether the 1000 series cars were too vulnerable to collisions to stay on the tracks with no reinforcement of the frame. If I remember the reports right the NTSB brought the issue up in the aftermath of one of the other collisions because of the collapse of a car.

Do you think I have a valid point, Robert?

Posted by: cmckeonjr | June 24, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Here's a thought: put the less-safe 1000 series cars in the middle of the train, instead of at the ends. That wouldn't cost anything.

Posted by: JoeMc | June 24, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, I think the point made above (on jumping to conclusions) is being drowned out in the live chat. Every single question has been about funding.

Posted by: owl1 | June 24, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Which cars are the 1000 series? The ones with the orange seats?

I think that putting them in the middle of the train isn't a bad idea, but in a major collision they still wouldn't be safe. Unfortunately it seems that Metro has had to make do with what they have. It shouldn't take people losing their lives to get the funding to replace these cars.

Posted by: June84 | June 24, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

"Which cars are the 1000 series? The ones with the orange seats?

I think that putting them in the middle of the train isn't a bad idea, but in a major collision they still wouldn't be safe. Unfortunately it seems that Metro has had to make do with what they have. It shouldn't take people losing their lives to get the funding to replace these cars.

Posted by: June84"

Understandable...but replacing cars will make no difference at all if the braking system or the signaling system were what caused the crash...

Posted by: owl1 | June 24, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Nice column. Taking those cars out of service before a sufficient number of replacement cars are ready would divert many subway riders onto the highways and city streets. That would likely produce an increase in the total number of transportation-related fatalities in the Metro area.

Posted by: sknack | June 24, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

"Metro has taken these safety steps, which seem appropriate as a precaution: The trains are being controlled by the operators, not the automated system; they are running at slower than normal speeds; they are pulling to the front of the platforms, whether they're six cars long or eight cars long."

Where were these "precautions" before Monday's crash? Sure, the response by Metro might be appropriate now but it would have been just as appropriate after they decided to ignore the NTSB report. New cars are expensive, of course. But taking less expensive precautions (operating the 1000 series trains at lower speeds, manual operation, etc) years ago would have been a much more responsible decision.

Posted by: shlymadrid | June 24, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

"...they are pulling to the front of the platforms, whether they're six cars long or eight cars long."

How does this enhance safety?

Posted by: JamesETurner | June 24, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

@shlymadrid: You have a point, but keep in mind that can't just operate the 1000 series cars at slower speed; you'd have to operate all trains at the slower speeds or trains would bunch up. And manual operation at slower speeds decreases the capacity of the system. Trips take much longer and already crowded trains are much more crowded when fewer trains serve a station in a given time period.

I like the suggestion to move all 1000 series cars to the middle of trains where they should be less vulnerable in a crash like this.

Posted by: ChrisDC1 | June 24, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

My good Doctor,

NTSB recommended that Metro get sturdier cars, among other suggestions, back in 1996 in the report on the January 1996 accident. Metro not having, or being unable to obtain the money it needs, to implement NTSB recommendations or perform regular maintenance is somewhat of a copout. For years, Metro has has opposed fair increases and focused on expansion and increasing capacity. This has come at the expense of maintenance and replacement of capital. Only Metro could have record level ridership cause funding issues. From the 2005 COG Funding report on Metro, "The level and ability of passenger fares to cover operating costs is dictated by two competing policy decisions: the desire to provide comprehensive service and the desire to limit fare increases so as to make that service affordable. Given these two factors, WMATA frequently must increase service, and thus costs, while not raising fares." Raising costs might inhibit ridership (but might not) theoretically making it more difficult to expand. It would be fascinating to compare subway systems around the country and see how efficient Metro is or isn't, when it comes to using its funds.

That report does argue for dedicated funding and that issue does pose some challenges. The biggest challenge, however, is to be able to maintain what you have while you grow. Given limited funds supporting those competing interests, logic would tell you you need to decide what to fund and what not to fund. The problem with Metro when it comes to funding is that they want their cake, they want to eat it, and they want others cake too.

Posted by: amaranthpa | June 24, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

"replacing cars will make no difference at all if the braking system or the signaling system were what caused the crash"

Except that the NTSB told Metro after the Woodley Park crash that that the 1000 series cars do not protect passengers when a crash does happen -- they "telescope." Think how differently this might have turned out if the same crash happened but the front car wasn't crushed to 1/3 of its size.

Posted by: Janine1 | June 24, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Can we even replace them? It is my understanding that the 1000 cars are part of a leaseback agreement that runs until 2014. Basically, the cars were sold to another entity that receives tax breaks for leasing them back to Metro for use. This lease runs until 2014. So, that may be the real reason we are stuck with these cars, regardless of any safety concerns raised by the NTSB.

Posted by: epjd | June 24, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: cmckeonjr, you certainly have a valid point about the crash-worthiness of the older rail cars.

What I heard at the two press conferences I went to on Tuesday was that quite a few reporters were merging the crash-worthiness issue with the what-caused-the-crash issue. And even on the crash-worthiness issue, we don't yet know if the injuries would have been less severe in our newer cars.

My main concern is that I don't want to see Metro pushed into taking some drastic action on the 1000 Series just for the sake of avoiding a ruckus.

We've got plenty of great reasons for telling our public officials to support Metro. Let's not add an argument that could be undermined later when the facts are in.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | June 24, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I think that worrying about the inconvenience to customers can not be compared to people losing their lives. Most of the money they tried to save will now to go the victims and the lawsuits of the people on board these trains. I bet they will come up with that money. This was the same situation in the Air France crash a couple weeks again. The NTSB recommened that they change out sensors on the plane and they did not. Now something like 228 people died. This is a horrible incident and I am deeply saddened. I will continue to pray for all of the people involved. We can not be careless with people's lives trying to save a dollar.

Posted by: real3 | June 24, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: June 84, you were asking how you can tell which cars are in the 1000 Series? Look for the black numbers at the ends of each car. If you see a number like 1001, 1084 -- something like that -- it's the 1000 series.

If you go from riding on the newest cars, the 6000 Series, to a train made up of the 1000 Series cars, it's kind of depressing. The oldest ones are starting to look pretty shabby, and they just feel congested.

It's in interesting idea about moving the 1000 Series cars to the middle of train sets. I'll try that out on Metro. I have a feeling it might be difficult to set up. All the train cars come in sets of two. So you'd have to set up a two-car set of the 1000 Series and surround it with two sets of newer cars. It might reduce Metro's ability to supply all the lines with the cars they need.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | June 24, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

From the WaPo story of the 1996 crash:
"The design of Metro's Breda cars, the type involved in the accident, also came under scrutiny in the federal report. Investigators said the cars seem to be too flimsy, noting that the impact of the January collision caused the sides of Callands's car to separate from the undercarriage and the body of the car to fold up on itself."

I agree pulling all the 1000 cars off at this point is probably a drastic action Metro should not be forced into. But hammering Metro on what they have not done over the last decade or so isn't. Regardless of the results of this investigation, these cars need to be removed, should have already been removed, and the reason for not removing them falls with Metro management. This is a problem of their own doing so I have little sympathy for them.

Posted by: amaranthpa | June 24, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Just wondering, because some people have pointed out (elsewhere) that Metro's recent crashes, plus many minor problems, have been on the Red Line -- are the 1000 series cars used more on that line? I mostly ride the Red Line, and almost always get the oldest cars. And the only times I've seen the newest cars have been when I take the Orange/Blue or Green/Yellow.

Posted by: Janine1 | June 24, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

From DrGridlock: "So you'd have to set up a two-car set of the 1000 Series and surround it with two sets of newer cars. It might reduce Metro's ability to supply all the lines with the cars they need."

If the 1000 make up 25% of all cars and most trains during peak run either 6 or 8 cars, theoretically and mathamatically it should be possible most, if not all, of the time.

Posted by: amaranthpa | June 24, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Moving the 1000 series cars to the middle of the trains sounds like a good idea on the surface (assuming the various series are compatible with each other) but I am not sure that would even protect those inside in a similar crash.
Crumpling of steel, telescoping and vaulting of the car are all ways in which the system dissipates the energy created by the collision. The ENTIRE train is the system. If you have stronger "buffer cars" on the ends that do not crumple, physics dictates that the system transfer undissipated energy to the systems weak point and dissipate it as effectively as possible. That might just mean that the end cars are safer but the 1000 series cars would crumple as they were pancaked between the newer buffer cars. Evidence of this is the disproportionate reduction of damage to the newer end cars of the stopped train and the newer car in the Woodley Park episode a couple years ago.
This is also the idea behind crumple zones in automobiles. Make the path of easiest dissipation in a place where people are not sitting. In the end, if they do not retrofit the frames, you probably still get telescoping risks.

Posted by: Stripticus | June 24, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

7000's, all around. They look pretty slick.

Posted by: thornwalker1 | June 24, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Stripticus is completely right. As tragic as the accident was, had there been structurally rigid cars in the front of this train, the casualty count may have been higher.

In any collision, there is a certain amount of energy that must be dissipated (into heat, mechanical work, etc). Had all the cars in the affected trains perfectly rigid, every passenger in both trains would have been subject to the sudden, violent deceleration of the crash because no energy would have been absorbed by the front car crumpling.

For this same reason, modern automobiles are safer than older ones; the front ends are designed to crumple and absorb more of the impact energy, transferring only a fraction of it to the occupants.

Posted by: axisdboy | June 24, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

For only being Ward 1 councilman, Graham succeeds in getting his name & face involved in anything and everything from Metro to getting sleaze-bars displaced by the new ballpark relocated to Ward 5. Its time to put the Metro Board in the hands of someone who is less distracted and more qualified.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | June 24, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Wow! The astoundingly short-sighted and criminally negligent attitude doesn't stop with WMATA and the Metro Board members!

Dr. Gridlock's main argument against removing the antiquated Series 1000 death cars is : 'How could you take them out of service,that wpould really delay your commute!! Who cares about dead bodies when you can shave a few minutes from your commute!'

What a disgrace!It seems to me that the reason we're in this situation is because people in government and elsewhere,like Dr. Gridlock,have adopted this criminally negligent attitude that "it's not that bad" to have dangerous death cars riding through the system everyday because it "costs too much" to get ones that are not almost 40 years old.

How many tens of millions will it cost Metro now in wrongful death suits, to say nothing of the cost in blood.How much have you saved now, Metro?

You've actually lost alot more in cost and any trust among the public might once have had in your management skills:
Shame on any who apologize for Metro!

Calling this anything but criminal negligence is a lie!

Posted by: jmohandc | June 24, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Didn't the NTSB say there weren't any usable data recorders in the 1000 series cars?

Even if we don't have funding to replace the 1000 series cars right away, might we not at least spare a quarter to install recorders in them? Wouldn't that be a worthwhile venture in its own right, irrespective of this incident?

Posted by: tronic1 | June 24, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

The headline was so tacky, I couldn't proceed to the article. Poor pun.

Posted by: meglulofs | June 24, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

JoeMc's comment about positioning the 1000 series cars in the middle of trains may have merit; but, I believe I read somewhere in the plethora of coverage that these older cars can not be operated in conjunction with the newer vintage railcars.

On a slightly different topic, while I can understand that the capital needed to retrofit the 1000 series cars for crashworthiness was prohibitive, I wonder why they didn't at least upgrade the event recorders in that equipment. If they had, we might have a better picture of what occurred and when it did.

Posted by: jimmy_mac | June 24, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

$3 MILLION a car?!?!?! That's utter insanity. Why doesn't someone do a story on why a couple of wheels and a metal box cost the same as a fleet of Porsches! THERE's NOT EVEN AN ENGINE IN A METRO CAR!

Clearly there is a load of corruption going on- perhaps it is time to open up a bit of competitive bidding because I'm sure in a sane world it would cost under $100K a subway car.

Posted by: slomiamg | June 24, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

How could the Metro cars move without engines?

Posted by: goddaraw | June 24, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

The Post really needs to scrutinize the NTSB's credibility gap when it makes recommendations. The NTSB is made up of engineers and scientists, not business people or economists. If there is a glimmer of possibility that some sort of human intervention could have alleviated a bad outcome, they will make a sweeping recommendation that this step be taken *everywhere* in the future. The notions of budget constraints, relative risk, tradeoffs, etc. are completely foreign to them. In actuality, cost is *never* even mentioned or considered in any of their recommendations.

Case in point: If Metro had taken their advice to add black box recorders in every rail car, there would have been less money for other important things like--I don't know--repair and maintenance. Consequently, following this particular recommendation would have certainly led to more crashes. But these would have been well-documented crashes!

As I have posted for before, the NTSB is good at getting to the bottom of problems. They are the last people you'd want to consult about how to pragmatically fix those problems.

Posted by: Wallenstein | June 24, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

"Except that the NTSB told Metro after the Woodley Park crash that that the 1000 series cars do not protect passengers when a crash does happen -- they "telescope." Think how differently this might have turned out if the same crash happened but the front car wasn't crushed to 1/3 of its size.

Posted by: Janine1 | June 24, 2009 12:36 PM"

True, but the new cars haven't been crash-tested either...unfortunately, it's just not clear whether or not there would be a reduction in injuries.

It's possible that the newer cars may cause more injuries, since during an impact, the energy of the collision would be transferred to the occupants. That's why newer cars have crush-zones (as I think someone else also mentioned here). We just don't know what difference the car type itself would have made yet.

The point is that crashworthiness of any given car is a separate issue from what caused the crash in the first place...don't get me wrong, this is awful, but we have to be rational here or risk throwing money at the wrong solution at the wrong time.

(No, I don't work for Metro.)

Posted by: owl1 | June 24, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

re: newer cars with crush-zones, meaning newer automobiles.

Posted by: owl1 | June 24, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

The focus on the type of railcar, the Series 1000 is fine. Is there a follow-up to how rail systems, and public transit generally, buy equipment designed just for them. There is no standardization in the industry and so the price per car is higher than it perhaps could be if more systems designed cars together instead of customizing for each city.
What's the diference between a Series 1000 and a later version? Is it a whole new car or is it simply an update of the existing model? Are all the cars interchangeable?
My experience with the Morrison-Knudsen cars the Metro bought is that they came in sets, not individual cars.
The countries different transit systems buy indiuvidually, maybe there are significant cost savings, and maintenance savings, from standardizing across lines.
Just a thought.

Posted by: koolhand21 | June 24, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

For what its worth...

Its doubtful that you could raise fares high enough to pay back the interest on a billion dollar bond issue to purchase cars without making the fares totally out of reach of your customers.

Like it or not, the tax payer has to subsidize Metro. It can't be done through fares alone. If you don't ride Metro and you think your getting cheated, just remember that there are less cars on the highway.

Posted by: muddapucker | June 24, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Metro has been asking for money since I moved here seven years ago. Obviously fares do not cover all of the maintenance needed. You can not replace your car if you do not have the money to buy another one. It works the same way with Metro cars. Does anyone really think that Metro has not replaced the cars just because they do not want to?

Posted by: ctree | June 24, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

After hearing about the NTSB telling Metro that they needed to stop using or modify the 1000 trains this should have been fixed not ignored. That train without the data recorders should have never been in service without some kind of recorder.If nothing is wrong with the cars then why not link up the older cars between two new cars. This would utilize the old cars and you would have data recorders. Metro needs to save money by using what you have instead of spending millions.

Posted by: mark643 | June 24, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

People who ride Metro are constantly reminded of how much the infrastructure needs investment. It seems completely unsurprising to me that those people would be interested in more than the direct mechanical causes -- the stupid facts --for this particular accident. There are other things at stake for them, including a sense of being safe on the train. People are trying to take advantage of the attention the Metro system is getting to call attention to the broader consequences of the political deadlock the system has been in, caught between three states and an apathetic Federal government. More power to them. They sure don't have any other advocates.

Sadly, it appears they aren't going to get much assistance from so called "reporters" who would rather sneer at and chastise frustrated readers and riders than actually digging their journalistic teeth into the whys and wherefores of the problem writ large. "Gridlock" indeed.

Posted by: carovina | June 24, 2009 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Metro has a safe record, considering the number of commuter-miles and fatalities are so rare it is front-page. (Fatalities with automobile drive commutes are so common they don't even make the paper.) So even if they did nothing, it would still be a safe way to travel. If they spend almost a billion dollars for more rigid cars, then the danger might be transferred elsewhere. They key is they should avoid collisions--no metro train car would be completely safe in the case of a collision, unless they were to require seat belt use, and no standing in the aisles. There are modern navigation equipment that would (gps and/or avionic-quality) that could minimize the chance of collision at a fraction of the cost of replacing all series 1000 cars.

Posted by: tontoman1 | June 24, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse

There is no question that the newer cars are safer than the older ones. Though I may be a bit biased (I've been testing the new cars for the past ten years). On metro's behalf, they have been trying to get funding for new cars for some time now. While the feds have been showering banks with cash, I, along with a few hundred of my former colleagues, that used to work at the plant that built your 6k and refurbished your 2/3k cars are collecting unemployment and food stamps.
BTW newer rail car frames are designed with shear builts and I-beams that split in an impact to absorb the energy. The force is directed outward and not linearly.

Posted by: jeal10 | June 24, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Oh, wow, thanks for the input, jeal10.

Posted by: cmckeonjr | June 24, 2009 10:55 PM | Report abuse

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