It started with a slight jerk, followed by a smattering of applause. Then began the fastest ride Metro’s Blue Line has seen in some time, an express trip from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to a small field somewhere north of Arlington Cemetery.
This afternoon marked the first ride of Metro’s new 7000-series railcars with a critical mass of passengers. It was just a preview, for press, government officials, and various stakeholders. Tomorrow is the real thing: Shortly after 7 a.m., the first 7000-series car with paying passengers will depart from Franconia-Springfield.
It’s the first step in a gradual process to begin operating 528 of the new railcars, which will eventually replace the oldest railcars, the 1000 series, which has been used since Metro began running in 1976. They’ll also replace the newer 4000 series and expand Metro’s fleet by 128 cars.
“Today approximately 750,000 people will ride the Metro,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Victor Mendez said at the airport station before the preview ride began. “And for all of those riders, tomorrow will be a big day.”
Metro says the new cars—-with a more open layout, digital displays, and slip-resistant floors—-are sleeker and more comfortable than the older ones. More important, Metro says they’re safer. The National Transportation Safety Board urged Metro to replace the 1000-series cars after a 2009 Red Line crash killed nine people, finding those cars to be unsafe in a crash. Six years later, it’s finally beginning to happen.
“These new cars have safety features never before seen,” said Mort Downey, board chair of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metro. Downey also praised the “brighter lighting ” and “roomier seats.”
The event brought out a roster of top regional politicians. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said the new railcars are “critical to growing the Virginia economy,” adding, “We love the Metro system.” Three members of Northern Virginia’s congressional delegation spoke. Rep. Gerry Connolly called Metro “the single most important investment this region has made in itself since the founding of Washington, D.C.,” and made the case for his colleagues to support Metro funding, saying, “We’re now completely dependent on it, especially the federal government.” Rep. Don Beyer said of the 7000-series cars, “As a longtime car dealer, I believe people should trade in and trade up often.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser was scheduled to speak but did not appear, after a D.C. Council budget oversight hearing this morning ran over schedule. No members of Maryland’s congressional delegation came, nor did new Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
Downey took the opportunity to press the local jurisdictions for more funding. Metro has an option to buy an additional 220 7000-series cars in order to expand the fleet enough to run more eight-car trains during rush hour and relieve crowding. So far, the region’s jurisdictions have not signed on to the purchase; Bowser’s recently released budget does not include any funding for it. “Today,” said Downey, “we have a limited-time option to buy more of these cars at a bargain price.”
The ride itself was pleasantly uneventful. Passengers carried small heart-shaped paper fans with the hashtag Metro is using to try to promote the 7000 series: #newtrain. Digital displays featured nifty, if not necessarily broadly useful information like the number of bike racks at the next station. The round trip to and from a random spot north of the cemetery was a strange course, but a long enough one for the passengers to take in the train’s features and remark on the new-car smell. After holding its share of the 750,000 daily riders, we’ll see how long that smell—-and the accompanying excitement about the new railcars—-can last.
Photos by Aaron Wiener