Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Last October, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority pulled its 7000 series rail cars off the tracks after derailments uncovered a larger issue. It pulled 748 train cars from service—about 60 percent of its fleet—causing massive delays for passengers who packed shoulder to shoulder into rail cars during the age of COVID.

By December, Metro announced that it would start bringing the 7000 series cars back into service under an inspection plan. Surely the end is in sight for us, right?

Not quite. Hiccups in the return of the 7000 series cars caused Metro to again pull them from the tracks. And this week’s snow storm and surging omicron cases threw a whole new series of challenges into WMATA’s way. 

I Still Know What You Did This Winter

A snowstorm brought a reported 8.5 inches of snow to the District this week and along with it came a flurry of closures, from schools to testing sites. However, one of the largest service closures was Metrobus. It temporarily suspended all services Monday when roads were too dangerous (as Interstate 95 drivers found out this week) and encouraged riders to stay home and travel only when necessary. Some bus service had been reinstated by 6 p.m. Monday on a severe snow service plan, which only drives on major routes. Metro said Tuesday it hoped to operate all routes by Wednesday on a light snow plan. 

Does this mean all service will return to normal? Well…

2 COVID 2 Surge

WMATA announced Tuesday it would scale back its Metrobus service starting next Monday, Jan. 10, due to “growing absenteeism rates … related to COVID illness and exposures.” Over 2,300 cases have been reported among Metro employees as of Tuesday, according to the transit agency. About 1,500 employees are unvaccinated, and of those about 230 are not complying with testing requirements, according to local reports.

“Scaling back service will ensure customers who rely on Metrobus, Metrorail and MetroAccess for transportation have a more reliable schedule,” Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said in a news release. “Metro employees live in some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic and are exposed to the surge in the region and throughout the nation. It’s important that the taskforce take steps to make Metro operationally sound to meet the needs of our customers.”  

COVID-19 cases have risen to record-setting levels in D.C. with more than 1,300 new cases of COVID-19 reported in D.C. Wednesday. The bad news is that number is good news. Over 9,000 cases were reported on Jan. 3. The seven day average currently stands at more than 2,100 cases.

Metrobus service will operate on a Saturday schedule, or about 75 percent, starting Monday. Some additional service will be added onto major routes and will be kept to important destinations like grocery stores and hospitals. Unvaccinated employees will be required to continue testing, but, if they’re not vaccinated by Sunday, Jan. 16, they will be put on unpaid suspension. WMATA also urged riders to consider alternate modes of travel, including Metrorail which will continue to operate as scheduled. 

So does that mean Metrorail is back to normal? Well…

Fixing the Habit

The 7000 series trains were completely removed from service AGAIN in late December after cars were improperly brought back into service. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission found five rail cars did not meet “inspection criteria” after they were returned to the tracks. It’s unclear exactly what parts of the inspection plan weren’t followed. Metro originally committed to testing the wheels of active cars every night, allowing for some 7000 series trains to return to service in mid-December. The re-introduction of the cars was paused Dec. 23rd.

WMATA now needs to provide a more in-depth inspection plan that includes protections and internal oversight it will institute before the trains can return to service. After that, there will be a 14-day review period to decide if anything needs to be changed. 

Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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