The Maryland Transit Administration last week unveiled the first of 78 new railcars that will shuttle passengers along the 15.4-mile Metro SubwayLink line in the coming years.
The new Hitachi trains will replace the subway’s current fleet of 100 railcars. Opened in 1983, Baltimore’s lone heavy rail subway line has operated with all original railcars since. The MTA will introduce the railcars in a phased approach, with six entering service by the end of 2024 and the full overhaul complete by the end of 2026, according to the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board’s short-term improvement plan.
“This is the first new railcar for Baltimore-area transit in nearly 30 years & is the first step towards improved efficiency and reliability,” said MTA Administrator Holly Arnold in a separate tweet, appearing to reference both Metro and Baltimore’s north-south light rail system, which opened in 1992.
Metro’s original 100 railcars were purchased “with the expectation of expanding the Metro system,” a spokesperson for the MTA said in an email. The agency has already begun retiring some of the original railcars, and said that 78 cars would be “sufficient to provide the same level of service for our Metro line.”
The MTA will use the two newly arrived railcars to conduct tests over the course of the next several months as the rest of the shipment continue to arrive.
MTA spokesperson Paul Shephard said the cars can hit speeds up to 70 mph and feature new AC induction traction motors. “These motors promise higher reliability and reduced maintenance compared to our current motors,” said Shephard.
The new motors will generate electricity during braking, Shephard explained, powering the trains’ climate controls, on-board video surveillance system and more, and funneling excess generated power back into the system.
The state’s draft Consolidated Transportation Program — Maryland’s six-year list of transportation capital projects — says the railcar overhaul has a price tag of roughly $544 million, the majority of which comes from Federal Transit Administration grants. The state’s Transportation Trust Fund covered the rest of the cost.
Robin Budish, director of the transportation advocacy group Transit Choices, called it “an amazing investment.”
“They really, really believe in upgrading and improving our transit system and this is a testament to that goal,” she said of the MTA and Maryland Department of Transportation.
Budish thinks that the onboard upgrades — better audio/visual aids, bicycle tie-downs and brighter lighting — will improve rider experience. She added that the renewal of the Red Line, as well as MTA’s transition to electric buses, show commitment to greener transportation from the MTA and Gov. Wes Moore’s administration.
Metro logged more than 700,000 rides in the first half of 2023. Before 2018, ridership often exceeded that number each month alone. Though subway ridership has plummeted from pre-pandemic levels, the new rail cars will be a welcome change for the many riders who use the rail line to commute between Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Metro is the preferred transportation method of 21-year-old Alex Sanchez, who uses the rail line every day after taking the bus from his home in Highlandtown and catching the train at Hopkins to his work near Lexington Market. When Metro has an issue, he doesn’t have trouble finding a ride, but it’s usually slower than the train, he said. He welcomes the promise of better reliability that the new railcars bring and would like to see Metro expanded.
Michael Bradshaw, 46, of the Pimlico neighborhood, isn’t as optimistic. He has long been frustrated by what he called a lack of frequency — not enough trains running to make the system efficient. He also worries about track conditions, and hopes that new railcars also mean more focus on maintaining the steel they run on. He recalled numerous breakdowns over the years that affected his daily commute, including a multiweek Metro shutdown in 2018.
“It was terrible. They had those shuttle buses jam-packed. You couldn’t breathe,” said Bradshaw.
A fire caused another abrupt Metro shutdown this summer, the latest setback for the line that breaks down more often than similar heavy rail systems across the country. The investigation into the cause of the fire is still ongoing.
In 2021, only Atlanta’s subway system reported more major mechanical failures on its heavy rail system per train miles covered than the MTA, according to the most recent data from the Federal Transit Administration.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.