Ridership on Washington’s Metrorail system has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, and yet riders are squeezing onto crowded trains, with longer waits on some lines. The reason? Metro officials say ridership has been increasing at a rate that has outpaced the current number of available trains.

A year ago, a 7000-series train derailed on Metro’s Blue Line in Arlington, Virginia, leading to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation that took all of the 7000-series trains off the tracks due to issues with their wheels. This left Metro with only around 40% of its fleet operable, and coupled with ridership losses from the pandemic and construction on multiple lines, the trains have yet to reach pre-pandemic levels.

When trains were taken off the tracks, rail schedules were changed to address more than half of the fleet being inoperable, but the move did not prove a large issue because of the small number of people riding the trains during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with a recent rise in ridership and only 20 7000-series trains allowed on the tracks each day until recently, the metro system shortage is starting to be felt.

Metro recently announced that it will be increasing rail service to pre-pandemic levels, which should lessen concerns about crowded and infrequent trains. This rise will happen slowly as more cars are added to each line in the coming months, gradually decreasing the time between trains. After the Yellow Line reopens in May 2023, all train lines are expected to be running at pre-pandemic levels.

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Yetunde Olumide, acting chief financial officer and executive vice president of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, noted at a recent board meeting that ridership is continuing on an upward trend.

“Given the coming back with the 7k series rail cars and all the customer engagement and different activities we’re engaging in across the authority, the expectation is that we will see that increased ridership as we continue through the month,” Olumide said last month.

By comparison, the New York City Subway has seen a bigger rise in people returning to use the trains. LA Metro has reached 70% of pre-pandemic levels in September.

According to the Washington transit authority’s proposed budget for 2020, the pre-pandemic rush hour wait between D.C. Metro trains on every line was 8 minutes. With a fleet size of around 1,200 cars, Metro had 868 scheduled cars for peak times in 2019. Recently, Metro timetables showed Green Line trains arriving every 8 minutes, Red Line trains arriving every 10 minutes, and Blue, Orange, and Silver lines arriving every 15 minutes. (Metro announced Friday that it was adding more trains on the Red Line effective Monday, Dec. 5, running them every 8 minutes during peak travel times).

Despite more than half of its trains being inoperable, Metro continued to push forward with line expansions. The extended Silver Line opened on Nov. 15, adding six new stops, one of them being Dulles International Airport.

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“As noted on Tuesday, the Silver Line extension will improve mobility and provide greater access to jobs, entertainment and shopping destinations,” said Metro chairman Paul Smedberg at a November board meeting. “Not to mention, a direct ride to Washington Dulles International airport with more than 600 flights arriving each day.”

To handle the increase in track coverage, Metro was recently given the green light by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission to add more 7000-series trains to the tracks. This allows the segmented return to normal rail service to align with having more tracks to cover.

Metro also continues to work on the brand-new Purple Line, a planned 16.2-mile light rail that will connect New Carrollton and Bethesda, linking to the Green, Yellow, Red and Orange lines. The project was originally expected to finish this year, but has been delayed to 2026.

In addition to new track lines, Metro also plans to introduce a newer line of trains, which will add 200 to 800 cars to its total fleet. The 8000-series trains aren’t expected to start service until 2025, at the earliest. The new trains look similar to their 7000-series predecessors, but with some new, unique features, like heated floors and charging outlets.

To bring the 7000-series trains back on the tracks, Metro must follow new regulations, including checking the wheels more regularly and only using certain trains on certain lines.

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In December 2021, the safety commission lifted the original 7000-series suspension to allow Metro to operate trains if they ran daily inspections on the wheels. Two weeks later, the commission reinstated the suspension when Metro wasn’t following the guidelines. The recent agreement with the safety commission is the first green light to move all trains back to service.

In their return to service plan, the metro will start by bringing the trains into service with inspections every four days. Over time and after meeting guided criteria, Metro will transition to inspections every seven days for the foreseeable future.

Hanna Zakharenko is a reporter for Capital News Service, a nonprofit, student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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