The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority idled 748 Metro cars on Monday after one train derailed at least three times on Oct. 12, officials said.
On Oct. 12, 2021, at 4:51 p.m., WMATA Metro rail train 407 derailed between Rosslyn and Arlington Cemetery. The derailment, just south of Rosslyn, was the last of at least three known derailments of Train 407 that that train experienced that day. Washington Metro Rail Safety Commission, based on what we were learning in the course of our investigation, chose to remove from revenue service all 7000-series cars. I will also stress that we are concerned about other transit agencies in the United States. We are fortunate that no fatalities or serious injuries occurred as a result of any of these derailments. But the potential for fatalities and serious injuries was significant. This could have resulted in a catastrophic event.
The Metro system in Washington pulled more than half of its subway cars from service before the Monday morning commute as federal investigators scrutinized a surge in train-alignment “failures” and the derailment of one train at least three times in a single day last week, officials said.
The removal of about 60 percent of the system’s cars prompted service reductions that paralyzed commuters across the capital region on Monday, forcing them to take buses, work from home or endure long waits for what many riders described on social media as overcrowded trains.
It was the latest setback for one of the nation’s busiest rail transit systems, one that has been trying to build back ridership that had fallen off during the coronavirus pandemic. The service disruptions came one day after an independent safety commission ordered the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to pull from service all 748 subway cars in its 7000-series fleet, which are manufactured by Kawasaki Rail Car, Inc.
The Metro, as the region’s subway system is known, gave no timetable for when the subway cars would be returned to service.
At a briefing on Monday in Washington, Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that investigators were trying to determine how widespread the alignment failures were, and acknowledged that the defect may not be limited to Washington’s transit system.
“This could have been catastrophic,” Ms. Homendy said.
Metro, which runs about 98 trains on all of its lines on a normal weekday, said it operated only 40 trains on Monday. A total of 240 rail cars were in service on Monday, down from 790 on a typical weekday, the transit agency said. Metro has a total of about 1,200 cars in its fleet.
The transit authority said on Twitter that it was operating a “basic service pattern on all lines, departing about every 30 minutes.”
“This is bad, scary, and might get much, much worse before it gets better,” Salim Furth, director of the Urbanity project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said on Twitter.
The number of alignment failures involving Metro train axles has risen sharply, to 39 this year from two in 2017. Of those failures, 21 were discovered since Friday, Ms. Homendy said. As of Monday morning, 514 of the 748 subway cars had been inspected, she said.
“We are concerned about other transit agencies in the United States,” Ms. Homendy said. “We may at some point issue an urgent recommendation, or I’d say if you’re a transit agency operating in the United States and you’re listening, make sure that you’re checking your cars as well.”
The N.T.S.B. learned of the alignment failures from Washington’s transit authority only after the federal agency opened its investigation into last week’s derailment, Ms. Homendy said.
In a statement on Monday afternoon, Metro’s general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, said that the transit authority was “working hand-in-hand” with federal investigators and the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the independent agency that oversees safety in the Metro system.
“I want to assure our customers that their safety is driving every decision being made,” Mr. Wiedefeld said. “We apologize for the reduced service, and ask for our customers’ continued patience and support as we work to get Metro back to normal operations.”
Kawasaki Rail did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
There were 187 passengers aboard a blue line Metro train when it derailed at 4:51 p.m. on Oct. 12, just south of the Rosslyn station in Arlington, Va., according to federal investigators. The passengers were evacuated, and one person was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, investigators said.
A preliminary N.T.S.B. investigation found that the same train had derailed at least twice before that same day, at 3:23 p.m. and 4:13 p.m., but the train “rerailed” itself because of the way the track was laid out in the other two locations.
Federal investigators said that they found broken sections of a brake disc where the two earlier derailments occurred. The car responsible for the derailment was four cars back from the motorman’s cab, Joe Gordon, the N.T.S.B. official in charge of the investigation, said on Monday.
“He was far enough ahead that, according to interviews, there was nothing felt from his perspective when these previous derailments occurred,” Mr. Gordon said, citing what the motorman had told investigators.
Metro ridership remains a fraction of what it was before the coronavirus pandemic, when a sudden shift to remote work led to service cutbacks. In January 2020, the average number of weekday riders was 630,000, according to the transit authority. On Oct. 8, there were 210,000 riders, a figure that the transit authority said reflected a 135 percent increase compared with the same date last year.
Even with ridership down compared with the prepandemic era, the abrupt service cuts that were imposed on Monday had a ripple effect across the region.
At the Metro Center station in downtown Washington on Monday, photos on social media showed commuters crammed onto a subway platform next to a train. The transit authority said on Twitter that it was working to improve air flow on trains, and it reminded passengers of a federal mask requirement.
“Metrorail cars recycle the air approximately every three minutes,” the transit authority said.