DC suspends most of its Metro trains over safety issue

Nation's Capital Metro

WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington's regional Metro system abruptly pulled more than half its fleet of trains from service early Monday morning over a lingering problem with the wheels and axles that caused a dramatic derailing last week. The ruling promises to complicate daily travel and commutes for thousands of riders for an unspecified length of time while the National Transportation Safety Board investigates the issue.

The Metro authority's safety commission ordered the withdrawal of the entire 7000-series line of trains overnight. The Kawasaki-made 7000-series are the newest set of trains in service and the 748 cars comprise about 60% of the fleet.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy told reporters Monday that a design flaw had been identified which caused the trains' wheels to spread too wide on the axles, allowing the carriage to slip off the tracks.

“We're at the preliminary stage of our investigation — just trying to collect data and information,” Homendy said. “This could have resulted in a catastrophic event.”

It wasn't immediately clear if other regional commuter systems used the same model rail car. But Homendy said the NTSB “may at some point” issue a recommendation for inspections of all similar train cars around the country.

“If you are a transit agency operating in the United States and you’re listening, make sure you are checking your cars as well,” she said.

Homendy said the rail system had been aware of the problem since 2017, but hadn’t informed the NTSB about it. There were 39 such failures this year alone.

Paul J. Wiedefeld, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which oversees the regional D.C. transport system, apologized to riders for the disruption and said the cars would remain out of action through at least Sunday and possibly longer.

“I want to assure our customers that their safety is driving every decision being made,” Wiedefeld said in a statement, adding that his agency would “continue working hand-in-hand with the NTSB.”

WMATA said it had been working with Kawasaki to resolve the problem since 2017 but provided no details.

The company did not respond to an email or phone request for comment.

The wheel issue is being blamed for a incident last week in which a train car slipped off the tracks on the Metro's Blue Line near Arlington National Cemetery. Homendy said the car had apparently derailed once and then re-connected with the rails by itself, before derailing a second time. Some passengers were trapped in a tunnel in a dark train car and had to be evacuated on foot.

The safety ruling had already snarled commutes across the nation's capital and the intertwined communities of northern Virginia and southern Maryland. Passengers on social media reported widespread delays with commuters waiting up to 45 minutes between trains and crowding chaotically into whatever space was available.