WASHINGTON — 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.
The problem comes as WMATA is working to attract more riders, after ridership numbers plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall rider numbers remain at about 30% of pre-pandemic levels but are expected to increase steadily as offices reopen and tourists return to Washington.
Kawasaki also supplies trains to the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City, among other systems. An MTA spokesman said the Kawasaki trains used in New York are a different model than those used in Washington. The spokesman, Eugene Resnick, said his agency would “continue to work with Kawasaki to maximize safety and closely monitor the results of the NTSB and D.C. Metro investigations.”
Chicago uses a set of train cars also labeled the 7000 series, but a statement from the Chicago Transit Authority said the cars are made by a different manufacturer and there are no plans to take them out of service.
Atlanta’s commuter rail system plans to “check a percentage of railcars to look for similar anomalies out of an abundance of caution,” said spokeswoman Stephany Fisher.
But the Atlanta system doesn’t use Kawasaki trains, and Fisher said no suspensions or schedule disruptions are expected.
The incident promises to shine a potentially harsh light on WMATA, the regional transit authority which suffered a string of embarrassing and dangerous derailments and track fires, several years ago but claimed to have addressed its issues.
The rail cars have been in service in the Washington area since 2015.
Homendy said minor incidents with the wheels on the Kawasaki 7000 cars had been escalating since 2017. She said WMATA was aware of 18 such failures in 2021, and the current round of emergency inspections revealed an additional 21 failures. Homendy said the inspections were ongoing and “that number could go up” in the coming days.
Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Atlanta, Ken Kusmer in Chicago and David Porter in New York contributed to this report.