In the latest edition of “District Discourse,” Angela Yu (SFS ‘25) calls on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to implement preventative maintenance measures on the metro system.
On Tuesday, Oct. 12, the derailment of the Blue line train due to a wheel malfunction shocked Washington, D.C. residents. How the defect was allowed to escalate into a potentially deadly situation is a pressing question for D.C. lawmakers and daily commuters. For many, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) decision to temporarily remove the majority of trains from service came far too late. The agency’s failure to address imminent safety risks in past assessments reveals an alarming lack of transparency. In order to prevent future accidents, WMATA must commit to accurate incident reporting and proactive maintenance of its facilities.
Following the derailment incident, an investigation exposed the extent of train maintenance failures. Metro documented a steady increase in wheel defects found in routine inspections from two in 2017 to five in 2020. This year, 18 failures in the wheel assemblies were identified and replaced before the October derailment, which has risen to 39 after the subsequent mass inspection of train cars. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) discovered that the Blue line derailment was specifically a result of the wheels of the 7000-series Metro train shifting outward on the axle, causing them to move off of the tracks. Notably, the same train had derailed twice on October 12 leading up to the major incident. WMATA has since removed all 748 of its 7000-series trains from service, which make up nearly 60% of their fleet. Currently, operations are severely reduced; the Red line runs just every 15 minutes and all other lines run every 30 minutes.
With more workers returning to their offices, daily riders have grown to 200,000 or 1/3 of pre-pandemic rates on an average weekday. Crowded train cars from the reduced schedule mean commuters are at a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. In addition, residents who rely on public transportation in their daily routines for work, grocery shopping or other necessities are forced to choose between expensive ride services or long waits. Extended delays have been a major setback to the Metro’s recovery plan to regain passengers by offering promotions on passes. The widespread repercussions of this incident indicate an urgent need to implement preventative measures.
In contrast to the NTSB’s investigation, WMATA published favorable performance reports that failed to mention the steady increase in wheel defects since 2017. In a fiscal year 2021 second quarter report compiled by the WMATA Safety and Operations Committee, Metro services appeared to be outperforming safety and efficiency goals in almost every aspect. The average distance traveled between rail car failures increased by 44% from the 2020 fiscal year with eight per day. The 7000-series trains, which traveled 78% of the overall miles, documented an increase from 38,982 to 41,685 miles between failures. Ironically, both the second and fourth quarter report highlighted the 7000-series fleet as a leading factor behind the Metro’s record performance. The agency’s omission of malfunction incidents and lack of maintenance initiatives beyond continuing monthly compliance checks shows unacceptable neglect of commuter safety.
The October derailment is not the first time WMATA has had to recall an entire line of trains because of a major accident. In November 2020, Metro pulled its 6000-series trains after experiencing two train separation incidents in two months. The similar recall of 7000-series trains after multiple derailments leading up to Oct. 12 shows rail cars should be fully inspected after the first sign of defect. WMATA must also improve its incident transparency in reports to oversight bodies like the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission. The commission should not be ordering major safety measures only after events that spark public outcry.
As a daily mode of transportation for hundreds of thousands of people, the Metro has a responsibility to implement comprehensive safety procedures. The fallout from the Blue line derailment highlights the extensive disruption of Metro malfunctions on WMATA and D.C. residents. Moving forward, train defects should be consistently and comprehensively outlined in fiscal year reports and addressed before escalating to potentially fatal incidents.
Angela Yu is a first-year in the School of Foreign Service. District Discourse is published every other week.