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What if Metro pulled its older cars?

Wednesday - 6/24/2009, 12:15pm  ET

AP: 79d1642a-6834-46a1-b9db-c8ad5d939d9a
WASHINGTON - With the National Transportation Safety Board continuing to question the "crashworthiness" of Metro's 1000 Series cars, the transit agency is running a "what if" scenario. What if Metro removed all of those cars?

Staff members are looking at that question after Metro's deadliest ever crash this week that left nine dead, says Metro Board Chairman Jim Graham. Metro staffers are expected to present their findings to the full Metro board Thursday.

"I don't know what the impact would be," Graham tells WTOP. "We are talking about 25 percent of the fleet of our cars."

The striking train in the crash was made up of six, 1000 Series cars. Those cars turned into mangled wrecks.

Metro's 1,150-car fleet includes 300 of the 1000 Series cars built in the 1970s. The average age of cars in the system is 19.3 years, ranking Metro's cars sixth among 15 of the nation's largest transit systems.

Graham says if Metro did pull the cars, some of which have been rehabilitated to extend their lives, the transit agency would not be able to respond to the transportation needs of the region.

"The cars do not appear to be the cause of the accident. The way the car was crushed was a consequence of the accident. If you can control the consequence, you don't have the issue of the cars.

"The cars themselves, absent this type of impact, are safe and they have been operating safely."

The National Transportation Safety Board, the independent agency overseeing the investigation into Monday's crash, recommended in 2006 that the 1000 series subway cars be retrofitted or replaced. The board recommended data recorders for the cars, questioning their crashworthiness.

"Let me emphasize, we have no federal standards on what crashworthiness ought to be for a car like this," Graham says.

"We recommended to WMATA to either retrofit those cars or to phase them out of the fleet," NTSB member Debbie Hersman said.

"Unfortunately, we've seen another accident involving a 1000 Series car," Hersman said on WTOP Thursday.

Investigators have been looking at the lead car in the striking train for clues as to why the accident occurred.

"It's a 75-feet car. Fifty feet of that 75 feet was crushed, and so that kind of survivable space is not something the safety board wants to see when it comes to accidents," Hersman says.

Hersman, who says the investigation into the crash will probably take about a year, says the NTSB can only recommend changes. It can't force Metro to phase out cars.

"It's really up to other folks to implement our recommendations," says Hersman.

In an 18-page report, issued in 2007, the NTSB classified Metro's reluctance to retire the 1000 Series cars as "unacceptable." The report said Metro's board claimed tax advantage leases required the 1000 Series cars remain in service until the end of 2014.

Graham has said the transit agency is "aggressively seeking" to replace all of Metro's 1000 Series cars, and had prior to the crash put out requests for proposals and received bids for the new cars. But even if Metro did order new cars today, delivery would take three to five years, he says.

The main issue with replacing the cars is money. Metro has long pleaded for more funding to ensure the system's safety. Metro is the only transit system in the nation without a dedicated source of funding. Metro officials have long argued that the federal government should contribute because 40 percent of rush-hour riders are federal workers.

"It grieves me to say this. We hope now Congress will appropriate the monies and let's get on with this," he says.

Maryland, D.C. and Virginia have all agreed to fund Metro, and so has Congress. But the funding is not in the federal budget.

Metro General Manager John Catoe said last year it would take $7 billion just to maintain current service and keep the system running safely and reliably from 2010 to 2020. That includes replacements for aging rail cars.

It would take billions more, he said, to deploy longer trains and more buses to meet the projected increase in demand. The number of trips taken on Metro trains is expected to grow 22 percent to about 1 million a day by 2020.

Graham wants hopes this latest crash prompts action on the federal level.

"If Congress will honor its commitment to provide the system with $150 million in capital funds in the FY10 budget, that will be matched by another $150 million from the jurisdictions, then that's $300 million a year for 10 years."

Additionally, Graham says Metro is contacting the Obama administration to see whether any stimulus funding would be available for car replacements.

(Copyright 2009 by WTOP and The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)