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House and Senate Democrats Tour Metro Cars of the Future

The Metro car of the future rolled up to Prince George’s County’s Greenbelt station on Monday morning, parting its gleaming, silver doors so Maryland Democrats Steny H. Hoyer and Benjamin L. Cardin could step aboard.

On the heels of the House Minority Whip and his Senate colleague were fellow Maryland Democrats Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Donna Edwards, both eager to climb inside the sleek, stainless steel 7000-series train cars that Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials hope to start using in late 2014.

Rather than treading the worn, stained carpet of Metro’s current fleet, they stepped onto a black nonslip flooring speckled with a red, white and blue pattern. LED screens hanging on the bright white walls showed transfer, bus and parking information for the upcoming College Park station. LCD map displays above the seats showed the train’s location.

Edwards and Mikulski briefly perched on the slate blue padded seats, which are promised to provide more knee room than the dull earth-tone upholstered benches of today. Edwards later reported that both she and her Senate compatriot felt “better lumbar support.”

The congressional delegation, joined by Metro General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles, local elected officials, representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board and a flank of TV camera crews, toured two of the four subway cars that arrived in the District last month from Nebraska. Metro plans to begin testing those cars immediately, running them without passengers during off-peak hours. If all goes according to plan, the Kawasaki plant manufacturing the cars will begin full-scale production of them mid-year.

“Though there’s a chill in the air, there’s warmth in my heart about what we’re doing here today to bring these new, safe reliable cars to the Washington metro area,” Mikulski said, when she emerged onto the platform into the blustery winter air.

Mikulski reflected on the 2009 Red Line crash at Fort Totten that killed nine people and spurred a congressional push to get the first-ever federal rail transit safety standards passed into law. As chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she has pushed for approval of $150 million for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, the fifth installment in a 10-year, $1.5 billion package to replace out-of-date equipment.

“This is all about safety,” Cardin said, adding, “Metro has recognized a responsibility to keep its riders and employees as safe as possible.” The upgrades will fulfill NTSB recommendations made in the wake of the 2009 crash. The new railcars represent the largest investment in Metro’s fleet in the system’s 37-year history.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said Monday she plans to keep reminding her colleagues of the need to fund the project. The federal funding is matched by D.C., Maryland and Virginia. No members of the Virginia delegation appeared at the press conference.

“They couldn’t make it today, but I know they are very supportive of what we’re doing,” Sarles said, when asked about their absence.

The 7000-series cars are generations ahead of Metro’s current fleet. Its oldest cars, in the 1000 series, went into service in the mid-1970s. Unlike previous railcars that can be mixed and matched within a single train, the newest cars will only operate with other 7000-series cars, likely in eight-car trains.

“These cars are replacing 40-year-old railcars that are unreliable and cause delays today,” Sarles said, adding, “So, instead of matching the old design, we decided to make a clean break and create a car with a future Metro in mind.”

The last 1000-series car is probably within three years of retirement, he said. By 2018, more than half of the cars rolling through the Metro region should be 7000 series.

During the next few months, those stuck waiting on delayed trains or ordered to disembark because of a broken door or mechanical issue might be tempted to criticize the slow rollout. Metro currently has 528 new trains on order and hopes to order more soon, Sarles said. “We’re replacing them as fast as technology and manufacturing allows us to do.”

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