WASHINGTON — A Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration rail technician says the increased power needs of Metro’s 7000-series cars – the system’s newest rail stock – is damaging the system that transmits electric power to trains, resulting in problems – including fires – that can cause delays.
“The fires are caused by these current draws by the 7000s,” Metro Automatic Train Operation technician Jack
Bounthong said in October. “We never had a fire incident before we got the 7000s.”
Bounthong explained how trains made up of 7000-series cars are causing track fires and other damage to the propulsion system that powers the trains. The 7000-series’ increased power needs are also responsible for delays because the increased power use can generate so much heat that sensors located near crossover tracks (where a train can switch from one track to the other) can erroneously sense a non-existent train on the opposite side of the tracks and send incorrect signals to other trains, as well as the Rail Operations Control Center.
“Now you got trains backing up – that’s why you get those delays,” he said, “because signals go in and out – the train will sit at the signal for no apparent reason.”
In November, WMATA chief spokesperson Dan Stessel had no information about rail car power requirements.
“If a train uses more voltage – and I’m not sure what you’re talking about – that would put more strain on the power system,” Stessel said Nov. 16.
When specifically asked whether the 7000-series cars draw more power than older models, Stessel claimed not to be aware of whether that was the case.
“I never said that. Who said that?” Stessel asked, later adding, “I think you read it on Twitter.”
But a look at WMATA’s proposed FY 2019 budget, released in December, shows that officials have been aware that the 7000-series cars require more power than their predecessors, as evidenced by their request for an additional $5.8 million in energy costs.
The FY 2019 budget proposal explains that the increase “is driven by projected increase in propulsion usage as more 7000 Series railcars are added to service.”
Bounthong, who is also an organizer for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 – which represents Metro’s workforce, said WMATA managers are reluctant to admit to any problems with the new cars. “They’re going to find every excuse in the book till they blame the cream-of-the-crop 7000,” he said.
Despite Bounthong’s explanation, WMATA Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader disagreed with the suggestion that Metro has a problem with “ bobbing track circuits,” and instead blamed a malfunctioning communications cable on the Red Line, and asked WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld to order it replaced late last year, before it could have a chance to fail.
But Bounthong revealed that when riders hear sometimes-frequent announcements of delays due to a "signal problem," the problem is with the train – not the signal.
“Here’s what’s causing it – it’s the current of the 7000 trains,” he said. “It’s saturating those bonds…because it’s coming from an adjacent track circuit. Trains from other track cause these bonds to go in and out in and out in and out.”
Regardless of the cause, what WMATA has taken to calling “signal problems” have caused delays of more than 15 minutes for riders.
Stessel admitted that Metro management is indeed trying to reduce “power draw” in the system, but only to lessen the risk of smoke and fire incidents, which can cause major delays to service.
“If you have too many trains too close together, if you have trains that accelerate too quickly, um, that all puts
unnecessary strain on the power system; and so by [keeping] that out, you reduce the strain on the power system and you reduce the risk of arcing insulators, for example,” Stessel said, adding that the more power that Metrorail uses, the faster the power infrastructure will wear out.
Despite Stessel’s pleas of ignorance, another WMATA spokesperson, Sherri Ly, said earlier this month that it is not unusual for newer cars to require more power.
“The fact that a 7000-series draws more power than older cars is neither unexpected nor surprising,” said Ly Feb. 14. “Just as a 4000-series car would draw more power than a 1000-series car, and so on.”
She added that Metro's power system has sufficient capacity to operate 7000-series trains and does not need upgrades.
"There are no projects underway or needed that are a result of the 7k’s drawing more power," Ly said.
Carolyn Flowers, then-acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration directed in May 2016 that Metro reduce power usage in the core of the system – which includes most major Washington, DC rail stations – to reduce risk of smoke and fire incidents.
Stessel said Metro wants to reduce power draw because that otherwise causes more risk of fires or smoke.
Officials have said smoke and fire incidents often begin as electricity arcing on a support to the power source third
rail, called an insulator. This results in what Metro officials call an “arcing insulator.”
"One of the things that causes arcing insulators – not just here but on any transit property that uses third-rail power –is um, is the way you draw power," Stessel said.
Bounthong said the way that Metro is meeting the FTA safety directive from 2016 is through a loophole. Metro has been operating fewer trains per hour this fiscal year and during WMATA’s yearlong SafeTrack maintenance program. The fewer trains Metro runs, he explained, the less power the system uses.
WMATA board member Tom Bulger, who represents the District of Columbia, said he didn't mind having to wait to find out that the trains needed more power because Metro is slated to receive more power substations, citing the proposed FY 19 budget. He said he had asked Metro management twice about new train power usage in the last two years but never received a response.
While Ly claimed the Metrorail system has the capacity to operate the 7000 series trains without enhancements, Bulger admitted this is not the case, which is why numerous proposed budgets have indicated the need for more power, which WMATA budget documents say is needed to better enable the system to handle the system-maximum train size of eight railcars, with the most recent proposed budget noting that “additional power upgrades to run all 8-car trains on the red line are planned to begin in FY2021.”
While the increased need could be explained as meeting the power needs of a system running exclusively eight-car trains – because 7000-series cars run exclusively in eight-car trains – it still does not rule out Bounthong’s assertions that the problems are caused by the increased power draw of the 7000-series cars themselves.