Metro is getting a major makeover. Riders will see hundreds of new rail cars and a new way to pay at the fare gate. Some of those changes will start in the coming months.
Metro's General Manager and CEO, Richard Sarles, made the announcement Thursday as part of his three-year business plan. Sarles emphasized customer service and safety are its top priorities. With the aging system, new, safer rail cars, more eight-car trains and the convenience of paying with a smartphone are at the top of the list.
The first of Metro's new 7000 series rail cars will go into service next year and Metro has taken an option to buy 220 more. By 2018, that will bring the total to 778, making half the fleet brand new.
"The entire design of this car was influenced by our customers,” explained Sarles. “It was customer driven design so what you see in the interior in terms of information displays in terms of dynamic signs, which tell you when the next train's arriving.”
New cars should be more reliable -- an improvement over what riders experience now.
"Earlier today, the train broke down. It had electricity problems. The lights went off," Eric Lindsey told FOX 5, noting there is a lot for Metro to fix.
The oldest rail cars, the 1000 series, will be gone in the next few years too. They are more prone to catastrophic failure in a crash, which was apparent in the 2009 deadly Red Line train collision. Replacing them will go a long way to making riders feel safer.
"Of course there’s always going to be that fear of something happening,” said Ryan Jackson, who rides Metro regularly. “As we progress, I think technology progresses, so safety is always put first I feel like.”
Testing will begin on the new 7000 series rail cars in the next few months and Metro is building a test track near the Greenbelt Metro station specifically to test the new cars. More rail cars means Metro will be able to run more eight-car trains all the time. This will help reduce overcrowding, especially during rush hour on the busiest lines.
In the next few months, the transit agency will also set dates to return train operations to automatic train control. The computerized system, blamed for the Red Line crash, was overhauled and is undergoing a safety analysis.
"To make a uniform smooth ride for our customers, that will be important, that's important to them," said Sarles.
With trains operating in manual mode, customers have complained about the jerky starts and stops.
Customers should also see a smoother payment system soon. By next year, a pilot program will allow people to use their smartphone or even a credit card at fare gates.
"Anything to make things more convenient, I'd be in favor for," said Sam Park, who just moved to D.C. a month ago and depends on Metro to get around.
Riders like it, but will they be paying higher fares for all this? That is a question that will not be answered until Metro begins budget talks early next year on whether to raise fares.