The lead rail car in the deadliest crash in Metro’s history saw all but a small fraction of its passenger space destroyed, federal investigators said Tuesday, lending weight to earlier warnings of a fundamental design flaw in the aging stock of cars.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has taken over the investigation of Monday’s wreck, has long urged Metro to upgrade or scrap the decades-old 1000-series trains.

“They have not been able to do that,” NTSB member Debbie Hersman said Tuesday, calling the situation “unacceptable.”
The NTSB, after a 2004 crash, registered concern that the cars were susceptible to crumpling catastrophically without improvements to their “crashworthiness.”

In that incident, a driver of a 1000-series train rolled back into another train in the Woodley Park station, sending 20 people to the hospital and causing $3.4 million in damage, according to a 2006 NTSB report.

The striking car, the report said, took damage that was “vastly disproportionate” to the one it rolled into.

Metro Chairman Jim Graham said Tuesday the agency was “aggressively seeking to replace the 1000-series rail cars.”

The transit agency has received bids on a request to build as many as 300 replacements, but has money for only 64 cars so far, all of which are intended for the Dulles Rail expansion.

“We are also calling on the federal government to make good on the promise of $150 million,” Graham said, referring to an amount Congress authorized annually to the transit agency last year but has yet to appropriate to Metro.

Still, replacing all the current 1000-series train cars at $3 million each would cost $870 million. And even if they could be bought and ordered immediately, it would take years to build them and put them into service.

The cars, bought between 1974 and 1978, have a 40-year life expectancy, according to Metro, and are set to be phased out by 2015.

“You do need to upgrade these things,” said George Mason University professor Kenneth Button, a transportation policy expert. “When systems are built, they’re built to a technical specification which gets superseded periodically, and therefore you need to upgrade or, in some cases, just replace.”