A few weeks ago, I took a fairly lengthy early-morning Metro ride to run an errand. The bright lights on the 3000 series train felt incessant, and I struggled to hear the conductor’s garbled announcements. By the time I got home, I had a pounding headache.
When I recovered, I reflected. I had done the trip many times before without a headache, and without the triggers to my autistic sensory issues or problems with auditory processing. The catch: every single one of those trips was on a 7000-series train.
The 7000-series, Metro’s newest railcars, were removed from service after the derailment of a Blue Line train on October 12, and remain out of commission for at least the next three months. Service times have suffered without the railcars, which make up more than half of Metro’s fleet. But it wasn’t until my recent ride that I realized the lack of 7000-series trains is also an accessibility issue.
There’s more to accessibility than ramps and markings
When we discuss accessibility on public transportation, step-free access like ramps and elevators, accessible signage, and tactile markings for people with vision disabilities are often the main topics.
These features are, of course, deeply important. However, there are also other accessibility features that are often easily missed. These things help people with hearing, cognitive, and sensory disabilities navigate transit systems. As an autistic person* with an auditory processing disorder, I sometimes need to rely on these features as well.
Of course, even without the 7000-series trains, Metro is still providing better service and is far more accessible than systems in peer cities. But that doesn’t mean the 7000-series issues aren’t causing accessibility problems..
First, reduced frequency is itself an access issue. Not only does the additional wait time push people who cannot do so to stand longer; it also disproportionately impacts people with disabilities, who often rely on public transportation.
As for the trains themselves, here are a few accessibility features present on 7000-series trains that passengers with disabilities may be currently missing:
- Transcribed announcements. For those of us, like me, with any hearing disability — including Deaf and hard-of-hearing people — or auditory processing issues, transcribed announcements are really helpful. The 7000-series trains have screens with text information that make previously inaccessible announcements accessible. Though some older trains have some transcription for stations and which doors will open, the level of service is not the same. That said, I do wish more of the frequent announcements operators make, such as indicating when a station is the last in the District of Columbia, were transcribed on the 7000-series trains.
- Audible announcements. On the flip side, many people with vision disabilities rely on the operator’s announcements to learn about changes to routing or navigate on and off the train. I and several people I know have noticed that the 7000-series trains tend to have functional microphones and speakers — unlike many of the older trains, on which announcements are often garbled.
- Route maps. The 7000-series railcars include route indicators showing where the train is along the route that are helpful for many people with cognitive disabilities. Many autistic people and people with cognitive disabilities have trouble with navigation, and the main map may be too complex for many people to follow. For those for whom looking out the window or listening to announcements are not enough, the route maps can help.
- Icons and text.Some of the signs on 7000-series trains have both icons, like arrows, and text to describe what is happening. For example, when doors open, the arrow overhead and text on the screen indicates which side’s doors will open. This access feature is important for many people with cognitive disabilities, who often struggle with either images or text. The same need applies for many people with dementia, as I wrote in a 2020 piece for Greater Greater Washington.
- Different lighting and reflectivity.As someone with sensitivity to bright lights, I find that the glare from the lighting on many 7000-series trains is far less severe than those on older models. It seems to me that bulbs and reflections on older trains are more “intense,” which can give those of us with light sensitivity a headache.
Without these features, Metro’s older trains make journeys harder and more frustrating than they need to be for many people with disabilities.
The result is that many people either will drive, have someone drive them, or will take a rideshare instead. Others will simply spend more energy and deal with more aggravation – especially the disproportionate number of people with disabilities who are essential workers, and who often rely on public transportation to get to and from work. Many people with disabilities can neither stay home nor afford an alternative. The longer that the 7000-series trains are out of service, the longer that WMATA passengers with disabilities have to deal with the impacts.
*People on the autism spectrum often switch between “identity-first” language and “person-first” language, or stick to the former, because being autistic is seen as part of one’s identity. I use identity-first for autism here.