Metro Executes Unprecedented Rail Shutdown For Safety Inspections Wednesday

Updated 7 p.m.

WMATA has closed the entire Metrorail system Wednesday to conduct emergency inspections of more than 600 electrical cable connections, the transit agency said.

The commuter rail system will be closed in D.C., Maryland and Virginia from midnight Tuesday through 5 a.m. Thursday. The Office of Personnel Management said federal agencies will be open Wednesday but employeeshave the option for unscheduled leave or telework.

Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, announced the shutdown at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. Officials said it was the first time Metro would close all of its railways for any reason other than a weather emergency.

A fire on the tracks near the McPherson Square station led to major delays throughout the system Monday. The incident was traced to a faulty “jumper cable,” the same kind of electrical component that is believed to have malfunctioned last year and caused a train to fill with smoke near L’Enfant Plaza, killing one passenger and sickening dozens.

National Transportation Safety Board investigatorsidentified the need for the safety fix last year, and last June Metro’s top engineer Rob Troup cautioned that repairs requiring track shutdowns during daytime hourswould be necessary.

Wiedefeld said the threat to life is low in this case, but he was taking no chances with the safety of Metro riders and staff.

The ripple effects

Almost anyone who needs to navigate D.C. on a weekday will be affected by the decision, and there will be far more cars on the road than usual. Authorities were urging commuters to have patience. In a nod to the increased usage of roads, WMATA said parking would be free at all Metro-owned lots and garages Wednesday.

D.C. Public Schools announced they would still be open Wednesday, and were working with Metro to offer additional bus service. Tardies and absences will be excused, the school district said. As of Tuesday evening, a handful of the city’s public charter schools had canceled classes. About 87,000 students attend some form of public school in D.C.

The D.C. city government also will be open.

The VRE rail service announced it will continue to operate normal service Wednesday. The Maryland Transportation Authority said all three MARC rail lines would be operating at full service with “limited extra capacity.” Bus users should be prepared for delays because of heavy traffic, MTA said.

One type of vehicle will definitely not be on the city’s roads: The District will not send out street sweepersWednesday.

Tough decision, strong reactions

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a written statement that the shutdown highlights the need for “a permanent Metro safety office with real teeth.” The secretary has been outspoken in pushing for the transit agency’s jurisdictions to create such an entity. “While this shutdown is inconvenient, they are doing the right thing by putting the safety of their passengers and workers first,” Foxx said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat whose district includes thousands of federal workers, called Metro’s decision “a gut punch to the hundreds of thousands of commuters who depend on the system.” In an an interview with WAMU 88.5 News, he called it a “sad, sad day.”

An advocacy group said it was hopeful the Metro closure will encourage elected officials to support more public funding for mass transit system maintenance. The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which says its mission is to promote pedestrian- and transit-friendly communities, said in a news release that Wednesday’s unprecedented shutdown is the result of maintenance underfunding through the years.

The group credited Metro leadership for taking the “tough and bold steps” to shut the system down for an inspection.

The shutdown is likely to be a boon for taxi and ridesharing companies. Roy Spooner, general manager of Yellow Cab of D.C., said he’s calling in extra staff to help take phone calls. He sent word to his drivers to get ready for Wednesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo courtesy of Martin Di Caro. Click here to read the original story.