Metrorail System to Shut Down for at Least 24 Hours Beginning at Midnight on Tuesday

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The entire Metrorail system shut down at midnight Tuesday for at least a full day in an unprecedented move by transit officials who said they acted because they feared for the safety of passengers of the nation’s second busiest subway system.

The decision by new General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and the Metro board to halt operations so workers could conduct emergency inspections of electric cables marked a nadir in Metro’s 40-year history and raised new alarms about its capacity to deliver safe, reliable service.

The paralysis of the core of Washington’s transportation network, announced Tuesday afternoon just a half-day before it was to take effect, sent a shudder through the region and sparked angry complaints about Metro’s inadequacies. Hundreds of thousands of commuters, school children and others made new plans to get around Wednesday.

But Wiedefeld said it was too risky to delay the safety checks after an electrical fire erupted early Monday and poured smoke into a Metro tunnel downtown.

The incident, caused by malfunctioning electric cables, was eerily reminiscent of the Yellow Line accident 14 months ago that resulted in the death of one passenger and sent scores to the hospital with smoke inhalation.

“While the risk to the public is very low, I cannot rule out a potential life safety issue here, and that is why we must take this action immediately,” said Wiedefeld, who took office in November. “When I say safety is our highest priority, I mean it. That sometimes means making tough, unpopular decisions, and this is one of those times. I fully recognize the hardship this will cause.”

Metrorail has closed before because of bad weather–like January’s blizzard — but never for safety reasons. During the shutdown, crews will inspect all 600 electric cables in tunnels throughout the system to ensure that they have sufficient insulation and are otherwise reliable.

The hope is that no problems will be found in the inspections, so the system can reopen at 5 a.m. Thursday. If problems are identified, however, then individual Metro lines or stations could remain closed Thursday and beyond.

The surprise announcement sent the federal government and local school districts scrambling to adjust.

The Office of Personnel Management granted all federal agencies in the region the option to allow employees to take unscheduled leave or telework.

No school systems closed because of the shutdown, but some officials expressed concern over how their teachers and other employees might get to work.

At D.C. schools, all tardies and absences will automatically count as excused. A good portion of D.C. students do not attend a neighborhood school, and rely on Metro to commute. Some charter also announced closures.

The shutdown did not affect Metrobus service. But transportation systems that feed to Metrorail, such as Maryland’s MARC trains and the Fairfax Connector bus service, were considering adjusting service Wednesday.

The shutdown acted almost as an exclamation point after years of deterioration, mismanagement and safety lapses that have tarnished a subway system that once was an emblem of efficiency and source of regional pride.

Still, longtime critics of Metro’s shortcomings inside and outside government generally defended the decision on grounds that riders’ safety was the top concern.

Metro “has a long, well-documented list of safety issues and needs to work aggressively to fix them,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “While this shutdown is inconvenient, they are doing the right thing by putting the safety of their passengers and workers first.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Robert McCartney and Lori Aratani