Updated Wednesday – Metro announced Tuesday afternoon that the entire Metrorail system will be shut down Wednesday to allow for a systemwide safety check of 600 electrical cables that line its tunnels.
In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Metro GM and CEO Paul Wiedefeld said he ordered the unprecedented closure with the support of Metro’s Board of Directors after an electrical fire early Monday morning in a Metro tunnel just west of the McPherson Square station.
Wiedefeld said that while the investigation is still ongoing into Monday’s incident, preliminary information indicated it resembled last year’s Yellow Line smoke incident that led to the death of a passenger.
“While the risk to the public is very low, I cannot rule out a potential life safety issue here,” Wiedefeld said. “And that is why we must take this action immediately. 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.”
Inspectors will fan out across the system Wednesday to inspect about 600 “jumper cables.” The jumper cables act essentially as electrical extension cords in sections of the Metro rail system where there are gaps between the electrified third rail.
Wiedefeld said additional service delays could be possible into Thursday if inspectors find issues with jumper cables in specific locations. Metro says it’s the first time the entire system has been closed for a non-weather related reason.
Wiedefeld said he decided against closing the system for the Tuesday evening commute because many had already used the system to commute to their jobs Tuesday morning and would be relying on it to return home.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who’s also a D.C. Council member, said board members spoke with Wiedefeld throughout the day Tuesday before making the decision.
“We in good conscience, and as the administrators of this system, cannot send trains out in this system into these tunnels knowing full well that something could go wrong,” Evans said at Metro’s Tuesday press conference.
Montgomery County government will open Wednesday, though non-essential employees will be allowed to use unscheduled leave. The county’s Ride On bus system will operate on its regular schedule Wednesday. In a statement, the county-operated bus service said it already “uses just about all of its buses to provide existing service,” indicating it won’t be able to increase service Wednesday.
Parking at Metro garages and lots will be free. Montgomery County announced all HOV restrictions on I-270 would be lifted, but State Highway Administration spokesperson David Buck said that isn’t true and the restrictions remained in place Wednesday.
The Office of Personnel Management announced Tuesday federal agencies in the Washington area would be open Wednesday, but with the option for unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework.
Metrobus will also operate on its regular schedule Wednesday and Metro said it expects buses to be severely crowded.
There are about 85,000 daily Metrorail boardings in Montgomery County, according to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT). According to a Metro study released last year, of the approximately 740,000 trips taken on Metrorail on a typical weekday, 38 percent are taken by Maryland residents.
“For one day, a lot of people are going to figure out ways to deal with this. Some people have jobs where if they need to, they’ll be able to telework or if it’s one day they’ll be able to carpool,” District 16 Del. Marc Korman, who represents Bethesda and who has been active in Metro issues at the state level, told Bethesda Beat.
“My concern isn’t just tomorrow. It’s the long term effect of this on Metro and people’s willingness to ride the system our whole economic model is built upon. If people don’t trust Metro and don’t find Metro a convenient way to travel, that model is not going to work,” Korman said. “Unfortunately, this announcement will have the effect of just continuing the death spiral of Metrorail ridership.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, citing what he called Metro’s “astonishing admission that safety has not been the priority it needs to be,” said Metro should offer free bus service.
Wiedefeld said many of the jumper cables that will be inspected tomorrow were inspected last year after the fatal Yellow Line incident, but that he is seeking certainty that the cables are safe.
“It is deeply disturbing that the system is in such a precarious state that it must be entirely and abruptly shut down during the middle of a workweek,” Rep. John Delaney said in a prepared statement. “This is a stark demonstration of a total agency failure; now is the time for every stakeholder in WMATA to demand better performance and improved safety.”
County Council member Roger Berliner backed Widefeld’s decision Tuesday. Berliner has made improving Metro a priority during his year as chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
“I’m not going to second-guess a general manager who in his heart of hearts, believes there’s a threat to life,” Berliner said. “He obviously saw a report and was given information that shook him deeply. I think that if our general manager couldn’t sleep at night knowing that there was a threat to life on this system, that he did what he had to do and we need to stand behind him.”