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Washington region tackles unprecedented workday shutdown of Metrorail

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The hundreds of thousands of people who normally take Metro to school and work turned to cars, bicycles and buses Wednesday morning as the rail system shut down for an emergency inspection of 600 electrical cables, two days after one of them caused a fire that crippled the system.

Thousands of drivers set out before daybreak, hoping to beat a rush hour they feared would be among the worst in memory. As the commute reached its peak between 8 and 9 a.m. there were backups in all the usual places — among them I-395, inbound I-66 and the Capital Beltway approaching I-270 — but overall, the congestion closer to normal than to gridlock.

The anticipated turmoil caused by shutting down the country’s second-busiest rail system was unlike any other. In the past, when heavy snow or hurricane remnants have slowed or halted subway service, everything else in Washington was at a standstill. On Wednesday, however, federal and other offices were open for business and most schools planned a normal day.

Authorities said they had mobilized to keep the region moving, but acknowledged it would be difficult if most Metro riders turned to cars instead.

“We’re preparing for the worst,” said Jennifer McCord, a spokeswoman at Virginia’s Department of Transportation.

Putting regular Metro riders behind the wheel added to confusion on the roadways as some of them realized they didn’t know where they were going.

The decision to shut down Metro’s six rail lines, which carry nearly 1 million passenger trips a day, came from transit officials who said they acted because they feared for the safety of passengers.

The new general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, and the Metro board decided to suspend operations to conduct emergency inspections of electric cables, raising new alarms about the beleaguered 40-year-old rail system’s ability to deliver safe, reliable service.

Twenty-two inspection crews set out before dawn Wednesday to begin examining the cables, according to an internal Metro advisory, and four cable construction crews were standing by to repair any cables deemed faulty.

Metro said passengers take about 712,800 trips on an average weekday on its rail system.

Though adding only a thousand cars to any Washington rush hour threatens to turn the normal chaos into catastrophe, it became apparent that a great many people simply surrendered, opting to work from home or simply take a holiday.

David Dillard, a Voice of America worker, normally arrives at the West Hyattsville Metro station by 6 a.m.

But this morning only Ann Dillard, his wife, was stirring at their Hyattsville home. David chose not to deal with the Metro shutdown and the need to seek an alternative way to get to work.

“He is still sleeping,” Ann Dillard whispered over the phone as she quietly prepared for her day as a public school teacher. “He took the day off.”

Holly Smith said she noticed that her 5:12 a.m. MARC train from Baltimore had about half the usual number of riders. She normally takes Metro for a quick hop from Union Station to her government job near the Smithsonian Metro station, but Wednesday she waited for a colleague to join her in walking that distance.

“It’s a ghost town. I can’t walk,” safely, she said.

Abdul Khan’s Sunoco gas station is one of the last places in Woodbridge to gas up or grab a cup of coffee before hitting the I-95 expressway toward Washington. At 6:30 a.m., business was fairly slow, Khan said, though he expected it to pick up as more drivers hit the road later in the morning.

“It will be hard to tell if there are more cars,” said Khan, who had not heard about the Metro closure. “Traffic here is backed up all the time.”

Those who did venture out early feared what the commute home would be like.

“This afternoon will be hell,” said Jody Carlson, who normally depends on Metro for her commute from Vienna to downtown Washington.

Carlson said she could have worked from home but decided to head in, hoping to get more work done at the office without distractions.

She awoke an hour early Wednesday, planning to take two different buses to work.

Her commute from her home in Fair Lakes in Fairfax County would take at least 30 minutes longer, she said. To pass the time, she brought along a book. It’s a murder mystery.

Amy Kister was flustered.

“Where is the shuttle bus?” she wondered aloud.

Kister usually takes the Orange Line to her office downtown, but her normal routine was upended by the Metro shutdown.

“Usually I’m at work by 6 a.m.” Kister said. She likes to sit at her desk and read the newspaper with her coffee to relax and prepare mentally for the day.

“To be calm and collected,” she said.

But not Wednesday.

“Now I don’t know how long it will take” to get in, she said. “This is a burden. This is bad for me.”

Megan McDonald is a poet. Her daily commute on the Orange Line from Vienna usually provides her plenty of fodder and time to compose her musings. On Wednesday, though, the records department staffer at a District architecture association will not be writing one of her daily poems.

“I’ve done enough commuting poems,” she said.

She said her ride time would be doubled by the shutdown. She had printed out the bus schedule from Vienna. At her office Tuesday night her bosses had told employees to telecommute if possible.

“They said, ‘Take your laptops! Take your laptops!'” McDonald said. “I could have taken liberal leave, but I’ve got a big vacation in October and I’m not wasting leave.”

The commute from Baltimore starts early on a normal day, with scores of passengers boarding the 5:17 a.m. train into Washington. But on Wednesday there were only about 20 people waiting to board the train.

“I work at a hospital so there’s no such thing as telecommuting,” said Donna Dabney, who lives in Catonsville, just south of Baltimore.

Dabney said she usually takes the train in at 7:30 a.m. but grabbed an earlier one so she could be on time to the Veteran’s Affairs hospital, near MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Northwest. She said the D-8 bus, which she took in the last snow storm, usually takes 40 minutes.

“It could be worse, it could be raining,” said Jeremy Hunt as he set out to bike to work for the first time Wednesday. He was without a helmet, he said because he didn’t have time to buy or borrow one after learning of the Metro shutdown.

“I told my boss id be coming in wearing jeans, and those were my terms of coming to work,” said Hunt, as he left his Bloomingdale home to fetch a bike from the nearly-empty Capital Bikeshare station. He was headed to his office in Crystal City.

Scott Harris, 50, of Chevy Chase, was on the Capital Crescent Trail riding toward Capitol Hill with a satchel on his 21-speed REI road bike. Sometimes he bikes, sometimes he drives, sometimes he rides the Metro.

“It’s a good excuse to get back on the bike,” he said.

Surveying the cycling traffic on he trail, he said, “This looks kind of heavy to me.”

Lobbyist Patrick Wilson said he has a scheduled breakfast with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan Wednesday morning.

He didn’t want to risk traffic on the road, so Wilson, 43, hopped on Capital Bikeshare near his Logan Circle home to ride to Capitol Hill in his suit and tie.

“I’m improvising today,” he said. “I have napkins so I can wipe my brow if I get too sweaty.”

After Uber told its drivers they would be guaranteed $30 an hour between 6 and 9 a.m., Ben Shafa, 55, hopped in his Nissan Pathfinder at 5:25 a.m. with plans to drive for six hours.

“Remember, with Uber, there’s a constant job coming up and they don’t want you to refuse a job,” he said. “So for the next six hours I am going to be busy, busy, busy.”

Every taxi in Washington appeared to be on the street Wednesday, but there was no sign they were being overwhelmed by business. Only one out of 10 cabs on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park in Northwest D.C. had a passenger, and no one seemed to be hailing the empty ones.

News of the planned shutdown — which was announced at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday — hadn’t reached everyone

At 5 a.m. at the Vienna Metro station on the Orange Line, the platform stood empty. Station manager Shawn Hall said that one lone commuter had attempted to enter the fare gates before realizing, in a moment of despair, that the system had shut down for the day.

“He walked right past,” Hall said.

Khaled Orebur looked despondent and confused. He normally only takes Metro once a month. On Wednesday, he arrived at the Vienna station at 6 a.m. and was turned away at the fare gates by the station manager.

He had planned to take Metro to Union Station and had already purchased a bus ticket to New York to visit friends.

“I won’t be able to catch the bus,” he said. “I’ll have to cancel the trip.”

Kuing Hu stepped off the 26 bus and walked into the Largo Town Center Metro station, as she does most days to catch a train to the D.C. hotel where she works. She saw it was deserted and realized something was amiss.

“Oh my god,” she muttered.

A station official stepped out to explain that the system was closed and offer alternatives. Hu, who doesn’t speak English well, hadn’t watched news or noticed messages on her commute home Tuesday.

“If I need to pay more money, I cannot go to work,” Hu responded when presented with options for multiple bus transfers or hailing a cab. “It’s just today?”

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

The paralysis of the core of Washington’s transportation network, announced Tuesday afternoon just half a day before it was to take effect, sent a shudder through the region and sparked angry complaints about Metro’s inadequacies.

But Wiedefeld said that 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 fatal Yellow Line smoke incident 14 months ago that resulted in the death of one passenger and sent scores to the hospital.

“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 started 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, for sure. I fully recognize the hardship this will cause.”

Metrorail has closed because of bad weather — including during January’s blizzard — but never for safety reasons. During the shutdown, crews will inspect all 600 of a type of power line, called “jumper cables,” in tunnels throughout the system to ensure that they are sufficiently insulated 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. But if problems are identified, 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.

At schools in the District, all tardies and absences will automatically count as excused. Because a good portion of D.C. students do not attend a neighborhood school, they rely on Metro to commute.

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 generally defended the decision on the 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,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday. “While this shutdown is inconvenient, they are doing the right thing by putting the safety of their passengers and workers first.”

Foxx also used the occasion to urge the District, Maryland and Virginia to step up their efforts to exert safety oversight of Metro. In October, Foxx gave the Federal Transit Administration responsibility for safety oversight of the rail system. He said the body previously in charge of it, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, composed of representatives of the three jurisdictions, had failed to do its job.

The three jurisdictions have agreed to set up a more powerful body, to be called a Metro Safety Commission. But that process has been delayed by as much as a year because neither Virginia nor Maryland moved to obtain necessary approval from their general assemblies during this year’s legislative sessions.

“I’ve said it before,” Foxx said, “and I’ll keep saying it until the region takes real ownership of its safety-oversight responsibilities: D.C., Maryland and Virginia need to stand up a permanent Metro safety office with real teeth.

“What are folks waiting for?”

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) called the decision “an incredible disruption to everyone who uses Metrorail” but added, “ ’Safety first’ must be a mandate.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she was not privy to the information that led Metro leaders to close the rail system and wouldn’t second-guess the decision until she knew more. But she said that eventually, she wants to know how Metro arrived at the point of needing a sudden and complete shutdown.

“Do we want to understand their decision-making to get to this point? Of course, and we will get to those answers,” Bowser said Tuesday. “Some of the questions I will have have to do with what options did they look at to do this? Is a 24-hour or 29-hour closure the only option?”

The shutdown was decided in an hour-long conference call starting at 2 p.m. with most Metro board members, during which Wiedefeld recommended the immediate, one-day shutdown as the best option, officials said.

Board members raised concerns and discussed other possibilities but ended up endorsing the general manager’s view with little dissent.

The safety checks could have been delayed until the weekend or conducted at night over about six days, officials said. But if the system were kept open, a public announcement about the risk would have to be made. That would have put passengers, and Metro, in the awkward position of publicly acknowledging that it was operating despite being aware of a potentially deadly safety problem.

Metro also would have been liable in the case of any crashes or calamities.

Metro officials offered no new details Tuesday about the location or seriousness of Monday’s early-morning tunnel fire that snarled service on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines.

“The investigation into yesterday’s cable fire at McPherson Square is ongoing,” Wiedefeld said Tuesday. “As a preliminary matter, the conditions appear disturbingly similar to those in the L’Enfant incident of a year ago, and our focus is squarely on mitigating any risk of a fire elsewhere on the system.”

The cable fires have “happened twice in a year,” Wiedefeld said, adding that he couldn’t risk “a third time.”

In an especially unnerving revelation, Wiedefeld confirmed that the cable that caught fire Monday had been inspected as part of a systemwide cable inspection after the Yellow Line fire — and passed. He said he had concerns about the results of that inspection.

Wiedefeld said 125 cables were replaced after the inspections.

A Metro official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly said the earlier cable inspections were not conducted properly or missed the problem that caused the fires.

Pressure has been growing for fixes to myriad problems that have plagued Metro since the January 2015 incident. That fatal calamity came six years after Metro pledged to put safety first following a deadly 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people, including a train operator. It only raised concerns that the system had made little progress.

A series of other service breakdowns, including an August derailment on a stretch of track that Metro officials knew for a month was problematic, as well as other management failures further raised questions about the agency’s ability to provide safe, reliable service.

Even as many riders have turned away from the Metro system, blaming almost weekly service disruptions, many thousands still depend on it to get to work. And with Wednesday’s shutdown, they will be confronted with the unimaginable.

“Tomorrow we will get a glimpse of what our nation’s capital will look like without this essential system,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va) said Tuesday.

Other members of the region’s congressional delegation were also frustrated by the news.

“Today’s decision by General Manager Wiedefeld to shut down the Metrorail system for 24 hours is a gut punch to the hundreds of thousands of commuters who depend on the system,” Rep. Gerry E. Connolly (D-Va.) said Tuesday. “While I am extremely frustrated with this news, safety must be our number one priority. This dramatic action highlights the need for long-term safety and reliability improvements throughout the system.”

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), head of the council’s transportation committee, said she received no official warning and learned of the news from the Internet when it leaked before the official announcement.

“The problem sounds mysterious, and maybe this is a fairly dramatic step, but maybe it’s the kind of step that we need to get things right,” Cheh said Tuesday. “I told the people in my office, ‘Break out your bikes.’ ”

The Metro board’s chairman, Jack Evans, who took the post in January, supported Wiedefeld’s action.

“The most prudent thing is to close down the system and find out what we’re dealing with,” said Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member. “I am not willing to take a chance.”

ashley halsey@washpost.com

taylor.shapiro@washpost.com

faiz.siddiqui@washpost.com

Peter Herman, Arelis Hernandez, Dana Hedgpeth, Hamil Harris, Luz Lazo, Michael Laris, Michael Rosenwald, Katherine Shaver, Perry Stein, Antonio Olivo, Fenit Nirappil and Michael E. Ruane and contributed to this report.

 

This article was written by Ashley Halsey III;T. Rees Shapiro;Susan Svrluga;Faiz Siddiqui from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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