The second-busiest rapid transit system in the United States, Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail closed Wednesday, Mar. 16, due to an emergency inspection of the entire system's third-rail power cables. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates Metro, made the formal announcement during Tuesday's rush hour.
"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 Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld in a WMATA press release. "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."
Wiedefeld said these emergency inspections are the result of a tunnel fire that occured Monday and cited as justification last year's incident in which dozens of people were hospitalized and one woman died.
“The investigation into yesterday’s cable fire at McPherson Square is ongoing," Wiedefeld said. “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.”
WMATA said the system would be down for at least 29 hours and that, at the conclusion of these inspections, the system may face further rail service outages. WMATA is inspecting approximately 600 jumper cables throughout the system. According to the Washington Post, repair crews will replace the aged cables with newer copper cables that have better insulation. According to WMATA, 22 inspection crews set out to accomplish the work, and the authority had four repair crews on standby to address any issues that the inspection crews discovered.
The Metrorail system will be 40 years old on March 27, which is young compared to New York's Subway system; however, Metrorail has faced controversy and scrutiny in recent years over budget shortfalls and insufficient funding, which has led to a declining ability to maintain the system. Consequently, it has fallen into disrepair, which many officials have cited as the cause of public safety concerns.
On average, Metro customers take more than 700,000 trips per day, so this closure displaced hundreds of thousands of commuters with little advanced notice.
The Washington Post reported on many of the unexpected hardships commuters faced, including many who arrived at their Metro station for their morning commute and found it closed.