Washingtonians, get ready to walk, pedal or Uber it. Officials from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority—that’s the agency that runs the buses and trains of the nation’s capital city—are about to close the city’s metro system, second-busiest in the country, for 29 hours. Underground electrical cables caught fire Monday, and WMATA brass says they can’t guarantee it won’t happen again.
“We cannot send trains out in this system knowing full well that something could go wrong,” said Jack Evans, director of Metro’s board of directors, in a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “We believe the most prudent thing is to close down the system, find it, and fix it.”
Beginning at midnight, inspectors will fan out across 118 miles of track to inspect 600 “jumper cables,” which connect portions of the transit system’s electrical third rail to the train tracks, for signs of wear that could allow moisture into the cable. It’s not especially complicated, or new technology. “Care must be taken to prevent damage by water, which may result in short circuits,” the American Railway Engineering Association wrote about jumpers—in 1917.
Deterioration of those cables caused a fire at the L’Enfant Plaza station in February 2015 that killed a 61-year-old woman and injured 69 others. Later that year, after the National Transportation Safety Board stepped in, Metro inspected the cables and replaced 125 of them. The fire on Monday raised fears among Metro officials that maybe their inspection wasn’t all it could have been.
“It’s happened twice in a year,” said Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld (who took the job in November 2015). “I can’t wait for a third time.” Making safety a priority, he said, “sometimes means making tough, unpopular decisions.”
And this is going to be pretty unpopular. The shutdown will affect more than 700,000 passengers in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Metro opened in 1976, and this is the first time the system has shut down for safety—apparently the first time any system of comparable size has shut down like this. But for many riders, it doesn’t come as a shock.
Their dismay isn’t limited to delays and crowds, those perpetual (and totally justifiable) complaints of the straphanger. In December 2015, the Federal Transit Administration ordered Metro to fix more than 200 safety issues—some dating back to 2008—ranging from out-of-date fire extinguishers to derailments and collisions that the agency kept quiet. After last year’s fire, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx moved safety enforcement authority from Metro to the Federal Transit Administration, and told the governors of Maryland and Virginia and mayor of DC to create a new Metro safety agency. That still hasn’t happened, and Foxx said last month that he might withhold additional funds from the troubled system.
In 2015, Metro’s own safety report found a 70 percent increase in passengers getting doors slammed on them while trying to get out of the railcars, while employee injuries rose 30 percent over 2014. In the meantime, Metro ridership has dropped 10 percent since 2010 as Washingtonians have abandoned underground transit for cars and an increasingly popular bike share system.
The shutdown is embarrassing and seriously inconvenient, but perhaps not a calamity. Cities have coped with similar disruptions to their transportation networks. Los Angeles closed a chunk of the 405 freeway in July 2011 and again in September 2012, prompting fears of a “carmageddon.” Instead, so many people stayed home, traffic was better than average. San Francisco and Oakland have closed the Bay Bridge for weekend-long stretches several times in the past decade to accommodate construction. When a major strike crippled New York’s transit system in 2005, city officials converted busy streets into temporary HOV lanes. Cars with fewer than four occupants weren’t allowed into Manhattan south of 96th street.
So, think of it as a snow day? Student absences and tardiness from school will be excused. Federal employees—a big chunk of the DC working population—are allowed to telecommute or take unscheduled leave. Stay home. Carpool. Take the bus. (Metro will add extra service). Metro may need serious repairs—to its operations and infrastructure as well as its budget and reputation—but at least its riders will survive.