The massive transit system in the nation’s capital will shutter all day Wednesday and won’t reopen until 5 a.m. Thursday so safety officials can inspect equipment, Metro officials said.
Metro CEO and General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, barely into his fourth month on the job, said he understood the hardship the closure would cause for the region’s commuters, but a fire Monday near the McPherson Square station raised broad concerns about the system’s safety.
Metrorail’s six lines and 91 stations carry more than 700,000 passengers on an average weekday.
“While the risk to the public is very low, I cannot rule out a potential life-safety issue here,” Wiedefeld said. “When I say safety is the highest priority, I mean it.”
The conditions that led to the fire Monday near McPherson Square appear similar to the fire that ignited at the L’Enfant Plaza station in January 2015. That fire killed one passenger and injured 86 others.
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx called the shutdown “inconvenient” but necessary. Federal offices will remain open, but the Office of Personnel Management said federal workers could use unscheduled leave or telecommute because of the outage.
“WMATA has a long, well-documented list of safety issues and needs to work aggressively to fix them,” Foxx said.
The inspections will cover 600 so-called “jumper cables” in the system, Wiedefeld said. Friction or moisture on the insulated cable can cause deterioration that sparks fires. If inspectors find more problems, outages could continue for longer on specific subway lines, Wiedefeld said.
If a cable needs to be replaced, as happened at McPherson Square, the station is shut down down at 9 p.m. because the repair work requires lines in both directions to be turned off, he said.
Workers will need to crawl around on the ground near the electrified third rails that power the trains so it’s necessary to shut down the system, said Wiedefeld, who notified the U.S. Transportation Department and the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents.
“I’m trying to deal with what I know and what I fear,” Wiedefeld said.
Jack Evans, chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said inspections a year ago, following the January 2015 fire, found no problems with the cables, but that more deterioration could have occurred since then.
“We need to get to the bottom of it,” Evans said. “This is the first time it’s closed down for non-weather conditions.”
Metro is the only subway in the country spread across three jurisdictions, which makes governance more complicated: the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Evans acknowledged that workers and students will have trouble getting to work and school.
“It will impact the entire metropolitan region – there’s no doubt about it,” Evans said. “Without Metro, it’s going to have a lot of congestion.”
In response to the announcement the Uber car service said it would put a cap on surge pricing, rates that are higher during periods of high demand, and that it would expand its limited Uber Pool service, a segment of Uber that allows passengers to ride with others going in the same direction for lower rates, across the Washington area.