The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will shut down the entirety of the Metrorail system for 29 hours beginning at midnight Wednesday. The unprecedented shutdown comes a day after an electrical fire near the McPherson Square station disrupted morning and evening commutes for hundreds of thousands of riders on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines.
The fire, Metro officials said, involved the same kind of power cables involved in the fire that led to the fatal smoke incident aboard a Yellow Line train in January 2015. Metro officials will said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon hundreds of pieces of similar equipment need immediate inspection.
“I am announcing we are suspending rail service for 24 hours to inspect 600 underground cables,” Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said.
As Metro does not open until 5 AM on weekdays, the sudden shutdown measure means that there will be no rail service for 29 hours. Wiedefeld adds that if any problem spots are found, trains—once they resume running—may have to run on a single track while repairs are made.
The similarities between Monday’s fire and the January 2015 incident were severe enough for Wiedefeld to make the call to shut down after consulting with other agencies and consultants, he says.
“We cannot rule out a potential life safety issue here,” he said. “We must take this action immediately. The reason to shut it down is because you have a lot of people crawling around the third rail. To do it piecemeal would take weeks.”
Metro has undergone systemwide shutdowns in the past, but for weather-related reasons, such as the weekend-long closure during January’s blizzard. Metro Chairman Jack Evans, who is also a DC Council member, said this will be the first time the system has closed without a severe weather event, but he backed up Wiedefeld’s move.
“This will affect the entire metro region,” he said. “We support the general manager’s decision. The lives of the people who ride this system are paramount, and Paul and I are not willing to take a chance.”
Losing Metrorail for non-weather-related reasons, even for a day, will put extraordinary stresses on Washington’s other modes of transportation. Wiedefeld says Metro’s bus lines will operate on a normal schedule, though with additional buses deployed in the District to make sure students can get to their schools.DC Circulator is currently working on increasing capacity on three routes serving Union Station. Virginia Rail Express says it will run on its normal weekday schedule, while MARC Train officials will add add extra cars to four trains and will not be able to add capacity to most Penn Line Trains. Arlington Transit busses as well as Montgomery County’s Ride On service will be boosting services tomorrow to try to help commuters in the area.
Federal agencies in DC have options for unscheduled leave and telework, according to OPM. Local governments are also scrambling to react to the sudden news. The DC government and DC Public Schools will be open Wednesday, although students who are tardy or absent due to the Metro shutdown will be excused. Arlington County’s government will be open tomorrow, while employees will be able to take unscheduled leave or telework days with approval. Fairfax County schools will be operating on normal hours. Montgomery County government will be open and all essential county employees are to report work on time, with a “liberal leave” for non-essential employees.
In light of the Metro shutdown, Capital Bikeshare will offer free 24 hour memberships at all 370 locations beginning at 12 a.m. Lyft will offer commuters $20 off with the code METROHELP, according to NBC Washington.
The shutdown comes days before the beginning of the peak-bloom period for Washington’s cherry blossoms, an event that draws 1.5 million tourists into the city annually.
Jennifer Ortiz contributed reporting.