News & Politics

Shutting Down Metro for Emergency Repairs Is a Really Good Idea

Photograph via iStock.

By now you’ve probably calmed down from your initial shock at the news that Metro will shut down for a full day Wednesday for emergency inspections and repairs, and you’ve probably started making alternate plans to get to work tomorrow. But the announcement is no less startling: a full workday without rail service will completely upend the way the DC region works.

Whether they know it or not, Metro riders would rather have one day without Metro than an open-ended series of breakdowns, meltdowns, and potentially fatal incidents, like the one that killed Carol Glover in January 2015, when a stalled Yellow Line train filled up with smoke from a nearby track fire.

Monday’s collapse of Blue, Orange, and Silver line service after a similar fire broke out near McPherson Square was casualty-free, but it was all the motivation Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld needed to announce that all rail service would be halted for a a day. At a hastily summoned press conference, Wiedefeld said there are at least 600 track-based cables similar to the ones that caught fire in both incidents, and plenty of other less-stressful—but just as telling—incidents.

Better to check them all at once than make spot repairs when something goes wrong, Wiedefeld’s thinking appears to be.

“The reason to shut it down is because you have a lot of people crawling around the third rail,” he said at the press conference. “To do it piecemeal would take weeks.”

Without Metro, Wednesday will surely go down as a day full of clogged buses, surging Uber fares, and crowded bike lanes. But Metro’s move is the right one. It will be painful temporarily, but if it works out, it should reduce the number of future delays because of shoddy third-rail wiring.

One example of a massive, but short-term repair project that inconveniences the masses coming to mind is the “Carmageddon” project Los Angeles endured a few years ago. For one weekend in September 2012, ten miles of Interstate 405—one of the city’s busiest freeways—was closed so crews could complete much-needed bridge repairs. The road closure put out about 500,000 drivers each day, forcing Angelenos to seek alternate routes or just alternate modes of transportation while Southern California news stations covered it like it was the prelude to the apocalypse.

But it wasn’t the end of Los Angeles. People survived, the San Andreas fault did not split open, and Carmageddon was deemed a success.

To be sure, shutting down an urban rail system on a weekday is a much different undertaking, and Metro has many more problems besides some decaying electrical cables, but the effect could be similar. Metro is recovering from a year that also saw derailments, an oil spill, and too many delays to count. Its 117 miles of track contain 100,000 electrical insulators that need replacing; a review of the system found that the agency also has some very troubling staffing issues; and revenue and ridership continues to plummet.

Metro’s safety and maintenance are now under the direct oversight of the Department of Transportation, which Wiedefeld said was consulted on Wednesday’s shutdown. If it pans out, maybe there will be more big fixes with short turnaround times. But we’re better off with a couple annoying days than a lifetime of worry.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.