Metrorail to close Wednesday for emergency third-rail inspections

Capitol South MetroCapitol South at rush hour (Metro photo by Larry Levine)

In an unprecedented move, the entire Metrorail system will close tomorrow (Wednesday) for emergency inspections of third-rail power cables following an early morning tunnel fire yesterday, Metro General Manager/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld announced. The inspections of approximately 600 “jumper cables” will occur along all tunnel segments on the Metrorail system. If problems are found, additional shutdowns may be needed.

“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,” Wiedefeld said. “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.”

The Metrorail system will close at its normal time tonight (midnight) and remain closed until 5 a.m. Thursday. All six Metrorail lines and all 91 stations will be closed on Wednesday.

The action follows an early morning electrical fire involving a cable in the tunnel outside McPherson Square Station yesterday. There were no injuries; however, service was disrupted along the Blue, Orange and Silver lines throughout the day.

“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.” In that incident, a woman died of smoke inhalation and many other passengers were hospitalized.

Metrobus and MetroAccess service will continue to operate on a regular schedule. Parking will be free in all Metro-owned lots and garages for customers who wish to take the bus or carpool.

Swift reaction

Reaction from public officials was swift, as hundreds of thousands of federal workers and others tried to figure out how they plan to get to and from work tomorrow.

“It’s sad that it’s come to this, but hundreds of thousands of people depend on the safety of the Metro system. We need to take it seriously. I’m glad that Metro’s new leadership is treating system safety with an appropriate sense of urgency,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) urged employers to be generous in dealing with employees who have problems getting to work.

“Our office has been in contact with the Office of Personnel Management.  We have urged them to allow unscheduled leave for federal employees, and I urge other employers in the region to be equally flexible, allowing employees to take unscheduled leave or to work from home if at all possible,” Beyer said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly called the decisiion “a gut punch to the hundreds of thousands of commuters who depend on the system.”

“This decision, while perhaps necessary, will cause significant inconvenience and will disrupt the functioning of the federal government in our nation’s capital. OPM must recognize that challenge and should, at a minimum, grant unscheduled leave or telework for federal employees tomorrow. While I am extremely frustrated with this news, safety must be our number one priority. This dramatic action highlights the need for long-term safety and reliability improvements throughout the system,” Connolly said.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said the action “highlights the fundamental cultural change that needs to take place at Metro.” She said that, “Instead of Metro riders being constantly inconvenienced and put in danger, Metro management throughout the entire system needs to be shaken to its core and be rid of its culture of incompetence.  New accountability measures must be put in place.”



About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.