WASHINGTON — An unprecedented safety shutdown of the Metro subway system inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of people in and around the nation’s capital on Wednesday. Federal workers telecommuted or took the day off, children missed school and countless others woke up early to take bus after bus, hail pricey taxis or slog through traffic.
Many people resigned themselves to a very long day.
“I’ve got to catch five buses to get to Alexandria,” said Leander Talley, 52, who loaded his bicycle onto a bus at the Springfield Metro station. “It’s like three and a half hours. It’s crazy.”
After a series of electrical fires, the nation’s second-busiest transit system shut down at midnight Tuesday for a system-wide safety inspection of its third-rail power cables. It will reopen at 5 a.m. Thursday unless inspectors find an immediate threat to passenger safety, which the system’s general manager said was unlikely.
Without working trains in the way, 22 inspection teams were walking 100 miles of underground track, checking power cables for potential problems. By noon, Metro tweeted that half the safety checks had been completed.
Deteriorating reliability has put a dent in Metro ridership, but the trains still handle 700,000 passenger trips a day, providing the best way downtown from Maryland, Virginia and the city’s outer neighborhoods.
One popular Twitter feed about the system, unsuckdcmetro, was running a poll on whether the shutdown would solve “Metro’s flaming cables problem.” Thousands voted, and more than three-fourths said no. Another poll asked how to describe the 29-hour closure: Metropocalypse and Metrotastrophe were winning out over Metromageddon.
Many people did have really lousy commutes on Wednesday, but it was hardly the end of the world.
“It’s always slow, always crowded,” said Bob Jones, 26, of Arlington, Virginia, who agreed with the shutdown even though he intended to walk more than an hour to get home Wednesday night because he couldn’t take the train. “Better that than, like, a fiery inferno,” he said.
The morning rush had bumper-to-bumper traffic on interstates 95, 295 and 395, and some major routes into Washington were choked, District Department of Transportation Deputy Director Greer Gillis said.
In Virginia, the 18-mile drive from Springfield to the capital’s Union Station took about 90 minutes, and drivers with navigation apps snaked slowly through the narrow streets of Old Town Alexandria and Crystal City to avoid some of the jams ahead of bridges over the river.
Students at the District’s public schools were particularly affected. The city lacks traditional school buses and many students ride the Metro for free to get to school. The school system announced that schools would be open despite the shutdown, but absences and tardiness would be excused.
“This is a significant disruption for many of our families,” D.C. Council member David Grosso said.
Lester Broughton, 71, and Glorious Broughton, 68, spent the night at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport rather than risk missing their Wednesday flight to Florida. They usually take Metro to the airport, and thought Uber, a taxi, or a shuttle would be expensive or crowded.
“I would’ve preferred to sleep in my bed last night,” said Glorious Broughton, but she was holding to her belief in the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, said the closure was needed to ensure rider safety after a fire on the rails caused major system-wide delays Monday. The fire was caused by the same kind of electrical component that malfunctioned last year, killing one passenger and sickening dozens after their train filled with smoke.
“While the risk to the public is very low, I cannot rule out a potential life and safety issue here, and this is why we must take this action immediately,” Wiedefeld said.
The Metro has closed down before in bad weather, but Wednesday’s safety shutdown is unprecedented, said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who is chairman of Metro’s board.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Metro needs to get serious about these safety problems.
“I’ll keep saying it until the region takes real ownership of its safety oversight responsibilities: D.C., Maryland and Virginia need to stand up a permanent Metro safety office with real teeth. What are folks waiting for?” Foxx said.