WASHINGTON – For the first time in history, the entire Metro system will shut down Wednesday for emergency inspections of third-rail power cables after a tunnel fire Monday morning.
“When I say safety is priority, I mean it,” said WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld at a media conference Tuesday. “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 added.
The system will re-open 5 a.m. Thursday.
Wiedefeld said the reason for the shutdown was an electrical fire involving a cable in the tunnel outside McPherson Square Station in Northwest Washington, D.C. that caused severe delays affecting thousands of riders.
The investigation of the cause of the fire is ongoing but Wiedefeld said he does not want to take any chances of risking the safety of employees and riders.
While the stations are closed, Metro workers and outside contractors will inspect 600 underground “jumper” cables for damage, Wiedefeld said.
According to Wiedefeld, work crews inspected all the cables within the last year but they will be inspected again.
Connections between cables are “metal on metal” and could also come into contact with metal that runs along the walls of the tunnels.
Friction could be causing the metal to deteriorate, Wiedefeld said.
He said the investigation started Monday.
“I’m just trying to deal with what I know and what I fear,” said Wiedefeld.
He said the initial investigation indicates the incident “shows some commonalities with (the) L’Enfant (Plaza incident).”
In January 2015, a train stopped in a tunnel and it filled with smoke, leaving one woman dead and 80 other riders ill.
Wiedefeld ordered Farragut West, McPherson Square, and Metro Center stations of the Blue, Orange and Silver lines to be closed at 9 p.m. Monday to allow extra time to repair the cable.
Metro officials said WMATA will run extra buses Wednesday to handle potential overcrowding issues.
Wiedefeld said he is shutting down the system at midnight and not earlier because he wanted to allow people to choose how to return home since he made the decision after thousands of riders used the system to commute to work.
“We brought people in (to their jobs today); we want to give them the choice of what they want to do,” said Wiedefeld.
WMATA Board of Directors chairman Jack Evans, a District City Council member, said he and the Board supported Wiedefeld’s decision to shut down all lines.
Wiedefeld said he spoke with members of Congress as well as with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and the National Transportation Safety Board in making his decision.
Members of the Maryland congressional delegation lamented the closing.
“This decision is an incredible disruption to everyone who uses Metrorail. However, safety first must be a mandate,” said U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D). “More than 700,000 people ride this system each day. For those who work on it, for those who ride it to work, to school and to worship, and for those visiting our Nation’s Capital, safety must be a number one priority.”
“I’m frustrated that it has come to this. It is long past time that Metro get to the bottom of ongoing safety concerns. There must be a sense of urgency, certainty and solutions that stick when it’s done,” she added.
U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-6) said, “For a long time Marylanders have been denied the safe, reliable and efficient Metro system that they deserve. It is deeply disturbing that the system is in such a precarious state that it must be entirely and abruptly shut down during the middle of a workweek. This is a stark demonstration of a total agency failure; now is the time for every stakeholder in WMATA to demand better performance and improved safety.”