An extremely unusual event took place on Wednesday, the Metro system for the Washington, DC metropolitan area was shut down. That is right, the system that has over 700,000 riders daily was shut down on a weekday. The announcement came at 4:30 pm the day before and many people were taken by surprise. The entire area got to experience a day without metro and for some it was enlightening and others it was troublesome.
For years the DC Metro system has been plagued with safety incidents and deteriorating equipment. Most of the past leaders of Metro focused on new trains, expanding service, and adding new stations. Well this is a problem because all of the existing equipment needs to be maintained. I am not a daily rider of Metro but I do ride it enough to know the system and how to get around. Almost any trip I have ever taken there has been issues from single tracking for emergency repairs, broken escalators, or just areas that look run-down. Adding new equipment is nice and all but money needs to be aimed at maintaining the aging system.
A new Metro general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, was hired in November of last year and since then he has taken a far different approach to managing the system. In his first really noticeable move, he shut the system down just to preform emergency inspections and repairs. This decision steamed from a recent issue the day before where smoke filled a tunnel due to an electrical fire. This incident is similar to another smoke incident for a year before in which someone died.
For the whole day while the metro trains were sitting in the rail yards, inspection and repair crews checked over 600 power connections. Of the 600 cables, 26 were found to be damaged and requiring replacement. About three of these cables were in about the same condition as the two cables that caused the two smoke events. As the Metro general manager stated, he did not feel comfortable putting riders at risk in the system and finding all these cables in poor condition it was bound to happen again.
Many were unsure if he had the authority to shut down the system when ever but it turns out he does. He did notify all the local government leaders and advised them of the shutdown. While the actions were sudden, I believe they were justified and appropriate.
With the system shut down riders had to find another way into work. Many of the riders that commute work for the Federal Government. The office of personnel management allowed for telecommuting and unscheduled leave. Unfortunately the government has to run and stay open as best as possible. It does suck that employees had to use a personal day to avoid the commute. Not everyone owns a car and many people do rely on metro to get around. Many low level government jobs also are not set up for remote work.
This shut down also showed us some more interesting things about the area. The highway and main arteries were put to the test with the increased traffic. I spoke to a few Virginia Department of Transportation employees and we discussed how the shut down allowed them to see how the roads can handle the traffic. Seeing the roads put just beyond normal capacity allows them to see patterns in how mass evacuations on the roads would probably take place. The main roads and back roads were all used on this day so seeing where bottlenecks and congested areas are is key. This increase in traffic is reminiscent of 9/11 when everyone tried to get home and out of the city at once or one of the many ice storms that freezes traffic in its place for hours. This event also allows them to study and have a glimpse of how people would get into the city if metro was down for several days.
As for me I was out helping with traffic management and responded to several accidents throughout the day. With traffic comes impatient and risky behaviors when driving, illegal U-turns and running red-lights were some of the common reasons for incidents on Wednesday.
Over all 700,000 riders rely on Metro to be one of the safest modes of travel and I believe shutting down the system for safety reason is one of the few but acceptable reasons. Metro is key for travel in the DC area for many and is always considered the main mode of transit for special events such as the inauguration, sporting events, races, parades and others. If Metro breaks down or a tunnel is badly damaged the entire area is affected and there is very little that can be done. Paul Wiedefeld is doing the right thing by focusing on safety and maintaining the system and I hope he continues to do so.