Shutdown of Washington's Subway Prompts Calls for Better Funding

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A Metrorail train takes off from Union Station on March 15, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
  • Nation's second-busiest system has been beset by breakdowns
  • Monday fire similar to one that killed passenger last year

The decision to suspend service on Washington’s troubled rail transit system Wednesday for a safety inspection prompted calls for more stable funding and oversight of the nation’s second-busiest subway.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced the extraordinary shutdown after officials raised concern that a fire Monday in a cable appeared similar to one last year that filled a tunnel with smoke and sickened scores of passengers, killing one.

The shutdown is “simply unacceptable and untenable for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees, tourists, students and many others who rely on the system every day,” U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in an e-mailed statement.

“Years of underfunding and inconsistent safety oversight have led us to this point,” Cardin said.

The system was scheduled to reopen at 5 a.m. Thursday, though officials warned of further service interruptions depending on what inspectors find. It’s the first time the system, in operation since 1976, has been completely closed for reasons other than bad weather.

Frequent Outages

The aging rail system has been wracked with troubles over the past few years, including frequent outages, delays and a blaze in a power station. The number of rail riders has dropped to levels not seen since 2004 amid questions about Metro’s reliability, the agency said in a February report.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the Metro shutdown was inconvenient, but it was right to put the safety of passengers and workers first.

Still, the move underscored the need for Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, which share responsibility for funding and managing the rail system, to overhaul their safety oversight.

“WMATA has a long, well-documented list of safety issues and needs to work aggressively to fix them,” Foxx said in a statement. “D.C., Maryland and Virginia need to stand up a permanent Metro safety office with real teeth. What are folks waiting for?”

NTSB Warnings

The National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating Metro since the January 2015 fire, which was blamed on an “electrical arcing event” on the track.

“The similarities there are concerning to me,” said WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who was hired in November as part of a shake up of the organization.

“I fully recognize the hardship this poses for the community,” Wiedefeld said Tuesday during a hastily arranged press conference. “The safety of the public and my employees is paramount.”

During the shutdown, Metro workers are conducting emergency inspections of the system’s 600 power cables that connect gaps in the third rails that power the cars. They are trying to to ensure there are no dangerous “metal on metal” situations like those which caused fires Monday and last year.

Worker Safety

Wiedefeld said the alternative of having workers “crawling around” while the system continued to operate would have resulted in weeks of work.

The system carries 700,000 commuters a day in and between Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Many of them work for the U.S. government, which will remain open Wednesday.

The Office of Personnel Management said federal workers had the option of unscheduled leave or can work from home.

“The shutdown of the Metrorail system for an entire day in the middle of the work week is an astonishing admission that safety has not been the priority it needs to be at WMATA,” Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents a Maryland district outside of Washington and is running for a Senate seat, said in a statement.

Congestion Expected

WMATA has 91 stations above and below ground and 117 miles of track.

The NTSB issued a recommendation for “immediate action” on the system’s electrical cables last June, even before it had finished investigating the January 2015 fire. Some of the connectors were improperly constructed and installed, allowing moisture and other contaminants to build up, it said.

Metro needed to ensure all power cable connector assemblies are constructed and installed according to engineering design specifications, the NTSB said.

“We are hopeful that WMATA management will act on this recommendation in a timely manner so that the hazards we identified can be mitigated as soon as possible,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said at the time.

Alice in Wonderland

“We don’t have redundancy in the system,” said Representative Gerald Connolly, a Democrat whose district includes Virginia suburbs of Washington. “So, when something goes wrong, we shut down.”

Connolly said Republican efforts to cut funding to the system because of mismanagement is an “Alice in Wonderland solution.”

“We are struggling with investment, struggling with the lack of operating subsidies, struggling with a lack of dedicated source revenue,” said Connolly. “And your solution is to cut?”

Washington’s rail system performs more passenger trips than any rail transit system except New York City’s, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

In addition to the death last year, a crash in June 2009 killed eight riders and a train operator. The accident, which injured 52 passengers, occurred when a moving train plowed at full speed into one that was stopped. A track circuit, part of an automated-train control system, failed to detect the stopped train.

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