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Washington, D.C., Metro System To Close In Emergency Shutdown


In an unprecedented move, the subway system for Washington, D.C. and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia will shut down at midnight tonight and will remain that way for 29 hours, until 5 a.m. Thursday. Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld said today it's a matter of safety.


PAUL WIEDEFELD: When I say safety is our highest priority, I mean it. That sometimes means making tough, unpopular decisions, and this is one of those for sure. I fully recognize the hardship this causes to the region and to the community.

SIEGEL: We now turn to member station WAMU's transportation reporter, Martin DiCaro, who's at Metro headquarters. And Martin, the general manager said it was a matter of safety. What's going on?

MARTIN DICARO, BYLINE: And it's a precautionary move. He said the risk to life is low, but there was a fire on the tracks on Monday morning caused by jumper cables that help keep powering trains between the gaps in the third rail. There are 600 of these cables throughout the Metrorail system. There was a fire during morning rush hour, and it caused a terrible morning for commuters - 30 to 60 minute delays on the track that's sort of three lines through downtown Washington.

So in the aftermath of that fire, Metro did an investigation. And the new general manager, who's trying to impose a culture of safety on this troubled transit agency that does more than 700,000 rail trips a day, decided to take no chances and perform emergency inspections of more than 600 of these power units that are not a new problem for Metro. These were inspected last year after the National Transportation Safety Board issued an urgent recommendation concerning the electrical connection in the tunnel.

SIEGEL: Which raises the question - as bad as the fire was, safety problems aren't new for Metro. There have been several troubling incidents over recent years. Why such a sudden move? Why do it in the middle of a work week?

DICARO: His response is that he cannot - and his being the new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld - no chances can be taken when it comes to the lives of the residents and the commuters here, even though it's going to potentially cause a major disruption to travel. Now on that note, we're still waiting to hear from OPM about whether or not federal workers who - about 70 percent of whom use Metro to get to their federal offices - we're still waiting to hear from OPM about what's going to happen with them.

SIEGEL: OPM, of course, is the Office of Personnel Management.

DICARO: Yes, thank you for clarifying. But, you know, given Metro's track record, given the legitimate criticisms that Metro has faced for not taking safety more seriously over the past year-and-a-half - I mentioned, you know, the NTSB issued a recommendation last summer about electrical connections. That stems from finding - from the January 12, 2015 L'Enfant Plaza incident here in Washington, D.C., where you had similar cables cause a fire underground. And a woman died, and 80 other passengers were sickened when smoke filled their railcar.

SIEGEL: At or near the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station. Martin DiCaro, a transportation reporter from member station WAMU here in Washington, D.C. Thanks.

DICARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin DiCaro

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