WASHINGTON — Facing an unprecedented daylong shutdown of the Washington area’s Metro subway system, hundreds of thousands of commuters in the nation’s capital were forced to turn to Plan B on Wednesday. While some took advantage of the federal government’s option for employees to take the day off or work from home, other workers woke up early, hopped on buses and pricey taxis, or planned long walks home without mass transit.
Michaun Jordan, 51, usually takes a commuter train, then Metro rail lines and a bus to get to her job as a finance officer for the federal government. But on Wednesday, she took a $15 taxi after her train, then waited at Rosslyn station in Virginia for a bus.
“At first I was a bit disappointed. Then I thought about it — it’s best to be safe,” she said.
The nation’s second-busiest transit system was shut down at midnight Tuesday for a system-wide safety inspection of its third-rail power cables, prompted by a series of electrical fires. 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.
Ridership on Metro has dipped as the system’s reliability has deteriorated, and gripes on social media occur daily.
Still, more than 700,000 people hop on the trains every day because it’s still the best way to get downtown from Maryland, Virginia and the city’s outer neighbourhoods. On Wednesday, they didn’t have that option.
“It’s always slow, always crowded,” Bob Jones, 26, of Arlington, Virginia, said of Metro.
But on Wednesday, as he waited for his normal bus to work but planned a walk of more than an hour home without his usual option of the subway, he said he wasn’t too upset with the decision to close.
“Better that than, like, a fiery inferno,” he said.
Despite the announcement Tuesday, not all riders had gotten the message that the system would close. At Metro’s Rosslyn station in Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington, Derya Demirci, 27, looked disbelievingly at a sign announcing the shutdown. She had hoped to take her normal train to her childcare job.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. She settled on taking a picture of the sign (“Your safety is our highest priority,” it read in part) and asked her husband to drive her to work.
A federal shutdown usually makes driving into the city much easier — but that’s with the Metro running. Officials were bracing for a difficult morning on the city’s already traffic-choked streets, and many commuters said they would have no choice but to stay home.
Metro wasn’t yet hearing reports of overcrowding on buses, spokeswoman Morgan Dye said by phone Wednesday morning.
A fire on the tracks led to major delays throughout the system Monday. The fire was caused by the same kind of electrical component that malfunctioned last year and caused a train to fill with smoke inside a downtown Washington tunnel, killing one passenger and sickening dozens.
On Tuesday, Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, said the closure was necessary to ensure rider safety.
“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,” he said.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans, the chairman of Metro’s board, said that while the system had previously been closed for days for weather, including earlier this year, Wednesday was believed to be the first time the system would be shut down for mechanical reasons.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement that putting safety first is the right choice but Metro needs to get serious about fixing issues.
“I’ve said it before, and 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.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, called the decision to shut down “a gut punch to the hundreds of thousands of commuters who depend on the system.”
News of the closure exploded on social media, with some on Twitter dubbing the situation “#Metromageddon” or “#Metropocalypse.”
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said additional police officers would be deployed to help deal with anticipated traffic gridlock. Construction work by city road crews is suspended, and the city increasing service on its Circulator buses as well as offering free 24-hour memberships in the region’s bike-sharing program. Suburban bus lines were beefing up service as well.
Another population affected by the closure: students at the District’s public schools. The city does not have traditional school buses and many students rely on Metro, which they are allowed to ride for free, to get to school. The school system announced that while schools would be open, absences and tardiness would be excused. D.C. Council member David Grosso said he was concerned about student safety.
“This is a significant disruption for many of our families,” Grosso said.