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WMATA Closed Rail System for a Day; New GM Cited Safety Concerns
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) reopened March 17 after a 29-hour closure of its rail system for emergency inspections of third-rail power cables following a tunnel fire March 14.
In announcing the temporary suspension of service on March 16, WMATA General Manager/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld, with support from his board of directors, said inspections of approximately 600 ”jumper cables” would occur along all tunnel segments in the rail system.
As a result, Wiedefeld reported that inspectors identified 26 areas where damaged jumper cables and connector boots needed to be replaced. He added that three of the cables were so badly frayed that the agency would not have risked operating trains over them. By the night of March 16, all but four locations had been remedied, and repairs at those four areas were ongoing.
“As we go forward, I hope this is a wakeup call for the entire region … that we need to invest in our system,” said WMATA Chair Jack Evans. He said dedicated funding for Metro was discussed when he first joined the board in the 1990s. “And here I stand 25 years later as the chairman of the board of Metro again and no progress has been made on the issue … that is unconscionable,” he said.
During a press conference prior to the unprecedented closure, Wiedefeld referred to the safety of the system. “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,” he said.
“When I say safety is our highest priority, I mean it,” the WMATA head said. “That sometimes means making tough, unpopular decisions, and this is one of those times. I fully recognize the hardship this will cause.”
The cable fire at the McPherson Square Station remains under investigation.
“As a preliminary matter, the conditions appear disturbingly similar to those in the L’Enfant [Plaza] incident of a year ago [referring to the Jan. 12, 2015, incident where smoke resulted in one death and sickened other riders], and our focus is squarely on mitigating any risk of a fire elsewhere in the system,” Wiedefeld said.
The agency’s Metrobus and MetroAccess services operated on regular schedules during the rail closure.