DC Metrorail System Shuts Down for Fire Safety Inspections

Inspections of approximately 600 "jumper cables" are being done along all tunnel segments on the 118-mile Metrorail system in the nation's capital after an electrical fire occurred in a tunnel.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, WMATA, suspended all of its Metrorail service in the Washington, D.C., region March 16, for emergency inspections, causing commuting nightmares for residents of the nation's capital, according to local news reports. Metro General Manager/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld announced the move the previous afternoon, with WMATA announcing it was supported by the authority's Board of Directors and that the emergency inspections of the system's third-rail power cables are necessary after an early morning tunnel fire the previous day.

Inspections of approximately 600 "jumper cables" are being done along all tunnel segments on the 118-mile Metrorail 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," Wiedefeld said. "When I say safety is our highest priority, I mean it. That sometimes means making tough, unpopular decisions, and this is one of those times. I fully recognize the hardship this will cause."

The shutdown began at midnight (the normal time when rail service ends) and will end at 5 a.m. Thursday, March 17. All six Metrorail lines and all 91 stations were closed Wednesday. Wiedefeld confirmed the 5 a.m. restart with a statement later Wednesday afternoon that said by 5 p.m. local time, crews had completed the inspection of 80 percent of the cables in 22 underground zones throughout the Metrorail system. They found 26 areas where damaged jumper cables and connector boots needed to be replaced, and the agency planned to continue work through the night to complete those repairs. "I know that today presented a hardship for many throughout the region, but I want to emphasize that this shutdown was indeed necessary," Wiedefeld said. "I want to thank everyone for their patience and support in putting safety first."

"Throughout this intense inspection deployment, our focus has been on effectively mitigating fire risks," he added. "We are being as clear as we can about what actions we have taken so that customers and employees feel safe as they ride Metro tomorrow."

According to WMATA's report, this is an unprecedented action. The tunnel fire was an electrical fire involving a cable outside the McPherson Square Station; there were no injuries, but service was disrupted along the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines during the day. "The investigation into yesterday's cable fire at McPherson Square is ongoing," Wiedefeld said. "As a preliminary matter, the conditions appear disturbingly similar to those in the L'Enfant incident of a year ago, and our focus is squarely on mitigating any risk of a fire elsewhere on the system."

WMATA bus services operated on their regular schedules.

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