- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Metro’s subway service will be shut down until 5 a.m. Thursday to allow workers to inspect cables that have caused two fires over the past 14 months, including the fatal smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza in January 2015 that left one passenger dead and at least 86 others injured.

Officials made the unprecedented decision to close Metro for a safety inspection one day after an early Monday cable fire near McPherson Square station hampered commutes on the Blue and Orange line trains.

“From where I sit, the safety of the public and my employees is paramount,” Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said at a Tuesday press conference. “That sometimes means making tough, unpopular decision.”

The cable inspection is expected to take at least 24 hours, with the rail service being closed from midnight Tuesday until 5 a.m. Thursday — shutting down the subway system all day Wednesday. Metro is the second busiest transit system in the nation, serving about 4 million people in the D.C. metropolitan area.

This is the first time Metro has shut down the entire rail system for something other than a weather event.

Inspectors will examine 600 connectors system-wide that act as jumper cables for the electrified third rail to see if the insulation that covers the cables has deteriorated. If those metal cables are exposed and touch other metal parts of the track, that contact can spark a fire.

The transit system cannot operate on a single-track basis during the inspection because both rails be shut down to allow workers to examine the cables, Metro’s general manager said.

“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,” Mr. Wiedefeld said.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin fumed over Metro officials’ late notice of the subway closure, saying the “suspension of service during a weekday with minimal notice 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.”

Calling the shutdown a “wake-up call,” the Maryland Democrat said that Congress should “get serious about funding one of the most important transit systems in the world.”

Commuter David Burke also criticized the short notice, saying the cable inspection probably could have waited until the weekend when fewer passengers use the system.

“The system maintenance should have been done on a much more regular basis,” Mr. Burke said. “I’m just glad the new manager found the problems …”

Mr. Wiedefeld said he found similarities between Monday’s tunnel fire at McPherson Square and last year’s deadly smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza.

A year ago, Metro inspected the same cables and found 125 that need to be replaced or repaired. The cable that caused the McPherson Square fire had been cleared in last year’s inspection, Mr. Wiedefeld said.

“I want to know why that passed inspection,” he said.

Metro Board of Directors Chairman Jack Evans expressed support for Mr. Wiedefeld’s decision and alerted D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser around 3 p.m.

“We have to close the system, find out what we’re dealing with and fix it,” said Mr. Evans, a Democrat who represents Ward 2 on the D.C. Council.

Ms. Bowser did not respond to an email for comment.

The D.C. government will be open Wednesday, as will D.C. Public Schools, but absences will be excused.

“We are working with Metro to add additional bus service,” said public schools spokeswoman Michelle Lerner. “Student tardies and absences will be excused, as we understand it will be difficult for families to get to school.

The Office of Personnel Management issued a statement: “Federal agencies in the Washington, D.C., area are open and employees have the option for unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework.”

Bradford Richardson contributed to this report.

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