- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2016

Subway riders blasted Metro on Monday as a small track fire caused major delays along three rail lines — the ninth such incident in just over two weeks — coming days after the transit agency had announced its systemwide repair plans and federal overseers had threatened to defund and shut down Metro operations.

Meanwhile, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld told WTOP Radio that he will meet with his top managers on Tuesday, adding that firing employees is “always an option” in dealing with the subway system’s persistent safety and reliability issues.

Monday morning’s track fire occurred between the Stadium-Armory and Minnesota Avenue stations in Southeast, forcing single-track service on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines and generating frustration among subway commuters.

“This is ridiculous!” Geo Aldridge, 49, yelled down the empty tracks at the Minnesota Avenue station, where he was running late for work. He said sparks and smoke on the rails briefly delayed his trip Sunday: The train paused for five minutes before continuing on.

“The D.C. Metro — it’s to be expected,” he said. “I’ve lived in other cities whose subways are at least 50 years older, more reliable. D.C. has the worst. It’s pathetic.”

Standing near Mr. Aldridge on the station’s platform, Bria Brown agreed. The 22-year-old line cook for Ronald Reagan National Airport was running 15 minutes late for her job due to the subway fire, and said she often is forced to use ride-hailing companies when Metro is unavailable.

“I use Uber and Lyft if I’m running late and don’t feel like dealing with the Metro,” she said. “You can’t miss $16 an hour, baby.”

Similar smoke and fire incidents caused by electrical cables increasingly have plagued Metro. On Saturday, the Federal Transit Administration noted that eight had occurred since April 23 as it issued safety directives requiring Metro to change its safety culture or else face defunding and closures. Those directives were delivered a day after Mr. Wiedefeld had announced a systemwide repair plan.

Under the “SafeTrack” plan beginning June 4, the rail system will close for repair at midnight on weekends, and there will be track closures and single-tracking during the weekdays.

In his interview with WTOP, Mr. Wiedefeld said about 650 of Metro’s 13,000 workers are “at-will” employees who can be fired without cause.

“That’s always an option,” the general manager said. “You always want to start where you’re trying to bring people along to bring them to where you want to be, you want to make sure you’re giving them the tools. But clearly, if someone cannot perform at that level, it’s probably best for both of us to move along.”

But communication could be an issue. Stadium-Armory station manager M.O. Hector was working by himself when Monday’s fire started. He said his bosses are usually good in informing him, but he did not know what was happening. He did his best to answer questions from commuters packed on the Blue Line platform.

“All I can do is shake my head,” said Mr. Hector, who is in his 19th year with Metro. “I try not to have too much comment on that. I try to keep people moving.”

Derrick Murdock, 59, said he would be forced to take three buses and endure a two-hour commute if the Minnesota Avenue station were shut down for repairs. Still, he said that something has to be done to provide reliable mass transit.

“Get the job done and get it done right,” Mr. Murdock said.

“They really have to do this,” said Fritz Henn, 75, who waited 20 minutes at Pentagon City for a train home. “They have to get these tracks back to reasonable safety standards. If it causes delays, it has to cause delays.”

As station announcements for delays sounded repeatedly overhead, Mr. Henn, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, recalled a time in the 1970s when Metro was “fun to ride.”

“This was the premier system in the country,” he said. “Now it’s a hassle.”

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