Residents in Washington, D.C., were reeling Tuesday afternoon from the news that the region’s entire Metrorail system will close for at least 24 straight hours starting at midnight tonight in order to perform a safety check of hundreds of electric cables. The decision, made by the transit agency’s board of directors and newly minted General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, came after an electrical fire broke out in a tunnel near the McPherson Square station Monday morning, which led to a major service disruption. It also comes in the context of a fatal smoke incident caused by a similar electrical failure inside one of the system’s tunnels a little over a year ago.
Wiedefeld has only been on the job for a few months, and so far he’s at least saying the right things: that his task in restoring the region’s faith in their troubled transit agency must involve dealing with the "hard truths" about WMATA’s shortcomings head on. His decision to initiate a sudden and complete shutdown amid serious safety concerns certainly suggests a willingness to follow through on that pledge.
For the hundreds of thousands of residents who rely on Metrorail each day (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of tourists making their way to D.C. this week for the start of the National Cherry Blossom Festival), the shutdown will no doubt be a massive headache. Workers will not be able to get to their jobs. Students will be unable to get to school. Traffic on the area’s major freeways will be hellish.
And it won’t last nearly long enough.
Wiedefeld needs more time to come up with a sane plan of course, but at this point WMATA needs to consider shutting down large portions of its rail system for a lot longer than a day. Several months may in fact be required for each line in order to perform complete safety and reliability overhauls. For an example of how this might work, look no further than Chicago. Back in 2013, the CTA made the controversial decision to shut down half of its Red Line route* for five full months in order to reconstruct its drainage system and fully replace 10 miles of aging tracks. Had CTA decided instead to do the work piecemeal in off-peak hours, residents would have been forced to live through four-plus years of limited service and construction hassle. The months-long shutdown was painful, but in the end the Red Line reopened on time, on budget, and able to offer vastly more reliable service.
By contrast, riders on D.C.’s Metrorail system have at this point endured at least seven years of consistent, major weekend service disruptions associated with repair and maintenance work, along with, in more recent years, an escalating pattern of serious safety and reliability failures. If any U.S. transit system ought to take a closer look at Chicago’s approach to the Red Line, it’s WMATA. More notice next time would be good. But otherwise—more shutdowns, please. It’s going to hurt in the short term, but it may be the only way to save D.C.’s Metro in the long run.
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to clarify that only half of Chicago’s Red Line was closed in 2013, not the full length of the line.