Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The D.C. Metro emergency shutdown is rare, but there are other reasons cities put on the brakes.
A 24-hour shutdown of the entire Metrorail system in Washington, D.C., flooded city streets with cabs, cyclists, and a couple of rogue rollerbladers Wednesday morning as Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority workers worked to perform emergency safety checks on hundreds of power cables throughout the rail network.
The closure comes in the wake of an electrical fire near the McPherson Square station Monday morning, the conditions of which WMATA director Paul Wiedefield described as “disturbingly similar” to the fatal smoke incident at the L’Enfant Plaza station last year.
“[O]ur focus is squarely on mitigating any risk of a fire elsewhere on the system,” he told reporters Tuesday night.
Despite its many flaws, Metrorail has never before completely halted service for mechanical reasons. The unprecedented nature of Wednesday’s shutdown got us thinking: In recent history, what’s caused other subway systems to stop in their tracks? Here’s an incomplete roundup.
It’s pretty uncommon for subway systems to close for even an hour due to mechanical issues, but it happens. Copenhagen’s system had to suspend service a few times in the early 2000s, during its first few years of operation. Vancouver had to shut down its SkyTrain after some electrical issues last November. And a power outage forced Toronto to put the brakes on all subway service for about an hour in June 2015.
Massive snowstorms have shut down a number of major transit systems along the East Coast over the past couple of years. That’s why this D.C. shutdown feels so familiar: Less than two months ago, WMATA suspended all buses, trains, and paratransit in anticipation of a historic January blizzard. A year earlier, New York City MTA shut down subways for a snowstorm for the first time in its 111-year history. And in February 2015, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority halted all trains and buses across the Boston area twice in response to a walloping 100-plus inches of snow. In the first two instances, city officials were criticized for overreacting, and in Boston, uproar over the shutdowns and other service interruptions led WBTA’s general manager to resign.
The nascent downtown Los Angeles Red Line was shut down for a weekend following the 1994 7.8-magnitude Northridge earthquake. But that closure was nothing compared to Tokyo’s in 2011. The world’s busiest system, with some 8 million riders per day, shut down for hours on a Friday night following the 8.9-magnitude Tōhoku earthquake, the largest in Japanese history. Millions of passengers were stranded in rail stations, office buildings, hotels and on sidewalks.
Hurricanes have also stopped transit agencies in their tracks: New York City’s MTA suspended subway and bus service in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy.
The London Underground shut down all Tube service twice during the summer of 2015 as part of an ongoing dispute among workers over the city’s ‘Night Tube’ service (which is finally set to launch this summer, as CityLab reported Tuesday). Total subway shutdowns connected to strikes aren’t uncommon outside the U.S.: In the past few years, Madrid has had at least one, as have Melbourne, Athens, and Helsinki. What about Paris, city famed for its disgruntled public workers? Strikes cause partial Metro closures on a regular basis, but it appears pretty rare for the entire system to come to a halt.
Speaking of the French capital, the November 2015 terror attacks did not cue a total closure of the Paris Metro, which is pretty astounding. (A handful of stations did close up.) But “serious and imminent” terror threats in Brussels about a week later did press city officials to shut down subway service, as restaurants, shops, and offices also shuttered and residents stayed indoors. Also, subway service in New York City was discontinued on September 11, 2001, because of damage from the attack on the World Trade Center—though much of the network came back online after two hours.
Complete shutdowns like those mentioned here capture widespread attention for the disruptions they cause (or for the disruptions that cause them). But on the whole, subway services operate with pretty amazing regularity. And for some beleaguered agencies, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
As CityLab’s Sommer Mathis wrote Tuesday, WMATA may want to consider more shutdowns, for longer than a day, if it really wants to restore the public’s faith in a failing system. For an overhaul that ensures full safety and reliability, “several months may in fact be required for each line,” she wrote. “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.”