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Washington D.C. to shut down entire commuter rail system for a day

It's already being branded #Metromageddon. The system will shut down for an emergency inspection of its third rail power cables

WASHINGTON—Hundreds of thousands of Washington, D.C., workers were preparing for a potentially soul-sucking commute with the rail system serving the nation’s capital facing a full-day shut down March 16.

At least one congressman called on the federal government to let workers telecommute to lessen the agony after Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld announced the shutdown at a news conference in the agency’s headquarters Tuesday afternoon.

The system will be shut down to allow for an emergency inspection of its third rail power cables, Wiedefeld said.

“While the risk to the public is very low, I cannot rule out a potential life and safety issue here, and this is why we must take this action immediately,” he said.

Metro is the nation’s second-busiest transit network: Its six rail lines and 91 stations serve more than 700,000 riders daily, and it is a vital link for federal workers and other commuters to Washington from Maryland and Virginia. The system will shut down at midnight Tuesday and remain closed until 5 a.m. Thursday, a total of 29 hours.

D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, the chairman of Metro’s board, said that while the system had previously been closed for days for weather, including earlier this year, it was believed to be the first time the system had shut down for mechanical reasons.

A fire on the tracks led to major delays throughout the system on Monday. The fire was caused by the same kind of electrical component that malfunctioned last year and caused a train to fill with smoke inside a downtown Washington tunnel, killing one passenger and sickening dozens.

Wiedefeld said that during the shutdown about 600 so-called jumper cables will be inspected throughout the system. Wiedefeld said those cables were inspected after the L’Enfant Plaza fire and deficient ones replaced.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, called on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to allow federal workers to take unscheduled leave or telework on Wednesday, calling the decision to shut down “a gut punch to the hundreds of thousands of commuters who depend on the system.”

“While I am extremely frustrated with this news, safety must be our No. 1 priority,” Connolly said in a statement. “This dramatic action highlights the need for long-term safety and reliability improvements throughout the system.”

Commuters using the system during Tuesday evening’s rush hour said they hoped offices would close as a result or let workers work from home.

“It’s really frustrating. It’s how everybody gets to work,” said Atlee Ahern, 23, a Justice Department intern awaiting her train home to Bethesda, Maryland. “The whole system shuts down, the whole city shuts down.”

Ahern, who rides Metro every workday, said she did not see how it would be possible for her to get to the office.

Brian Kirchner, 46, a federal contractor, said he was delayed by two hours getting home to Hagerstown, Maryland, on Monday because of the fire. He commutes by car, bus and Metro to his job downtown.

“I guess I won’t be coming to work tomorrow,” Kirchner said.

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