Our Metro system took the unprecedented step of closing the entire rail network last Wednesday for immediate emergency inspections of the roughly 600 “jumper cables” along the electrified third rail. One of these jumper cables caused the fire and smoke incident at the L’Enfant station last January and another jumper cable caused the fire incident at the McPherson Square station this past Monday.
A full inspection was conducted after the L’Enfant incident by Metro and the National Transportation Safety Board, resulting in the replacement of 125 problem cables. Despite these efforts last year, Monday’s fire demonstrated that an immediate reinspection was necessary.
The decision to reinspect the jumper cables last week was made by new Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld. As the new chairman of the Metro board, I fully support his decision to take immediate, drastic action to ensure that the system is safe for riders. Once I was made aware of the similarity between Monday’s incident and the tragedy that took place last year, it was clear that the public needed to know this information; waiting even a few days for these inspections was not acceptable.
I’m glad we took immediate action. Metro staff and outside engineering and maintenance experts, brought in by Wiedefeld to assess Metro’s entire approach to its work, walked the entire rail system and found 26 defects. Three of the jumper cables were so deteriorated that Wiedefeld described them as “show-stoppers,” meaning defects that would have interrupted service if seen during normal operations.
It’s very troubling that we found these 26 defects a year after inspecting the cables, and before federal regulations would require their reinspection this summer. I’m pleased that the Federal Transit Administration, the federal agency charged with oversight of Metro, announced that it will begin additional inspections of the system this week.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done, and done urgently, to fix Metro, but the more important takeaway is that our GM, myself as board chair and the new leadership of the agency will shut the system down when necessary to ensure the safety of riders. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said during a Senate hearing last week that Metro lacks a strong safety culture. I agree. The system has been mismanaged and under-maintained for too long. That ends now.
Metro is too important to riders, businesses, governments, growth, development and the future success of the entire region to be allowed to fall any further. I left the board in 2000 with Metro as a shining example of regional cooperation and success. Over the past 15 years, that coordination and the system have fallen apart. I want to thank and apologize to all of the riders and businesses that had to deal with last week’s shutdown. It will take time, but we are going to work tirelessly, every day, to improve our Metro system and regain your trust.
*Jack Evans is the District Council member for Ward 2, representing Georgetown and other neighborhoods since 1991.*