D.C. Metro power unit fails, killing communication systems

Staggered by an early morning meltdown of its communications network Wednesday, Metro is rushing to repair problems that crippled the farebox system on some buses, blocked some riders from using Farecard machines, and froze the transit agency's Web site that gives information on delay alerts and schedules.
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

Metro needs to come up with $14 million to replace two aging power units, one of which failed Wednesday, causing a massive shutdown of vital customer-related communications, including the subway's public address system and two-way radio communications with bus drivers.

Despite the incident, trains, buses and MetroAccess services for the disabled were able to operate. In cases in which bus fareboxes malfunctioned, passengers were allowed to ride free.

All systems had been restored by Wednesday afternoon, Metro officials said.

The part that failed cannot be repaired, and Metro has no backup. The agency, already scrambling to plug a $22 million shortfall in the current budget, must find the money to replace the critical parts. Deputy General Manager Gerald Francis called it one of Metro's "most urgent needs."

An interim fix is in place, but "there is anxiety" about it, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. "There are no other options at this moment."

Metro headquarters, near the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, relies on two power distribution units to route electricity through the eight-story facility. One unit supplies power to computers to operate the rail system.

The other unit, which failed, powers other critical functions, including all of the systems that went down Wednesday. That unit also provides power for heating and air conditioning at the headquarters and the Gallery Place, Judiciary Square and Archives stations.

The power distribution units are 27 years old. The $14 million would go toward replacing them and other essential infrastructure equipment, officials said. Once funds are obtained, it would take approximately six months to make repairs.

Metro officials did not provide an immediate cause for the unit's failure, other than age. Officials could not say why the transit agency had no backups. Those issues are certain to be raised by Metro board members during two committee meetings scheduled for Thursday.

"It was a single point of failure for a three-decades-old power unit for which we do not have a backup," Francis said in a statement. "It reached the end of its life at 2:45 a.m." Wednesday.

The power failure affected about a dozen communications systems. In addition to the vital ones, the outage also crippled the farebox system on some buses, froze the transit agency's Web site and blocked some riders from using debit cards for fares.

The systems were gradually restored, and all were functioning by 3:30 p.m.

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