Subway trains ran late when they could move at all, buses spun their wheels vainly trying to climb icy hills. But Metro stayed in motion through most of yesterday's storm, moving countless shivering riders in and out of downtown as the heavy snow brought private transportation to a standstill.
By 5 p.m., drifting snow and frozen switches had forced closure of all surface Metrorail lines, and all rail service was halted about three hours later. With large numbers of buses immobilized by snow or traffic jams, Metro canceled all suburban bus service by about 6 p.m., leaving only a handful of routes operating in the District last night.
"My buses are just stranded all over the place," said Shirley DeLibero, director of the bus system.
Metrorail director Joe Sheard said late last night that the 39-mile rail system would remain closed all day today while crews clear buried track and service cars. Metrobus, however, will attempt to operate a normal Saturday schedule, he said.
During much of yesterday, an electric atmosphere reigned in downtown subway stations as riders traded rumors of imminent shutdowns and listened with bemusement to loudspeaker announcements urging everyone to "return home as soon as possible".
Strangers talked to strangers as the possibility of being stranded together broke down social restraints. "Everybody's in good spirits, everybody's excited," said Metro police officer Brad H. Tavel on a station platform at Metro Center.
Ann Hegnauer, a program manager at an energy company, had gone to Capitol Hill yesterday morning on business. "Somebody came running into our meeting and said Metro was going to shut down at 1 p.m. It was 12:30, so I started to panic." The meeting was canceled abruptly and everyone scurried for home.
When last seen, Hegnauer was standing on a Metro Center platform hoping to reach Ballston, where she had parked her car.
Metro began preparing for the storm Thursday night. It kept train operators on overtime running trains over surface rail segments all night to keep the tracks as clear as possible, a tactic learned in the George Washington's Day blizzard of 1979.
At garages, engines were started during the night to keep them warm, and supervisors were called in early to stake out the streets and make sure sand and salt were available where needed.
With federal workers ordered to show up for work, Metro laid on every available train for the morning rush. All but about 30 of the 1,542 buses scheduled for morning service made it to their routes, Metro officials said.
But from the start, travel by public transportation was chaotic. Buses were unable to pass through side streets that had not been cleared and about 18 were involved in accidents, all apparently minor. As riders waited anxiously at stops, buses fell further and further behind schedule. By evening, about 120 buses were still stuck in snow on streets around the area.
About 10 trains broke down during the day, in some cases because of snow in car-door slide tracks, which jammed the doors open, stopping the trains. At Farragut North, a car motor blew out, possibly because of caked snow.
On surface rail lines, buildups of snow on the main tracks did not cause much difficulty. The big problems were frozen cross-over switches and snow on the third rail, which broke contact of the cars' "shoes" that pick up power from the rails. Initially, snow was worst in the area of the Arlington Cemetery station, then began plaguing other surface lines.
Late yesterday afternoon, 90 passengers became stranded aboard a train stopped near the Takoma station, and another 20 in a train near Cheverly. About 100 passengers were trapped in cars for more than two hours after a third train stalled near Arlington Cemetery. By 5 p.m. trains were running only between Van Ness and Judiciary Square on the Red Line and Eastern Market and Ballston on the Blue/Orange Line.
Maintenance crews were scheduled to begin clearing snow this morning.