Metro's three-day failure to provide subway service appears to have been lengthier and more complete than any other weather-related subway stoppage in the United States.
Officials in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston all reported that sudden, heavy snowfalls have closed outdoor sections of their systems at one time or another, sometimes for hours, but never for such an extended period as three days.
Metro's Cody Pfanstiehl, a principal player in the selling of the subway to area voters and to Congress in the 1960s, said yesterday that a key part of his sales pitch then was the subway's anticipated reliability in all kinds of weather."In hindsight, I guess I'm now in a position where I have to eat those words," Pfanstiehl said.
Nicholas J. Roll, Metro's assistant general manager for transit services, said yesterday that the subway was unable to open because "we do not have the equipment. Should we have had it? I don't think so. Nothing like this has happened here before."
The question, Roll said, was at least partly one of how best to use Metro's money -- that is, should a publicly financed transit authority pay between $22,000 to $100,000 for a heavy snow blower that it might need only once in 57 years?
In addition to an almost total lack of snow removal equipment, the timing of the storm and its surprising intensity were contributing factors to the Metro breakdown. Added to those factors are the peculiar characteristics of the Metro system -- 15 of its 31 operating miles are above ground.
The storm became serious early Monday morning, before the normal beginning of weekday subway service. Thus, the usual complement of 33 trains was not running along the lines. All but four trains were trapped in the outdoor yards.
Those four trains were supposed to keep the tracks "polished" so regular operations could begin at 7 a.m. for the special George Washington's Birthday schedule.
"If it had been the 5 to 7 inches (of snow) predicted, we would have had no sweat," said Anthony Stefanac, Metro's rail superintendent and a 37-year veteran of the New York City subway.
"We were fine until about 6 a.m. (Monday). Then snow began to pile up," he said.Trains stalled at National Airport, Silver Spring and New Carrollton -- three critical points on the system.
Nothing could move, and trains could not reach the downtown, underground sections of the system where they could run.
"In the future," Stefanac said, "I will probably recommend laying up the trains in the tunnels after an evening rush hour" so that service on underground segments could be provided.
Chicago, which has had its worst recorded winter, lost service for about a day on 18 suburban miles of its system during a storm in January. Plows were attached to the fronts of trains to clear the track, and special scrapers were affixed to the electrical pickup shoes to keep the third rail clean.
"Our equipment has taken a terrible beating this winter and it is going to be very costly," said Tom Buck of the Chicago Transit Authority. "We are running many fewer cars than we need; the trains are packed and there are long intervals between trains. But we have had no choice. Eighty-five percent of the people who work in downtown Chicago get there by public transit."
A snowed-in rail yard, Buck said, was dug out "by as many as 900 to 1,000 men, all hand-shoveling."
Impacted snow on the third rail "just has to be dug out by hand," a Boston official said. "There's no other way." That is what Metro has been discovering in the past three days.
Boston had its big problems last winter, when it was hit within two weeks by 21-inch, then 26.7-inch snowfalls. The first had just been cleared from the tracks when the second came.
"Service was terrible," said Kenneth Campbell, a spokesman for the Boston Metropolitan Transit Authority. "We operated about 25 percent of the system for awhile, but it was as ineffectual as if we had lost the entire system. We got about 45 percent going the next day and just kept adding to that."
How well was Boston equipped with plows and blowers?
"We're a helluva lot better equipped this year than we were last," Campbell said. "The stuff we did have had not been maintained."
Metro has no plows and only one blower, which broke down at least twice during the past two days. But the blower will not clear the third rail.
The biggest Metro problem has been clearing the yards and freeing the trains.
"Where do you throw the snow in the yard?" Stefanac asked. "On the next track. That doesn't solve anything."
In New York City, flatcars are pulled into the yards, snow is piled on them, and the flatcars are removed. Metro has only one small truck that can run on the rails.
One technical problem also hampered Metro. Its trains must run through an electronic safety test each morning before they can begin service. All of the test stations are outdoors.
"We made every human effort possible," Roll said. "And it can't run. This is the biggest snowstorm in 57 years."