Transit officials had to shut down rail systems long enough to be sure that quake damage hadn’t caused safety problems, and air travel all over the nation backed up like a toppling row of dominoes after at least three eastern airports were temporarily closed to check control towers for structural damage.
One of those airports was Reagan National, where planes were grounded for more than an hour at mid-afternoon. With New York’s John F. Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International also temporarily closed, airlines began holding some eastbound flights.
In Washington, Metro said that its inspections should be finished overnight and that it hoped the system would be back to normal by the Wednesday morning rush hour.
The instant outbound rush hour at mid-afternoon Tuesday was reminiscent of the mess created during last winter’s snowstorm, when a federal decision to shut down the government early unleashed a flood of traffic. This time federal workers were allowed to depart at 2:30 p.m., but some said they didn’t receive the notice until two hours later, when they were either in traffic or normally would have been headed home.
“It’s a parking lot,” Terry Speigner moaned into his cellphone, trapped on Route 1 in Arlington and bound for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
“It’s never good when everyone gets out of work at one time, so that is going to make for a bad commute,” said Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
As Metro launched into a systemwide inspection of tracks and tunnels as a safety precaution, trains were slowed to 15 miles per hour and platforms filled. And when trains did come, people complained that the operators shut the doors before they all could jam in. Some just gave up and packed into buses instead.
“People were getting off [trains] and then the doors [would] close while people were still getting off or trying to get on,” said David Umansky, a District financial officer who was packed in on a platform at Metro Center. “Some people are trying to shove their way in.”
There were some tense moments as people boarded trains aware that there might be aftershocks.
Charlcie Steuble, 43, of Vienna, said passengers fell silent as the train made occasional stops between stations.
“The one that got a lot of attention was when the train stopped between Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn, under the Potomac,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I hope we’re not in the middle of an aftershock and we’re underground.’
“Everyone was collectively holding their breath,” she said. “It was eerie. It was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. It was a collective sigh of relief when we got aboveground.”
But people mellowed as the afternoon wore on, said Paige Heskamp, who took note that a universally shared experience breaks down normal social barriers.
“Usually no one talks on the Metro, but today there was this camaraderie,” she said. “It was kind of funny.”
And adversity inspires innovation. For example, as the Virginia Railway Express platform at the L’Enfant Plaza station filled to overflowing, Jamar Jackson got ready for “Plan B.”
He swapped his dress shoes for sneakers and prepped to hoof it across the Potomac to the Crystal City station, which he hoped would be less crowded.
“I’ve run farther,” said Jackson, of Fredericksburg. “It’s a nice day. I might have to lose the dress shirt.”
But just as he was about to run off, he got an alert from VRE on his smartphone: His train was pulling out from Union Station. He returned to the platform.
VRE resumed operations about 4 p.m. after Amtrak confirmed that many bridges and tunnels had been inspected and deemed safe.
“I can deal with the delays,” said Sarah Rowe, of Manassas. “I have a good book to read.”
The Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) rail service reported that some of its trains fell more than an hour behind schedule, and there was no southbound service on the Penn Line because of a lack of engines to pull trains. MARC notified riders that they could ride Metro free, but that option wasn’t attractive either.
In the hope of easing the crush, HOV restrictions were lifted in Northern Virginia shortly after 4 p.m., and officials for the District and the U.S. Park Police converted to outbound traffic controls about 3 p.m. About the same time, the District switched its traffic signals to patterns that give extended time to outbound commuters.
Bridge inspectors for the District and close-in areas of Maryland and Virginia had no early reports of damage but would continue to inspect sites through the evening and tomorrow, transportation officials said.
In the District, about 30 intersections went to flashing light controls shortly after the earthquake and were being checked and reset shortly before the regular evening commute, said John Lisle, spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation.
Taran Hutchinson, a facilitator at the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination Program, located in Greenbelt, said, “This is looking like a good midweek rush-hour profile but starting a few hours earlier. A lot of folks are leaving, so it will extend things for a while.”
But it would not, Hutchinson said, “be like the snowstorm” on Jan. 26 that marooned commuters for hours.