A water main break at 12th and F streets NW in downtown Washington caused water to flood tracks at a Federal Center Metro station. (Metro Forward via YouTube)

Water gushing from a broken underground pipe Tuesday morning flooded a stretch of Metrorail tracks in downtown Washington, causing havoc for thousands of commuters as transit officials temporarily closed three rail lines in the heart of the city.

With throngs of riders heading to work during the busiest morning hours, starting about 6 a.m., Metro suspended Orange, Blue and Silver line service to four stations between Farragut West and L’Enfant Plaza in the downtown core.

One of the stations, McPherson Square, soon reopened. But at Metro Center, Federal Triangle and Smithsonian, service on the three lines did not resume until just before 9 a.m. That was about three hours after the water main broke about six feet beneath 12th Street NW between E and F streets, near the Metro Center station.

The prolonged mess caused not only a slowdown of Orange, Blue and Silver line trains east and west of downtown, but also crowding on other lines as many commuters sought alternate routes to their workplaces.

Cynthia Foxwell, an Orange Line rider from Oxon Hill, works at the jewelry counter at Macy’s, near Metro Center. With no Orange trains running there, she said, she instead made her way to Gallery Place, where she boarded a Red Line train that would take her to Metro Center.

Workers examine damage on 12th Street NW after a water main break Tuesday in downtown Washington. The break caused the road to buckle and flooding led to Metro delays. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The Orange, Blue and Silver lines, which share tracks through downtown, are located at the bottom level of the Metro Center station. The Red Line runs through Metro Center at a higher elevation and was not affected by the flooding.

But unfortunately for Foxwell, a lot of riders evidently had the same idea, and the Gallery Place station was mobbed.

“When the train came, I got pushed in,” said Foxwell, who arrived at Macy’s at 8:05 a.m., tardy by 20 minutes. “Everybody was nasty. It was awful. I got pushed into a gentleman, and he pushed me back.”

She said: “I hate being late. I pride myself on being on time.”

John Lisle, a spokesman for D.C. Water, said the trouble began about 6 a.m., when the 12-inch water main — installed beneath 12th Street in 1953 — began leaking. Water gushed up to the street, directly above the Metro Center station, then flowed through a gutter grate and onto the subway tracks below, Lisle said.

His agency shut the flow of water to the pipe within “a matter of minutes,” he said.

But by then, a stretch of track beds used by Blue, Orange and Silver trains was flooded, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. He added that service on the lines was shut down because the water was above the level of the rails, making train operation unsafe.

Crews work Tuesday morning to gain access to a broken water main on 12th Street NW between E and F streets. (DC Water)

The Metrorail system has 58 underground pumping stations that remove a daily average of 73,000 gallons of rainwater and groundwater from track beds. Stessel said three of the pumps, in the Metro Center area, removed enough of Tuesday’s floodwater to allow service on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines to resume shortly before 9 a.m.

The cause of the water main break wasn’t immediately known. Lisle said repair work probably wouldn’t be finished until the early hours of Wednesday. He said, “We hope it won’t interfere with the morning commute,” referring to motorists.

Metro said the work was not expected to interfere with rail service, which had returned to near normal by late Tuesday morning.

In a Twitter post, D.C. Water officials apologized for the delays, saying it was a “crazy commute.” They also said, “We recognize the gravity of the situation and will repair as quickly and as safely as possible.”

For those with difficult commutes to begin with, the disruption was an added annoyance.

Leah Singelstad, who works at a law firm, set out by car about 7:30 a.m. from Cambridge, Md., on the Eastern Shore. Twice a week, she drives to Union Station and rides the Red Line to Metro Center, with her full commute usually taking 2 1 /2 hours, she said.

On Tuesday, with more people than normal driving into Washington because of the Metro delays related to the water main break, it took an hour longer. “Cheverly is where traffic stopped,” she said.

She added: “You’re in the car a long time, anyway. When you add another 45 minutes or an hour, you get claustrophobic.”

Orange, Blue and Silver trains headed into the city from the west had to offload passengers at Farragut West (and eventually one stop closer in, after the McPherson Square station reopened). Stessel said the trains then had to back up, to near the Foggy Bottom station, where there is a crossover to the parallel tracks. After switching to the other tracks, the trains headed toward Virginia.

Because the trains had to back up, train service behind them slowed significantly, causing trains and platforms to become heavily crowded. The same situation occurred east of the flooded area, with trains offloading passengers at L’Enfant Plaza, then backing up to a crossover near the Federal Center station.

Stessel said that 47 buses “were pressed into service for the shuttle operation” between the points where Orange, Blue and Silver line service was suspended. “Obviously not the easiest thing to do at the height of rush hour,” he said of making those extra buses available.

To find the leak in the pipe, repair workers drilled several small holes in 12th Street and used a listening device rather than dig up the entire block, Lisle said.

After the grate was sandbagged to prevent further Metro flooding, the pipe was refilled with water and workers listened for the leak, which turned out to be about 50 feet south of 12th and F streets, Lisle said. The workers then began excavating.

The 61-year-old pipe “is actually young” by D.C. water main standards, he said. “We have pipes dating to the 1860s, the Civil War. The median age of our pipes is 79 years old, which means more than half of them are older than this one.”

There are several office buildings in the block where the pipe broke, but most if not all are serviced by more than one water main, Lisle said.

Pamela Mooring, a D.C. Water spokeswoman, said it is not uncommon for water main breaks to occur at this time of year.

Cold weather dramatically increases the chance of a break as pipes expand and contract with temperature changes. On average, 400 to 500 water main breaks occur each year in the city, mostly during the winter, Mooring said.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves much of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, has responded to 1,850 breaks this year, an increase of about 150 over 2013’s total, spokesman Jerry Irving said.

He said most of the 2014 breaks occurred early in the year amid the frigid weather phenomenon known as the polar vortex.

Aaron C. Davis, Michael Laris and Miles Parks contributed to this report.