Many commuters sensed that last week’s Metrorail shutdown signaled a new era in our local transit history, but weren’t sure whether it was cause for hope or despair.

They used my online chat on Monday to vent about conditions in the rail system and also to consider what comes next in the slow process of rebuilding Metrorail. Even in an hour and a half, we didn’t cover all of the riders themes, so here are a few of their additional comments, with my responses.

Is another shutdown likely?
Do you think that Metro will need to shut down again sometime soon? Would you be surprised if they discovered another issue that would require immediate action like last week’s incident did? And if so what do you recommend they do to avoid the overcrowding on buses and general disarray while the trains are shut down?

DG: I think if Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld found another credible threat to rider safety, he’d respond in the same way. But consider also that the conditions he was dealing with one week ago were quite specific. Wiedefeld reacted after he was informed that the same type of power cable implicated in the fatal smoke incident of Jan. 12, 2015, was involved in the tunnel fire near McPherson Square.

Why these cable problems were allowed to exist is under investigation. Wiedefeld told us his first priority was to get them fixed, then sort out the history.

Given how little warning commuters got about the impending shutdown, they responded very well the next morning to what could have been one of the worst traffic jam’s in the region’s history. If they responded to a future incident in the same way, by telecommuting, taking the day off, or varying their departure times, we’d probably emerge from that okay, too, though I hope that in another situation, travelers would get more warning time to prepare their alternatives.

Wiedefeld’s response to the cable problem may have signaled something bigger about his approach to the job. The extraordinary shutdown showed that he’s willing to do things differently. That could include a rethinking of the entire rebuilding strategy that Metro has employed for the past five years.

This next comment came in response to something I wrote, which the commenter marked in quotes.

“Makes a rider want to know what other problems may be lurking in the tunnels and in the train equipment.”
This is I think the crux of the matter. What should Paul Wiedefeld do to address this very real concern? I applaud Wiedefeld’s decision to shut down Metro and do the safety checks, both from the safety and the leadership standpoint.

DG: This sums up the comments I got from riders. They were heartened that Wiedefeld took the Metrorail safety issue seriously, to the point of disrupting commuting in the entire region for one day to fix a problem. On the other hand, they understand this electrical cable problem had been allowed to exist in the first place. They want to know if it’s safe to ride.

Part of what Wiedefeld did in announcing the shutdown was send a message to the rest of the Metro staff: He was saying he took safety so seriously he was willing to put his job on the line and risk outraging hundreds of thousands of commuters for the sake of fixing a significant threat to the transit system. That part may get the attention of people whose job it is to keep Metrorail safe.

Publicity stunts to attract attention
Wiedefeld and the board should not be pulling publicity stunts. It would be a shame if the main reason the system was shut down for one day was to attract attention from the federal government, the state governments and the District government. I suspect it was, since we were allowed to ride the evening before and there was little or no reason why the checks could not have been done incrementally. Wiedefeld should be able to act as an advocate for the Metro without having to shut the system down and mess with everyone’s schedule who uses the Metro. He and the board should stop using the people that ride the Metro as pawns.

DG: When I say Wiedefeld was willing to put his job on the line, I’m thinking in part of the theme expressed by this commenter, who was not alone last week. If the Wednesday commute had been nightmarish, if the transit crews had not been able to get the inspections and repairs done after one day, Wiedefeld would have been the target of all that anger. As it was, many suspected there was a publicity stunt underway that was designed to win more funding for Metro.

Wiedefeld certainly wants more funding for Metro. But since taking the job last fall he repeatedly has acknowledged the need for Metro to make a credible demonstration that it is smart about spending the money already coming in. If the shutdown was a building block in making that case, so much the better for all of us.

Weekend track work
Can I just say it was a lovely treat to be reminded of how the Metro used to run on weekends. I try (usually unsuccessfully) to plan my weekend excursions around the 24-minute wait times, but this weekend I didn’t have to! No crowded platforms or trains and I had single-digit wait times every time I left my apartment! Really looking forward to the month-long reprieve we are getting from the track work. Logically I understand the weekend rebuilding is supposed to have impacts on safety and reliability, but it’s hard to not get frustrated every weekend with the truly terrible service which is the new norm.

DG: I got several comments about riding Metrorail this past weekend, the first of five during which Metro is suspending the track work program in consideration of the Cherry Blossom Festival crowds. It leads me to this final point.

Metro is in the latter stages of a years-long rebuilding program that represents one strategy for dealing with the deterioration of the rail system. For many riders, this disruptive effort has not yielded the results in train system performance that they were hoping for. Wiedefeld had already suggested that he was willing to reevaluate the strategy. This is not the same as saying he would change it. For one thing, he’d need to feel confident he had a better strategy. But his bold move last week indicates that he won’t automatically follow the standard operating procedures.