Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld at a news conference to announce that Metrorail service will be shut down for a full day. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

“METRO GENERAL Manager/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld, with support from the Authority’s Board of Directors, today announced the full closure of the Metrorail system on Wednesday, March 16, for emergency inspections of the system’s third-rail power cables following an early morning tunnel fire yesterday.”

That announcement at 4:35 p.m. Tuesday made it official: It’s utterly hopeless for residents of the Washington area to think they can rely on Metrorail as a dependable form of transportation. The system that is supposed to serve the growing population of the national capital region is instead a national embarrassment, an amateur operation that has been terribly managed and (we think, but at this point who can believe Metro’s books?) financially shortchanged.

The shutdown, according to Metro officials, was necessary to inspect 600 cables, of the type involved in a fire that disrupted service throughout Monday on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines and also in last year’s fatal smoke incident on the Yellow Line near L’Enfant Plaza. One would have thought that, after a woman was killed and dozens others were sent to a hospital because of a problem traced to a faulty cable, Metro officials would have undertaken a thorough inspection between then and now. One would have hoped that the federal officials who are supposed to provide oversight would have insisted on it. Apparently not.

Instead, hundreds of thousands of Washington-area residents are scrambling to figure out how, with so little notice, they can get to work on Wednesday. Mr. Wiedefeld defended the closure as prudent because of the potential life-safety issue. “When I say safety is our highest priority, I mean it,” he said.

Good to know. But if the situation was dire enough to require a unilateral shutdown at midnight, why was it simultaneously okay for people to ride home on Tuesday night? Well, whatever.

No doubt the area will manage to get through Wednesday’s no-snow snow day. Some people will drive or carpool, while others will check bus schedules or telecommute. Not everyone, though, will be able to find alternatives, and some will be hurt by not being able to get to work or school or keep an appointment. It’s a situation that’s unsupportable. And when Metrorail reopens — and we won’t make book on when that might be — there will be even less public confidence in the system. It is sad indeed to see a system in which the region could once take pride, in which taxpayers and riders have invested so much, reduced to this.