A Metro train moves over snow-covered tracks in the District on Jan. 26, nearly three days after the end of a winter storm. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

The shutdown by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority of its rail system ahead of last weekend’s blizzard was not only ill-advised but also a further indication of the managerial incompetence that has plagued the agency for far too long.

Competent rail managers understand that blizzard shutdowns by heavy -rail systems are unnecessary because trains moving down a track at normal speed create air currents to the front and sides that blow snow from the tracks. It sounds simple, but it really works. Snowplows, air-blowers and other specialized track-clearing equipment are not needed. Keeping tracks clear amid heavy snowfall requires only an adjustment of the time between successive trains.

Keeping a rail system operating during a blizzard requires the installation of ice cutters on third-rail shoes. And signal crews should be standing by to keep switches working. In areas where there are obstacles, such as narrow transitions between tunnels and grade-level or elevated structures, track gangs could disperse any snow or ice buildup. Motors that are vulnerable to shorting out because of snow ingestion should have snow filters installed over air intakes, and spare motors should be ready to replace any failed motors.

What happens if you do not do these things? Let’s say you either do not employ pilot trains or do not dispatch enough. The inevitable result is that you are going to lose the railroad. If several feet of snow accumulate on the track, the railroad will stay lost for days, until workers clear the snow that easily could have been prevented from accumulating.

During the Blizzard of 1996, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority operated both of its subway lines and almost all of its regional rail lines despite the accumulation of more than 30 inches of snow. The only exceptions to this clean sweep were the Bala Cynwyd and Chestnut Hill lines. These were lost because an Amtrak policy prevented us from getting pilot trains on those two lines to keep them clear.

We had engineers operating pilot trains report regularly whether the height of the snow near the tracks was increasing. If so, we dispatched more pilot trains to shorten the interval between trains and increase the amount of snow blown from the track per hour.

The only significant obstacle we encountered in the storm was that the highway patrol turned back some of our train crews who were trying to get to their starting points. Reason soon prevailed, however, and the crews received the same authorization to drive on the closed highways as emergency responders and medical personnel.

Perhaps the most explicit recognition of SEPTA’s performance during the most severe snowstorm in Philadelphia history was a Signe Wilkinson cartoon in the Philadelphia Inquirer that contrasted happy SEPTA commuters with unhappy automobile drivers after the storm.

What has to happen at transit agencies, such as WMATA, that close their rail systems, which is the worst thing to do?

The public, politicians and funding sources have to demand that rail systems continue to operate during snowstorms and blizzards. That ability to operate in bad weather is a major benefit of investing in rail systems.

Agencies that are accustomed to not operating in blizzards need to acquire the knowledge and minimal equipment required to do so.

Storm plans and procedures need to be drastically revised. WMATA, for example, has a standard operating procedure that suggests operations be suspended when snowfall reaches eight inches. Rail transit managers in Chicago and Philadelphia would find that policy ridiculous.

Discussions need to be held with union leaders to ensure the necessary flexibility in crew assignments.

And the operating culture needs to be focused on never losing the railroad and always meeting the needs of its riders, whatever the weather. Riders need to know that a train will soon be there when they get to their nearest train station or subway stop, however much snow has fallen.

Blizzard shutdowns seriously inconvenience and sometimes strand passengers and deprive the regions that they serve of their last bastion of mobility during severe storms.

WMATA should never again be allowed to shut down its rail system because of heavy snow.