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Metro to start new inspection program as questions linger after shutdown

Metro to start new inspection program as questions linger after shutdown
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The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will start a new inspection process following a cable fire last week that prompted officials to shut down the entire rail system for an emergency inspection.

During a Board of Directors Safety Committee meeting on Thursday, members were briefed on the investigation, ongoing jumper-cable inspections and the next steps for repairs. But board members remained skeptical over whether new repair efforts would prove effective.

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Officials suspended all Metro rail service for about 24 hours last Wednesday, after an earlier electrical fire near the McPherson Square station caused delays on the Orange, Silver and Blue lines. Metro said the incident presented similarities to a January 2015 event in which one rider was killed after smoke filled a stalled Yellow Line train near L’Enfant Plaza.

Officials emphasized that the investigation of the McPherson Square cable fire is still ongoing and no conclusions have yet been made.

“We do not have answers … and we don’t want to speculate,” said Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld.

During the shutdown last week, 1,928 cables were inspected and 27 defects were repaired, with three spots considered the highest priority: McPherson Square, Potomac Avenue and Foggy Bottom. Metro said on Thursday other nonemergency repairs are now underway at 338 other locations, such as in areas where debris may be near cables or cables are lying on the ground.

Metro said an improved cable inspection program is also being developed. A specialized crew will begin to perform more comprehensive track and power inspections on April 1. A contract was awarded to a consulting firm that has railroad electrical engineer specialists to help Metro develop a new program.

But board members were skeptical the new repair plan would be any more effective than the measures put in place following the deadly L’Enfant Plaza incident.

“A year ago, we went through the same drill. We were given a 14-point recovery plan,” said Mortimer Downey, the chairman of the Safety Committee who was deputy Transportation secretary from 1993 to 2001. "Either inspections weren’t done or they were done and missed major defects."

Wiedefeld said he doesn’t have answers to all the questions yet — which is why officials decided to close Metro for emergency inspections last week — but vowed to be transparent throughout the process.

“Whatever we’re doing isn’t working,” he added.

Metro is required to submit an investigation report to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) within 30 days, which officials said they are on track to meet.

Oversight of Metro was shifted to the FTA last fall, after a series of service breakdowns and other issues cast doubt on the agency’s ability to provide safe and reliable service. Metro still controls everyday operations, but the FTA will maintain oversight until a new body is established.

The FTA announced it would be conducting a “safety blitz” starting this week in order to identify other areas Metro may need to address. Final reports are expected to be completed by early summer.