Metro remains closed as Sandy bears down

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Photo - The closed Rockville Metro station. (Liz Farmer/Examiner)
The closed Rockville Metro station. (Liz Farmer/Examiner)
Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Metro planned to stay closed Tuesday morning and it was not clear when the transit system would reopen as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast.

The agency said it would continue to keep its buses and trains halted at least through Tuesday morning until it could assess conditions. MetroAccess, its service for riders with disabilities, was slated to remain closed all day.

The transit agency closed service systemwide Monday, making it the longest rail closure due to weather in its 37-year history.

Checking in
To stay up-to-date with Metro's status, check @WMATA on Twitter, visitwww.wmata.com/sandy or for those without Internet access or power call 202-637-7000.

The agency has shut portions of its rail system -- such as above-ground areas when snows reach eight inches -- and suspended bus service amid flooding or ice. But it is rare for the agency to close the entire system.

(Watch storm videos from the D.C. region and the latest videos from around the country)

Even with the federal government and many businesses closed, some riders were surprised to see what is a lifeline to their jobs become unavailable.

"I've never seen Metro shut down. I've been through blizzards," said Brian Grozbean, who runs Lustre Cleaners and Formal Wear on Capitol Hill, which stayed open because its hotel clients also stay open. "I've never seen it close since it opened in the '70s."

(See a photo gallery of storm images and follow the latest updates from the Examiner)

In 2003, Metro shut down the entire rail system for the first time in its history due to high winds from Hurricane Isabel, closing the system at 11 a.m. and reopening the next day at 8 a.m.

Metro made this week's call before the storm had struck after hearing from the National Weather Service that winds were expected to be stronger than anticipated and that power companies were not confident they could maintain power.

"The last thing you want to do is lose power when running a train and things are getting bad," said Metro spokeswoman Caroline Lukas. "If you lose power, then you really do have a real emergency on your hands."

Metro got a taste of such troubles on Sept. 19 when it had two unrelated power outages due to its own infrastructure problems. One train became trapped with 1,000 riders aboard it and another had to be evacuated onto outdoor tracks. That caused massive delays along the line even without the threat of a hurricane. "We certainly don't want a repeat of those situations," Lukas said.

Officials were also worried about flooding in areas such as Cleveland Park and Federal Center due to Sandy's massive rains, she said.

Metro was joined by transit agencies along the East Coast in closing down. New York City and Philadelphia's SEPTA system announced closures first. Baltimore and Metro followed. Boston's MBTA shuttered at 2 p.m.

Metro did not decide to shut down because of New York and Philadelphia, Lukas said, but their lead helped local officials feel comfortable with their decision. "It lent credibility and credence to the idea that this is a really bad storm," she said.

Closures do cost the transit system, though. Metro has estimated that a federal government shutdown alone costs the agency about $2 million a day. But it was not clear Monday how much shutting down the bus service and all of Metrorail would cost, Lukas said.

The agency paid its 11,000 workers even though most stayed home Monday. Essential employees did have to work, monitoring the system's tracks and tunnels in case of flooding, downed trees or other problems.

For some riders who also had to work, the closures left them with few options.

James Williams Jr., a 58-year-old Washington native, had to walk 35 minutes from his home off Rhode Island Avenue to his job as a bar manager on Pennsylvania Avenue. He tried to hail a cab without luck. "I lost two umbrellas and it's not even bad yet," he said Monday morning.

Williams said he could understand shutting down the rail system, given the concern of objects on the tracks. "The bad thing was the buses, too," he said. "If people get hurt, they have no way to get to the hospital. The bus would be the best option."

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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