U.S. News

U.S. 'seriously' considered shutting down Washington subway

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said on Tuesday he seriously considered ordering a shutdown of Washington’s troubled subway last week and warned the subway agency he would not hesitate to use that authority if necessary.

People ride the Metro subway system during the evening rush hour in Washington March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

On Saturday, federal officials ordered Metro to tighten safety standards because of a fire on Thursday. The response by Metro subway employees to the explosion of a third-rail insulator and fire showed major lapses by the system’s control center, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) said in a directive.

“We’re not afraid to use the authority we have,” Foxx told reporters in a briefing at the Transportation Department’s Washington headquarters. “The culture of safety is not where we want to see it ... I have great concerns.”

“There is a lot wrong with the system and people depend on it everyday,” he added.

Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye responded to Foxx in a written statement saying the agency “is focused on ensuring the safety of every customer and employee as we work to fully implement the FTA directives.” She added that Metro’s general manager Paul Wiedefeld “remains available to USDOT to resolve any concerns they may have.”

Washington’s Metro subway system is the second busiest in the United States with about 700,000 passengers daily, and had been put under direct federal watch in October for safety lapses.

Foxx said federal safety inspectors had been denied access to conduct inspections of the Metro system last week. The control center declined to shut off power when inspectors arrived and trains continued to roll across the section, FTA said.

Foxx said he told his employees not to take “no” for an answer when seeking to conduct inspections. “I will have no hesitation to shut down the system,” Foxx said, urging Metro to cooperate with inspections.

In March, Metro launched an unprecedented day-long shutdown for emergency safety checks of 600 underground cables that could pose a fire risk. The shutdown was the first for a non-weather issue.

Foxx said a Metro maintenance plan announced on Friday had no correlation to the cause of the fire that was caught on a widely aired security video. Metro said the maintenance would involve large scale track work, including partial shutdowns and slower service in a bid to improve safety and reliability.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Diane Craft and Richard Chang