Why the Washington, D.C. Metro Is Shutting Down for 29 Hours

A commuter checks his wallet under a sign announcing a 29-hour shutdown for an emergency safety investigation on March 15. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Washington D.C. area's troubled Metro subway system will undergo an unprecedented 29-hour shutdown for an emergency safety investigation of power cabling, officials said on Tuesday.

The second-biggest U.S. subway system, which carries more than 700,000 riders a day, will shut down from 12 a.m. EDT (0400 GMT on Wednesday) to 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) on Thursday could cause massive headaches for the federal government as hundreds of thousands of employees struggle to get to work.

The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal workforce, said government offices would remain open despite the shutdown. Workers will have the option to take unscheduled leave or work from home, it said.

Congress will remain open as well, officials said.

The closure of the 119-mile (230-km) subway system, which has been plagued by equipment breakdowns and fires, will allow safety officials to inspect about 600 underground cables for worn-out casings, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said at a news conference.

"While the risk to the public is very low, I cannot rule out a potential life safety issue, and this is why we must take this action immediately," he said.

Wiedefeld said the shutdown was prompted by a cable fire early on Monday just blocks away from the White House that caused delays on three of the system's six lines.

The fire was similar to one in January 2015 in which a woman died and more than 80 people were made ill when a train became stranded in a smoky tunnel, he said.

Wiedefeld said the closure was the first shutdown of Metrorail, the transit system's rail service, that was not weather related since operations began in the 1970s.

The shutdown underscores the safety concerns that have plagued Metrorail for decades and have fed a decline in ridership.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Antony Foxx put safety supervision of Metrorail under the Federal Transit Administration in October. It was the first time a U.S. subway system had been placed under direct federal oversight for safety lapses.

Since the 1980s, the National Transportation Safety Board has conducted 11 investigations into Metro rail accidents that have killed a total of 18 people.