Transit misery as Washington shutters its Metro system

A long line of morning commuters board a bus for downtown Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland, March 16, 2016.
A long line of morning commuters board a bus for downtown Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland, March 16, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Commuters in the US capital strapped on walking shoes and dusted off their bicycles on Wednesday, as the regional subway system - the second busiest in America - shut down for a day of safety checks.

With Washington's Metro rail system shuttered all day for emergency inspections, thousands resorted to travel on foot, by bike and on the city's already congested roads, creating bumper-to-bumper gridlock.

On the region's highways, backups stretched from the remote suburbs into the heart of downtown Washington.

Traffic clogged city's streets for hours, long after the usual end of the morning rush.

The shutdown, which started Wednesday at midnight (noon Singapore time), was due to last until Thursday at 5am (5pm Singapore time), guaranteeing an equally miserable commute home.

The closure sparked fierce competition for taxis and Ubers, as well as seats on the region's buses.

It also unleashed a torrent of criticism against the beleaguered transit system, which has been plagued by safety concerns and chronic delays.

"More like Metrofail," one disgusted commuter wrote on Twitter.

Another expressed incredulity that Metro gave just one day's warning for the closures.

"On less then 12 hours notice??? Are you absolutely insane? How can you possibly expect a million people to see this and make plans?" a Twitter user wrote in a post addressed to WMATA, the regional authority that runs Metro.

Meanwhile, there was schadenfreude in towns and cities elsewhere in the country.

"Citizens of New York! The MTA is looking pretty good to you right now, isn't it?" the Metropolitan Transit Authority in the Big Apple tweeted.

The rail system, used by an estimated 700,000 riders each day, is a vital "people-mover," and is especially important to the legions who lived in the neighbouring suburbs of neighboring Virginia and Maryland.

Metro tried to lessen the pain by adding buses to some routes and offering free parking in its lots and garages for those carpooling and as a rendezvous point for those taking taxis or buses.

The unprecedented system-wide inspections were scheduled after an electrical fire in a subway tunnel led to system-wide backups and raised concerns about a possible widespread infrastructure problem.

Ripple effects from the shutdown were felt throughout the Washington area.

Federal offices remained open but employees were given the option of taking unscheduled leave or working from home.

Meanwhile, the city's public bike-sharing service waived membership fees.

The popular Smithsonian museum system, among Washington's premier tourist attractions, pushed back its opening times a couple of hours to give employees time to make their way to work.

US lawmakers in the nation's capital - especially those from neighboring Maryland and Virginia - also expressed displeasure.

"#MetroShutdown during a weekday w/ minimal notice is unacceptable & untenable," tweeted Ben Cardin, a US senator from Maryland.

It is just the latest round of bad publicity for the Washington Metro, which has 91 stations and began operating in 1976.

In January last year, a woman died and dozens of people were injured after thick smoke filled a metro tunnel during evening rush hour due to an electrical malfunction.

The whole system - along with all buses - also closed for an entire weekend during the "Snowzilla" blizzard that bombarded much of the US East Coast in January.

Then on Monday this week, a cable fire erupted in a tunnel, sparking major delays on three lines - and ultimately the decision to shut the system down.