Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

A communications meltdown fully crippled the D.C. Metro Thursday night

January 27, 2012 - 05:10 AM
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Trains were delayed forever. (Photo: flickr/millerustad)

WMATA's website died, communications fell apart, train operators left trains to walk the tunnels, delays were staggering, and for hours no one heard a word from anyone at the transit agency. How can riders maintain confidence after January 26?

The nightmare began sometime around 11 p.m. and continued until the system closed. I sent WMATA chief spokesperson Dan Stessel a message seeking comment at 12:22 a.m. and as of 2:30 a.m., haven't heard anything back or observed any other communications response, whether press release, tweet, or alert. The website was down from before midnight until well after 1 a.m. I first saw return to life at 1:34 a.m. Yet no human voice supplied any insight into the baffling failure. The silence was, as one person said, deafening. "Hundreds if not thousands of tweets from across the region started flying in right after 11 p.m. on Thursday night," wrote Mike Rupert at his Local Gov Chat blog late last night. "Yet both the @wmata Twitter handle and the semi-personal Twitter handle of its chief spokesperson Dan Stessel @dstessel were absolutely silent. In just two hours, Metro has killed any goodwill they have earned over the past year. They’ll have to work twice as heard to earn all that back now."

(Updated at 8:38 a.m., to include Metro's answer) WMATA's Stessel replied to my message at 3:30 a.m., ultimately, and Metro does have a press release out on its operational website now. He ascribes last night to a combination of planned single-tracking on the Red, Orange, and Blue lines and a "power failure at our control center. He says:

As a result of this work, trains were already operating at roughly 30-minute intervals.

Then, due to a power failure at our control center, trains were held in stations for about 15 minutes on those three lines — due to the workers on the tracks. Green and Yellow continued to operate.

Trains were held at 11:54 p.m. for about 15 minutes. Systems came back online at 12:08 a.m.

Radio and signal systems are independent and remained online, but desktop consoles and computer systems were affected.

Preliminarily, the cause appears to be linked to a particular UPS.

But the rider reaction seems to suggest something a little more severe and longer lasting than this. Stessel says the system was offline for 14 minutes but some of the reports of communications failure seem to begin nearly an hour before that, and the website seemed out until after 1 a.m. Holding the trains on top of track work could create some of the 45-minute waits people talked about but doesn't speak to the extent of people's confusion I observed last night.

Here are the reactions as they played out in real-time, chronicled on Storify. Read through the night's chaos. The details are worth it and available after the jump.


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