Washington, D.C.’s public transportation woes made international news on Mar. 16 after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority arrived at the unprecedented decision to shutter the region’s underground Metro system for an entire day in the middle of a busy work week.
In a city where the term “gridlock” usually describes intransigent members of Congress battling political opponents, panic set in after the announcement that Metro’s 700,000 daily commuters would be forced onto the capital’s streets the next morning if they had any hope of making it to work.
But with safety concerns the overwhelming priority after an electrical fire the day before, WMATA turned to the best of the best, IBEW journeyman wiremen, to quickly and correctly get the nation’s second-busiest subway system back up and running and serving the region’s customers.
On any given night, 60 to 65 IBEW electricians report to work at Metro, employed by Maryland-based signatory contractor C3M Power Systems. Some are assigned to ongoing construction and rehabilitation projects, and others perform electrical maintenance and repair across the system as needed.
WMATA released a video showing Metro inspectors and IBEW electricians at work during the shutdown. Screengrabs show some of the worst cable damage found, which was later repaired by IBEW wiremen working for C3M.
After the March 14 fire, the second incident in a little over a year, new WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld determined that every inch of the system’s 118 miles of track needed to be inspected to prevent a recurrence. That meant more than 600 of the jumper cables responsible for both fires needed to be checked and replaced if faulty, all in a little over 24 hours.
“We understand how important this system is to everyone in this region,” said C3M foreman and IBEW wireman David Manfredi. “Getting these repairs done quickly was important, but getting them done right and getting them done safely were the main priorities.”
Most nights, Manfredi leads a crew of nine or so IBEW electricians, but during the shutdown, he played the role of air-traffic controller and triage doctor, helping WMATA officials to prioritize electrical repairs and dispatching a team of 25 to 30 across the system.
Most of the inspection work was done by WMATA employees, but when problems were identified, and at least 27 “highest priority” issues were found according to Wiedefeld, the work of repairing the cables and electrical components called for expert IBEW wiremen.
“We have the best training out there,” said Washington, D.C., Local 26 member and C3M foreman Tarrick Luck, who spent both nights of the shutdown walking tracks and repairing problem areas. “It’s hard to imagine operating on a 750-volt third rail without it. It’s a fast-paced, dangerous job, but we’re prepared for it.”
Luck and Manfredi’s crews worked long hours, some pulling 12 and 14-hour shifts during the closure, but it’s all part of the job, Luck said. “We’ve got a responsibility to the people who rely on Metro in their daily lives. It’s important that when these people travel, they have to get there and back safely.”
And despite some recent public trouble that prompted WMATA to seek new leadership in Wiedefeld, both Manfredi and Luck insisted that the Metro system is in good hands.
“Metro is a fantastic system in comparison to a lot of others,” said Manfredi, who is in his fifth year on the job. “They really do have safety in mind, and it’s getting better every day,” he said, noting that outside contractors like C3M work hand-in-glove with WMATA every day to keep the system in operation.
Luck was impressed with how effective Metro leadership was during a difficult moment. “For things to have been as chaotic as they were with the last-minute announcement, everything behind the scenes went incredibly smoothly. Everybody really came together and got it done in time to reopen Thursday morning, just like they promised,” he said.
“We’re IBEW, and that means we take pride in the work we do,” Manfredi added. “We have families, and this union makes sure we can support them. But when you’re working for a system like Metro, it means all the families who rely on it to get them safely from place to place can be confident that our work is done right.”
Local 26 Business Manager Charles E. Graham, Jr., who represents the vast majority of IBEW electricians working in the Metro system, said he couldn’t be prouder of the hard work his members put in during the crisis. “Our members helped build the original system in the 1970s and they’ve been working on expanding and maintaining it ever since. A relationship doesn’t last that long unless you consistently do quality work. We’re proud to be a part of getting Washingtonians where they’re going.”