Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Chaos: Washington Metro and Venezuela

Today when people said “government is stuck in gridlock,” they meant it literally. Washington, DC, the capital of the United States, was more chaotic than usual today with the Metro system shut down for the entire day. The closure happened at midnight and the purpose was to look for loose electrical connections that could cause outages or, worse, fires, like the one that happened on Monday. The scary part is that electricians found 26 places where connections were so bad that they required immediate repairs to prevent a disaster. Those repairs have probably been completed at this hour, allowing time for testing before the planned 5 a.m. reopening. Metro will probably put an all-day closure on its calendar as an annual event, though likely on a Sunday in future years to minimize the disruption.

If a day in Washington with no Metro sounds bad, consider what’s happening in Venezuela. The government in that country has ordered a pre-Easter week-long shutdown of almost the entire country because of a shortage of electricity. The problem there is a drought, causing a gap in hydro power, on top of 20 years of neglected infrastructure investment and maintenance while official policy was directed toward expanding other sectors of the economy. Everyone is still trying to find out which businesses must close. If bakeries have to close, for example, there won’t be bread and people could go hungry, but it isn’t clear whether a bakery can legally operate during the emergency holiday. There isn’t much news because the government has suppressed hard news reporting for years, but social media reports hint at a very loose situation that could easily descend into nationwide chaos. However, the emergency vacation already seems to have alleviated the rolling blackouts and periods of low voltage that had shut off running water in some of the taller buildings. Venezuela’s economy is near collapse from low oil prices, and no one is taking for granted that basic services will come back after the week-long vacation.

Both the Washington Metro and the national electric grid in Venezuela are examples of the risky practice of postponing scheduled maintenance during times of financial stress. The past 13 years have been a financial squeeze for most of the world, so it’s a story that I’m sure is repeated in one way or another almost everywhere.