WASHINGTON, March 15 (Reuters) - The second-biggest U.S. subway system, which serves the nation's capital, will shut down for 29 hours starting at midnight EDT (0400 GMT) on Tuesday, leaving hundreds of thousands of federal government employees struggling to find a way to work.
Transit officials announced the unprecedented closure of the Washington D.C.-area Metro subway system for an emergency safety investigation of power cables after a cable fire earlier this week caused delays.
The second-biggest U.S. subway system will shut down from 12 a.m. EDT on Tuesday (0400 GMT on Wednesday) to 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) on Thursday.
Ed Etzkorn, a 43-year-old federal employee, said he had no idea how he and his wife, also a government worker, would get to work from their home in Washington.
"We're going to have to figure that out tonight," he said. "It's awkward for those of us who have to commute, but I understand they need to do what the need to do for our safety."
The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal workforce, said government offices would remain open. Congress will stay open as well.
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 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.
Safety supervision of Metrorail was placed under the Federal Transit Administration in October. It was the first time a U.S. subway system had been put under direct federal oversight for safety lapses.
Since the 1980s, the National Transportation Safety Board has conducted 11 investigations into Metro accidents that have killed a total of 18 people. A blizzard also paralyzed the system for days in January.
Under the vaulted and coffered ceiling of the main downtown Metro station, lighted red signs warned of the imminent shutdown and the mood ranged from sour to resigned.
"Safety first, but, I mean, it's a mess," said Theresa Spinner, a public relations specialist. She said the fire outage on Monday had stretched a 20-minute trip into a three-hour ordeal.
"I have a job interview tomorrow morning, and I already have reserved a cab," she said.
Because of the shutdown, absences at public schools will be excused and some charter schools may close, officials said.
(Writing by Eric Beech and Ian Simpson; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)