As if the commuting to work in the Washington, DC area isn't terrible in and of itself (it is the second worst in the US after Los Angeles), yesterday two independent computer problems helped make it even less enjoyable.
First, the computerized traffic management system in Montgomery County, Maryland, a northern suburb of DC, had a major problem where over 750 traffic signals would not go into rush hour mode at 0300 Wednesday morning, causing both major morning and evening rush hour traffic problems. As of 2300 Wednesday night, traffic engineers still had not determined what was wrong with the system, but were hoping to have it working before the morning rush hour. The County is also offering free bus rides on the County's extensive Ride On bus system.
On top of that, the Washington Post reported that at 0245 Wednesday morning, a power failure caused a system-wide malfunction at the Washington Metro headquarters in Northwest Washington. This in turned caused a system-wide communications failure, as well as knocked out the use of the farebox system on buses, silenced Metro train station public announcements, took out Metro's Web site, and kept many commuters from using their debit cards to pay for fares, among other things. While no buses or trains were kept from running, it just added to the day's commuting mess.
Services on the Metro were returning by late morning and early afternoon.
The two incidents serve to highlight the fragility of and dependency on the region's IT infrastructure. In Metro's case, it was a single point of failure for a three-decades old power unit for which it did not have a back-up. In Montgomery County's case, the problem also was blamed by County officials on an aging traffic management system.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.