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"Expressing" trains helps Metro recover from delays

"This train will not service Brookland." If you've ever ridden Metro during a delay, you've probably heard some variation of these words. That's because Metro is "expressing" your train, meaning it's skipping stops to recover.

Graphic by the author.

We recently discussed "schedule adjustments" as a way Metro tries to mitigate delays. While schedule adjustments keep headways more even, which both guards against overcrowding and bunching as well as mitigates waits for people ahead of delayed trains, skipping stations allows the delayed train(s) to catch up.

Small windows of time can make a systemwide difference

Skipping a station can save a train about a minute. Every minute counts, both for minimizing overall delays in the system and keeping delays from creeping into the opposite direction.

In the graphic above, if the delayed train were 11 minutes behind and ran express through, say, NoMa and Brookland, it'd make up two minutes on its way to Fort Totten. It would also increase the gap from the train behind from one minute to three minutes.

This technique is also used to cut delays down during unscheduled single-tracking. We explained that use last year.

When they reach the end of a line, most trains turn and run in the opposite direction. There is generally a scheduled layover (called "recovery time") that lasts between half of the headway and the full headway.

That means a train with a scheduled layover of six minutes has that amount of time before it needs to return inbound. If it's 10 minutes late, it's going to be delayed in the other direction even if it turns around and leaves immediately when it reaches the end of the line.

What about passengers whose stations get skipped?

Of course, the cost of skipping stations is that passengers who want to board or alight at the skipped station have to wait for the next train, which can cost them a few minutes.

Most of the time, though, trains are stacked up behind the delayed train, and when that's the case the extra wait is only a minute or two. While it's inconvenient for passengers who need to get off at one of the stops their train is skipping to disembark and then take the next train, the actual delay is rarely huge.

Metro usually only skips more lightly used stations. I've been riding the northern end of the Green Line daily since 2007. When train operators are told to skip stops there, it's almost always West Hyattsville and/or College Park. They almost never skip Prince George's Plaza because so many more people use it than the other two. They don't skip Fort Totten because it's a transfer station, and Greenbelt can't be skipped because it's the terminal.

Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 51

On Tuesday, we posted our fifty-first photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took five photos in the Metro system. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 19 guesses. Five of you got all five. Great work, Peter K, Patrick, MZEBE, Mr. Johnson, and Justin....!

Image 1: Tysons Corner

The first image shows the lower level entrance at Tysons Corner station. Most of you were able to immediately recognize that this was a Silver Line station based on the newness, the signage, and the design finishes. But the only station that has a "spiral" staircase like this is Tysons Corner.

Several of you guessed McLean and Spring Hill because they have mezzanines below the tracks, and the arrangement here clearly directs passengers up to trains. But while Tysons Corner's mezzanine is above the tracks, there is an entrance underneath, which is a unique arrangement in the system. Riders entering here go up two levels (with an escalator landing (featured in week 20) to the mezzanine and then back down to trains.

Update: The number of correct answers was inadvertently deleted during editing. Thirteen people guessed correctly on this clue.

Image 2: Dunn Loring

This picture shows the platform at Dunn Loring. The main clue here is the bridge in the distance. It's a ramp that carries traffic from the northbound HOT lanes on I-495 to the westbound HOV lane on I-66. It passes over the Orange Line just east of the platform. Because of the ramp, the wall on the left is much taller than the wall on the right side. It also slopes down along with the ramp.

Even without the added height for the ramp, the walls at Dunn Loring and East Falls Church are much higher than the platform walls at other stations, mainly to block out the noise from traffic along I-66. Fifteen of you got this one correct.

Image 3: Rhode Island Avenue

The third image shows the bridge from the north side of Rhode Island Avenue to the eponymous station. The bridge crosses the street on a slope, and is directly underneath the platform. The rounded fencing gives it a distinctive shape. The circular ramp where the bridge lands on the north side was featured in week 44. Fourteen of you figured this one out.

Image 4: Anacostia

For the fourth image, you needed to reflect on things to find the answer. There were two main clues. First, since this is clearly a subway station (given the lighting), it has to be Anacostia, because that's the only underground station that has straight walls next to the tracks. The rest of the underground stations have vaulted walls.

But the primary clue is the ceiling, which is reflected at top left and top center. Anacostia has a unique ceiling with small semicircular mini-vaults running perpendicular to the tracks. It's one of the unique stations in the system, and we featured it in week 7, week 8, and week 21. Fourteen of you reflected correctly.

Image 5: Shady Grove

The final image shows the eastern entrance to Shady Grove. The watercourse here, Crabbs Branch, runs through a small greensward between the north parking garage and the east bus loop, and it seems to come straight out of the eastern entrance. It's not the only waterway near a Metro entrance, but it's probably the most obvious one. If you didn't recognize it, it's also clearly visible on aerial images.

At far left, you can just see a stairwell for the north garage. Only five of you (the same five that got all five) figured this one out. Better luck next time!

Thanks to everyone for playing! Great work. Stay tuned. We'll have five more images for you next week.

Mary Cheh's annual joke budget memo mocks the streetcar, endless transportation studies, and more

Each year, as the DC Council considers the District's budget, Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff issue fake recommendations that satirize recent news. This year's poke even sharper fun than usual at a number of issues around transportation, Eleanor Holmes Norton's parking, the Vince Gray prosecution, and many others.

Bookshelf image from Shutterstock.

On the streetcar, for instance, they "suggest,"

Transfer $500,000 million from the District Department of Transportation to the Commission on Arts and Humanities. This transfer will be used for an innovative, progressive, and transformative production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
That wasn't even the harshest cut at DDOT, though. As we prepared to talk to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, a lot of you suggested questions about DDOT's apparent habit of conducting a study, then conducting another one a couple of years later, and so on.

This has been a particular source of ire for Capitol Hill residents who have been waiting years for traffic calming on Maryland Avenue, or supporters of a bus lane who wonder why there has to be another study this year to implement a bus lane that was the subject of at least two earlier studies. Commenter Jimmy, for instance, wrote:

Some of us actually refer to his agency as DDOTS (District Department of Transportation Studies). While some study is necessary to avoid ready-fire-aim debacles like the streetcar, use of "further study" (on bike lanes, bus lanes, bus signal priority, and pretty much everything else that doesn't move more cars faster or provide more parking for private automobiles) has clearly become a delaying tactic. What can be done about this? How can we move forward on things that have already been studied to death?
Cheh and her staff feel your pain. Their budget "recommendation":
Transfer $1.5 million from the Department of General Services—what's another million and a half, anyway—to the District Department of Transportation to conduct a study. It has recently come to the Committee's attention that DDOT has had issues in implementing previously conducted studies. Despite extensive work being done to study traffic calming measures on Maryland Avenue, the agency is about to initiate another study. Additionally, despite conducting a study in 2013 on a 16th Street Bus Lane, DDOT will shortly begin a new study on the topic.

To assist in reducing redundant redundancies, the Committee recommends that the funds be used for DDOT to study these studies. This endeavor will help keep the agency busy because the Committee has no doubt that two years from now they will scrap the study on studies and conduct a new study that studies the study on studies in a rather studious manner.


Eleanor Holmes Norton does not get off lightly. A video surfaced in March showing the Congresswoman trying to park between two other cars and somehow managing to end up diagonally in her space. Cheh and her staff "propose" a new Eleanor Holmes Norton Office of Parking and Driving to provide free taxi service for elected officials.

And speaking of federal activities, remember how US Attorney Ron Machen was looking into alleged campaign finance misdeeds from the 2010 Vincent Gray mayoral campaign? Machen charged a number of Gray staffers, but never seemed to find any evidence linking the mayor himself. Yet Machen, in an unusual step for a prosecutor, publicly said "there's there there," saying in essence that he was sure Gray was involved.

Gray lost the primary election, in large part because many people believed Machen, but nothing has happened since. Cheh and her staff caustically "suggest" funding a dictionary and a map for the US Attorney's Office so it can "determine where exactly is the there."

Other biting critiques in the memo include:

  • A recommendation about the DC Board of Elections printed entirely upside-down, a reference to the upside-down DC flag on the 2014 voter guide which BOE first pretended was intentional, then admitted had been a mistake.
  • That upside-down proposal suggests a primary date based on the lunar calendar to "enhance voter turnout and continue to make elections a part of the news cycle." DC had shifted its primary from September to April due to federal laws about getting absentee ballots to servicemembers overseas. But the turnout in 2014 hit record lows, so the council moved it back.
  • A budget allocation to make space for "all of Mayor Bowser's former staff and campaign aides" on the council. Bowser staffers Brandon Todd and LaRuby May won the two recent special elections, in Wards 4 and 8 respectively. Todd said he would be independent of Bowser and even, while campaigning, opposed her controversial DC Jail healthcare contract which Bowser had been pushing; days after winning, he decided he would support his former boss after all.
  • A new job training program for councilmembers forced out of office due to corruption.
  • Body cameras for councilmembers whose footage will be televised on a reality show, "Keeping Up with the Kouncilmembers."
  • A staffer to submit "all office supply orders" to Congress, given that Congress is so eager to get involved in DC's local affairs.
Cheh and her staff conclude with a suggestion that if you don't find her memo funny, you "participate in some recently-legalized activities" (i.e. smoke marijuana) and then you will "find it to be, like, totally the funniest thing ever."

"Schedule adjustments" can help cut Metro delays

If you've ridden Metro for any length of time you've probably experienced a "schedule adjustment," where the train holds for a minute or two at a station. Why does Metro do that?

Graphic by the author.

The basic answer is that your train has gotten too close to the train ahead of it or the following train has gotten too far behind. Schedule adjustments are a way that Metro keeps headways (the time between trains) consistent. And that's important because not having an even headway can lead to "bunching." Also, uneven headways can lead to customers getting stuck waiting for the delayed train.


Bunching is when a vehicle doesn't come for a long time and then several show up at once. The basic cause of bunching is that one bus or train gets slowed down for some reason, and that initial delay means that every stop down the line has more customers waiting to board than usual. That leads to longer dwell times at each stop.

Buses are particularly susceptible to bunching because all boarding happens through the front door, people have to pay when they board, aisles are narrow, and they can get stuck in traffic. Buses that get delayed fall behind, lengthening dwell times for riders waiting for the bus while also shortening the headway until the next bus, which now has fewer passengers to pick up.

The uneven passenger loads that come from bunching are hard on transit. One way that Metro curbs bunching on the rail system is by holding trains for schedule adjustments when they're getting too close to the preceding train.

In the center of the graphic above, you can see that the train running early is just one minute behind the preceding train. But the train behind is lagging by a minute because of the additional loading. So instead of a three minute gap between trains, it's doubled here to six minutes.

If Metro were to hold the early train by one minute, it would then be two minutes behind the preceding train and five minutes ahead of the following train, which is closer to the scheduled headway.

Shortening delays

Metro also uses schedule adjustments to help when there's a delay behind the one it's holding.

For example, let's say you're on a Glenmont-bound Red Line train approaching Fort Totten. The operator announces that due to a disabled train at Judiciary Square, you'll be holding three minutes at Fort Totten. You're probably wondering how a delay behind you can mean your train needs to wait.

Doing this allows Metro to mitigate the delay for people who've yet to board your train. Yes, everyone on your train will be delayed three minutes. But by holding the train, Metro allows the people who arrive at Fort Totten (and any downstream station) during the three minute hold to board. Without the schedule adjustment, those people would be stuck waiting for the originally delayed train to arrive, which could be quite a while.

Schedule adjustments also keep there from being too many people who need to board the first train to come through after the wait. Because it's been a while since the last train, the first train following the gap is often too crowded to board, which means it dwells at each station longer than usual, creating more delays. The downstream schedule adjustment clears some of those passengers off the platform ahead of the gap.

In the graphic above, you can see what it might look like without a schedule adjustment, where the last train before the gap is still three minutes behind the preceding train. But there's an eleven minute gap behind it.

With a schedule adjustment of, say, three minutes, the spacing between those trains would go from three and 11 to six and eight, which is much closer to the desired interval.

Metro can also "express" the lagging train to further reduce the gap, but that's a topic for another day.

Schedule adjustments aren't always pleasant, especially if you're already on the train. But they do help keep passengers who've yet to arrive on the platform from facing a long wait. In more serious delays, schedule adjustments can make a lot of sense. They're one tool that Metro uses to try and keep trains evenly spaced.

How well do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 51

It's time for the fifty-first installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

The answers will appear on Thursday. We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for the rest of you.

Update: The answers are here.

Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is blessed with over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap to visit. Here's a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.

The Smithsonian Castle garden. All photos by DC Gardens on Flickr.

Smithsonian Gardens

The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens, a collection of gardens in and around many of the museums on the National Mall that counterbalance the dark halls of fossils and spacecraft.

The Smithsonian Gardens are comprised of 12 distinct spaces. They range from the Victory Garden, a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Museum of American History, to the contemporary Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

You can get to all of the Smithsonian gardens by Metrorail and bus, and they're all free. A lot of them also host regular tours and other educational programming. The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden's tour, which is hosted by a horitculturist every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October, is one of the best.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall is the US Botanic Garden, a great place to enjoy native plants. In warm months, there is nothing more stunning than the blazing yellow-orange Amsonia with the National Museum of the American Indian in the background, and the glass conservatory is my place to get away from the long, dull gray of winter.

Mark your calendar: the Botanic Garden is open on both Christmas and New Year's Day, and it hosts a holiday garden railroad display.

Because the Architect of the Capitol runs the Botanic Garden rather than it being part of the Smithsonian, it can close unexpectedly, like when it hosts fundraisers for legislators. Make sure to check before you visit!

The US Botanic Garden.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If crowds aren't your thing, check out the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk the mile there, but the H6 and the 80 buses get you even closer.

The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays around Easter, but there are stunning roses in late May and early June, and later in the summer there are tropical gardens that even feature a few palm trees.

Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but it was infrequent and eventually ceased service a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance.

The National Arboretum.

Among the Arboretum's unique collections are the sun-filled Gotelli Dwarf Conifer Collection (dwarf being a very relative term) and Fern Valley, which is shady and full of ephemeral woodland wildflowersin the early spring. Also, the National Herb Garden includes hundreds of species of herbs and visiting is a scent-filled, interactive experience.

The Arboretum is run by the US Department of Agriculture, and in recent years it has been more about research than public outreach and education. But the new director, Dr. Richard Olsen, comes from a horticultural background rather than an administrative one, and local gardeners hope that means a change of focus.

The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is open every day of the year except Christmas. Recently, it was closed three days a week because of sequestration, but that didn't last thanks to fundraising by Friends of the National Arboretum.

The Arboretum's grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the metro to Deanwood and walk over.

Once there, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. A former waterlily nursery now a national park, this is the true hidden oasis of the city.

The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

The Aquatic Gardens are also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though, as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct midday sun. The best time to see them is during July and August.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. To get there, take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.

The Bishop's Close.

The secluded, walled garden is downhill from the south-facing side of the Cathedral, giving it a great view of the building. The garden itself is sunny and bright, which helps the roses and English-style perennial borders grow, but there are also some shady, quiet spots.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, local parks systems run Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, both of which are free to enter. Reaching either by transit takes a combination of Metrorail and bus, but they're both worth it if you're looking for an afternoon outside of the city. Of course, better access by transit would make these gardens even more valuable to their surrounding communities.

Green Springs Garden.

There's a lot more to gardens in DC than a once per year trip to see the cherry blossoms bloom. DC Gardens, a new local nonprofit, sprung up this spring to help spread the word about the city's great public gardens to both tourists and residents. On DCGardens' website, you'll find month to month calendars for lots of our public gardens, along with listings for events, festivals, and activities going on at each.

This post originally said the US Botanic Garden closes unexpectedly to host fundraisers for legislators. In fact, the Garden doesn't allow fundraisers of any kind.

Hogan stalls on the Purple Line, calls it too expensive

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has still made no decision on the Purple Line (or, if he has, is refusing to announce one) while calling the project's current costs "not acceptable."

Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr.

Hogan had been expected to decide around "mid-May," but told the Washington Post Friday that a decision would come "in the next month sometime." This further pushes off the possible schedule for private bids and then construction, which is now totally uncertain.

Hogan did say the cost would have to be "dramatically lower" to convince him to move forward. He said that "two miles of [the line] would fund our entire school construction for the entire state."

This argument about fiscal poverty rings very hollow when Hogan just lowered tolls across the state, costing about $54 million a year.

Since the Purple Line is $153 million per mile (for one-time construction), the school construction Hogan says costs the same as two miles of the line also costs only six years' worth of the foregone tolls. Hogan could have said he'd keep the tolls high for six years to fund school construction.

The line would actually cost the state of Maryland relatively little; the federal government will provide $900 million, Montgomery and Prince George's $220 million, and hundreds of millions from the private bidders. Two miles of the Purple Line cost would only pay for school construction if schools suddenly became eligible for federal transit funding and private bidders offered to foot some of the bill.

But what we're hearing is a sadly common refrain among anti-transit, so-called "fiscally conservative" politicians. They talk big about how important it is to save money, but really mean saving money by cutting things they don't like, usually in particular things that are associated with denser, walkable, perhaps more liberal areas.

Hogan's priorities are apparently, drivers first, then students, then transit riders.

Likewise, Hogan is choosing not to give credence to studies that show significant economic growth benefits for the Purple Line.

Pete Rahn, Hogan's transportation secretary and someone who at least appears to be making some effort to find a path to approval, said after talking with bidders, he believed the project could happen for about ten percent less money. Hogan hasn't said if that is "dramatic" enough for him.

In the Post interview, Hogan also talked about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whom Hogan considers a mentor. Christie also came into office and almost immediately canceled a major transit project that had been in the planning stages for many years. New Jersey lost a lot of federal funding, and worse yet, there's now no redundancy for commuter trains coming into Manhattan; shutting down one tunnel at a time for needed repairs will cripple commuting across the Hudson.

Hogan seems poised to make a similarly short-sighted blunder for Maryland. He himself summed it up best to the Post while talking about another matter: "It's challenging to change the mind-sets of folks that believe very strongly in what they're talking about."

Another whichWMATA retrospective

Thirteen months ago, we started a very popular series on the blog: whichWMATA. Over the last 50 weeks, we've featured 250 images from 83 stations.

Our first set of images ran on April 14 of last year, and we followed up with our first retrospective in October.

We've featured Gallery Place nine times. That's more
than any other station except L'Enfant Plaza.

In the last retrospective, I reflected that Metro's uniformity often made it difficult to find subject matter. In fact, somewhat prophetically, I said:

In Atlanta, for example, I could take a picture of blue glazed platform tiles and it could only be Garnett. But here, if I take a picture of the floor tiles, you can only narrow it down to 80 or so stations.
For our April Fools' series this year, the episode from week 45 was a bit harder than a usual whichWMATA.

A floor tile from week 45.

Over the past few months, we've also had a few themed rounds, including shapes (week 40), colors (week 43), and the original five stations in the system (week 44). While themed weeks are fun, they're also a bit harder to put together, so I can't do them every week.

Rest assured, there are more themed weeks in the works. But in many cases, I have to actually visit stations (often far-flung) and collect photos first.

Pentagon City from week 40.

Of course, I've had help. Since our last retrospective, we've run several sets of photos submitted by readers. In week 33, I used five fantastic photos from thisisjamesj. Not to be outdone, reigning champion Peter K submitted photos that we used in week 38, week 41, and week 46.

If any of you ever want to try your hand, feel free to submit photos to

Gallery Place from week 33. Photo by thisisjamesj.

It's hard to maintain a balance because many stations are far away, so I don't have as many chances to get to them to collect photos. I do have a few photos from almost every station, but it's definitely a slog to collect more.

Even so, the featured photos have been fairly even between Maryland and Virginia, with 28% and 29% of the share, respectively. Photos from DC make up 43% of the featured images.

In terms of line distribution, the Orange, Blue, Green, and Yellow lines are roughly tied at 15-16% each. The Silver Line, which opened after the series started, comes in at 13%. With 23%, the Red Line comprises the largest set of photos.

I hope you've enjoyed the series. I plan to keep it going for the foreseeable future.

As always, good luck! Thanks for playing!

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