Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 48

On Tuesday, we posted our forty-eighth 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 16 guesses. Six of you got all five correct. Great work, Peter K, JamesDCane, William M, Frank IBC, FN, and Mr. Johnson!

Image 1: Glenmont

The first image shows the eastern entrance to Glenmont station. Structurally, this is a unique escalator covering. But it's also distinctive because of the artwork Swallows and Stars tiled along the canopy supports.

Today, escalator canopies are commonplace on Metro because WMATA wants to protect the moving stairs from the elements. But before the agency started putting in the standardized glassy canopy, like the one at Virginia Square featured in week 40, they built unique canopies at new stations.

When Glenmont opened in 1998, it was among the first to get a canopy like this. Columbia Heights and Georgia Avenue followed in 1999. Congress Heights included an entrance pavilion similar to the Mid City stations two years later when it opened. Fourteen of you recognized Glenmont.

Image 2: Franconia-Springfield

The second image shows the roof of Franconia-Springfield. The structure, especially the width of the roof, should have told you this was a high peak station. But which of the four could it be?

The main clue was the vantage point. The photo is from the VRE overpass, which is higher than the roof of the station. Southern Avenue and Suitland both have overpasses leading to the station, but their escalator configuration doesn't allow this view. Six of you guessed correctly.

Image 3: East Falls Church

This picture shows the roof of East Falls Church looking up through a "hole" in the platform from the mezzanine. The roof type is general peak, and the perspective means the station's mezzanine is below the tracks. That eliminates six of the eleven stations of this type. Of the remaining five, only East Falls Church fits the bill.

The crossbars below the glass are closely spaced, which is only the case at East Falls Church, Dunn Loring, and Vienna. And as noted above, you can discount Dunn Loring and Vienna. The other clue is the railing visible at the bottom center of the photo. That's present only at East Falls Church, and you could (barely) see it in week 46. Eight of you got this one.

Image 4: Naylor Road

The fourth image shows the newest general peak station in the system, Naylor Road. This station is a bit different from the other stations because it has an extremely shallow glass peak.

Note how in the images above (East Falls Church) and below (Addison Road), the peak is angled at roughly 45 degrees, with a right angle at the apex. Compare that to Naylor Road, where the slope is probably closer to 20 degrees above horizontal and the apex is a very obtuse angle. Seven of you guessed correctly here.

Image 5: Addison Road

The final image shows the canopy at Addison Road. Like the last two images, it has a general peak roof. But Addison Road has a unique variant of the canopy. This is the oldest general peak station in the system, opening in 1980. All of the other general peak stations, except for East Falls Church and Dunn Loring, have two columns supporting the canopy on either side of the peak (see image 4).

Addison Road has a single row of columns centered under the peak. This unique element is the only real clue to solving the final image. And eight of you were able to solve the puzzle.

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

How well do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 48

It's time for the forty-eighth 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.

Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 47

On Tuesday, we posted our forty-seventh 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, you must have all been out looking for the first 7000 Series train instead of playing whichWMATA, because we only got 12 guesses. Two of you got all five. Great work, Peter K and Justin....!

Image 1: Spring Hill

The first image shows the view from the western entrance bridge to Spring Hill station. The mesh grating and new concrete viaduct make it clear that this is a Silver Line station. The configuration of the roadway, with the tracks in the median rather than off to one side, means that this is either Greensboro or Spring Hill. And you can narrow this down to Spring Hill because the bridge here is lower than the tracks rather than above them, which is the case at Greensboro. Nine of you got it right.

Image 2: Shady Grove

The second image shows the stair/escalator at Shady Grove; the first appearance of this station in the series. I thought this one was fairly obvious. The "next train" indicator means this is an end-of-line station. There are only two such stations with gull I roofs. And only Shady Grove has a staircase sandwiched between two escalators. Ten knew this one.

Image 3: West Hyattsville

The third image shows the south end of West Hyattsville station, viewed from the Northwest Branch Trail. The twin blockhouses that protrude into the top of the image indicate that this is a side platform station. The concrete structure in the foreground is a traction power substation (which provides electric power to the third rail). Few stations have these attached directly to the station (though many have one nearby).

The real clue here is the unique architecture of West Hyattsville (featured in week 8). But the park-like setting was also a clue. Only six of you guessed correctly.

Image 4: Federal Center SW

The fourth image was also a first-time whichWMATA station: Federal Center SW. The distinctive feature here is the green tile surrounding the opening. It accents the building, which houses the entrances to the station. The building itself takes up the entire block surrounded by 3rd Street, D Street, 4th Street, and Virginia Avenue SW. This particular photo shows the alcove housing the elevator. Four people got it right.

Image 5: Forest Glen

The final image proved hardest. Only two people got it right. It shows the Coleridge Drive/Georgia Avenue entrance to the Forest Glen station. The main entrance faces the bus loop and parking lot, but this entrance gives passengers a straight shot to the pedestrian bridges over the Beltway ramps south of the station.

The unique feature here is the metal grating above the staircase. The grating is in place because the staircase can be closed off with an odd curved grate at the top of the stairs. It prevents people from being able to climb down into the station when the gate is closed. It's unique in the system, but if you haven't used Forest Glen you'd probably be hard-pressed to recognize it.

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

Why did the pedestrian bridge collapse affect Metro so far away from Greenbelt?

Yesterday afternoon, a construction accident caused the collapse of the pedestrian bridge over the Green Line and CSX/MARC tracks in Berwyn Heights. The debris blocked the line between College Park and Greenbelt, disrupting many commutes. But why were there ripples as far away as Alexandria?

Image from Google street view.

Since the Green Line between College Park and Branch Avenue was unaffected, it's hard to comprehend how the bridge collapse would affect any commuters other than those going to Greenbelt. But if you consider how Metro uses its trains during peak hours, it's clear why the incident had such far-reaching consequences.

There were two major reasons that the collapse affected trips on the Green and Yellow Lines. The first is that Metro's largest rail yard is at Greenbelt. Since the collapse happened during midday, many of the trains that would have soon been heading downtown to collect commuters were trapped there.

The second issue is related to the first. With fewer trains, and because Metro decided to extend all Yellow Line trains to College Park, there simply weren't enough trains to provide the regular headway.

Trains couldn't leave Greenbelt

During rush hours, Metro runs most of the cars in its fleet. But at the end of rush hour, Metro sends many railcars back into the yard.

For example, during rush hours, Metro has about 17 trains in service on the Green Line. But after rush hour ends, the number of trains drops to about 9.

Yesterday, just before 3:00, the bridge collapsed just as Metro was about to transition from a midday to a rush hour schedule. Any trains that were north of the collapse were stuck there, including 60 railcars in the Greenbelt Yard, according to spokesperson Dan Stessel.

Those 60 railcars could have made up 10 6-car trains, which would've been assigned to both the Green and Yellow Lines. Suddenly, though, they were unavailable.

The Green Line also has a rail yard at the southern end at Branch Avenue. The Yellow and Blue lines share the Alexandria Yard, near King Street. But Metro doesn't keep enough cars in those yards to run full service.

Frequency, run time, and the number of trains are all related

Most people probably never think much about all the details that go into scheduling, but there's a basic equation that balances the frequency, run time, and the number of vehicles needed to run a given service.

As discussed above, the bridge collapse reduced the number of available trains. Obviously that will have an impact on the schedule. But the other thing that had an impact was extending the Yellow Line.

Figuring out how many trains (or buses) it takes to run a service is essentially as simple as dividing the cycle time by the desired headway.

For example, during the midday period, the Yellow Line runs from Huntington to Fort Totten. It takes a train 36 minutes to get from Huntington to Fort Totten, and 36 minutes to get back. If we assume a recovery/layover time of three minutes on either end, that gives us a cycle time of 84 minutes. That's how long it takes one train to run the route and be ready to go again.

Now, during this period, the Yellow Line runs every 12 minutes. That's the headway.

If we divide the cycle time (84 minutes) by the desired headway (12 minutes), we discover that we'd need seven trains.

If we change one of those variables, either of the other two (or both) variables must change as well. For example, if we want to double the frequency so we have a train every six minutes, we'd need 14 trains, double what we needed before.

Metro does this exact thing during peak hours. They double the frequency of the Yellow Line. But they also change a different variable: cycle time.

That's because during peak hours, the Yellow Line (not counting rush plus) only runs from Huntington to Mount Vernon Square. The cycle time is shorter (56 minutes), which means it only requires 10 trains to operate (instead of the 14 needed to run to Fort Totten).

Of course, the primary reason that WMATA doesn't run to Fort Totten during rush hour is because there's no pocket track there, and trains come too frequently (every 3 minutes) to have Yellow trains turn back on the mainline.

So what about yesterday?

What happened yesterday was a combination of changes to all three variables.

Because several trains were trapped north of the bridge, the number of available trains was lower than usual.

To help alleviate delay to customers headed for Greenbelt, and probably to deal with frequency issues north of Mount Vernon Square, Metro extended many or all (that's not entirely clear) Yellow Line trains to College Park. That lengthened the cycle time to about 96 minutes.

If Metro only had seven trains, a longer a cycle time of 96 minutes, would mean the headway on the line would become 13.7 minutes (instead of the usual six).

An example of how Yellow Line runtime and number of trains affects headway. Graphic by the author.

Now, Metro probably had one or two trains in Alexandria that they were able to put into service, which would shorten that headway a bit. I even saw a report on twitter that the #newtrain was switched over to the Yellow Line during the evening rush hour.

Dan Stessel indicated that other than an initial delay while the damage was being assessed, the Green and Yellow Lines ran close to on time. However I did see many tweets bemoaning extra long waits.

In addition to the changes to rail service, Metro put 20 buses into service to run the bus bridge between College Park and Greenbelt.

Hopefully this helps explain a bit about how the length of a train's round trip, along with how many trains (or buses) there are, affect how frequently they run. These examples are specific to what happened yesterday in Berwyn Heights, but the variables apply to the entire system.

For example, bus lanes and transit signal priority are ways planners try to shorten the cycle time, which allows more frequency with the same number of vehicles.

How well do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 47

It's time for the forty-seventh 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.

Want to ride the first 7000 series train? Here's when it will be at your stop

Tomorrow morning at about 7:12, the first 7000 series Metro train will depart Franconia-Springfield bound for Largo. If Franconia is too far afield for you, you'll find the #newtrain at the stations along the route at approximately the following times.

At the press unveiling last year. Photo by the author.

Franconia-Springfield 7:12
Van Dorn Street7:19
King Street 7:24
Braddock Road7:26
National Airport7:31
Crystal City7:33
Pentagon City7:35
Pentagon 7:36
Arlington Cemetery7:39
Rosslyn 7:41
Foggy Bottom7:44
Farragut West7:46
McPherson Square7:47
Metro Center 7:48
Federal Triangle7:49
L'Enfant Plaza 7:53
Federal Center SW7:55
Capitol South7:57
Eastern Market7:59
Potomac Avenue8:01
Stadium/Armory 8:02
Benning Road8:05
Capitol Heights8:08
Addison Road8:11
Morgan Boulevard8:14
Largo Town Center 8:17

The times shown above assume the train leaves Franconia-Springfield at 7:12. If there are any delays tomorrow morning, the train could arrive later than the listed times.

It's unclear whether Metro will send the train back in service from Largo, or when. But you may see it later in the morning, headed back to Franconia (or to Wiehle Avenue if it leaves Largo as a Silver Line train).

Automatic trains will return to the Red Line but still won't stop in the center of the platform

This morning, Metro started running eight-car trains in automatic mode on the Red Line once again. Six-car trains will resume in a few months once Metro can make a software change to make them stop at the end of the platform instead of the center.

Photo by the author.

The Metrorail system was built to start and stop trains at platforms automatically, but WMATA turned off the system in 2009 after the Fort Totten crash because of problems with the signaling system. WMATA has now finished rebuilding the signals on the Red Line, and other lines will follow in 2017.

Many riders had hoped the return to automatic operation would mean the end of the practice of stopping at the end of platforms, since it exacerbates crowding at many stations that have entrances at one end, especially at Union Station and Gallery Place.

I originally wrote about this in September 2014. The following is an updated version of that article.

At the time of the original article, Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel commented that six-car trains stopping at the head of the platform wouldn't be an issue because the agency hoped to be running 100% eight-car trains by 2020.

However, recent developments suggest that six-car trains may be around for many more years, since Maryland and DC now want WMATA to use the remainder of the 7000 series order to replace the 2000 and 5000 series instead of expanding the fleet.

Why do trains pull to the end of the platform?

The policy of requiring trains to pull all the way to the head of the platform instead of stopping in the center stems from a spate of events in 2008 and 2009 where the operators of 8-car trains forgot they were operating 8-car trains and stopped at the 6-car marker. This meant that the last car was still in the tunnel.

Prior to the 2009 collision, WMATA operated all 8-car trains in manual mode because upgrades that would stop trains more precisely hadn't been completed.

After operators opened their doors with the last car in the tunnel a few times, Metro only required operators to pull all the way forward on days when large numbers of 8-car trains were in operation (like for the Cherry Blossom Festival). After the system went to 100% manual operation in the wake of the Fort Totten collision, the practice became standard.

Most trains could have eight cars soon, anyway, making this moot

I asked Dan Stessel why Metro would continue the practice once ATO was turned back on. He says that for one, the other five lines will continue to operate under manual control, and some operators move between lines. Additionally, from time to time trains will be operated under manual control, so the agency wants to keep the practice standard.

Metro hopes to exercise its option for additional 7000-series railcars soon (assuming the contributing jurisdictions pony up the funding). If Metro succeeds at getting more railcars, by the time ATO returns to the rest of the system in 2017, Stessel says, Metro may be close to operating 100% 8-car trains anyway.

Why the computer can't open the doors

This is basically still necessary because Metro doesn't have a failsafe to keep forgetful operators from opening their doors when some cars are still off the platform. Without one, the agency doesn't feel safe trusting operators to know where to stop their trains.

There used to be a system that prevented operators from opening doors in the wrong place: they didn't usually open the doors at all. As recently as early 2008, Metro train doors opened immediately and automatically when a train was properly berthed in the station. But power upgrades created electromagnetic interference that disrupted this system, making doors occasionally open on the wrong side, so Metro had to turn it off.

To open the doors manually, the operator sometimes had to walk across the cab, adding some delay, but not that much. Unfortunately, some operators still occasionally opened the doors manually on the wrong side, leading Metro to require them to wait an extra five seconds and adding even more delay.

Return to ATO isn't fixing everything, but it's a good step

Without the auto-door feature and operators still stopping trains at the end of the platform, automatic train operation will be less of a victory than some had hoped for.

Still, the return to ATO will mean smoother rides for customers, less wear and tear on the railcars, and less energy consumption. It's also more efficient and generally quicker, which means that riders may see faster and more reliable trips in some cases.

The fact that Metro feels confident bringing back automatic trains on the Red Line is good for one very important reason beyond the customer experience, though: safety.

The underlying cause of the Fort Totten crash was a failure of the track circuit system that keeps trains spaced apart. Metro built a backup system to check for wrong-side failures like the one at Fort Totten, which reduced the probability of another crash. But all the track circuits and modules needed to be replaced to ensure that the crash circumstances couldn't recur.

That has now happened on the Red Line, and is about halfway complete on the rest of the system. It's a major step forward for the safety of riders on the system.

Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 46

On Tuesday, we featured the forty-sixth issue of our "whichWMATA" series. This week, all five photos were guest submissions from reader Peter K.

We got 35 guesses this week. Nine of you got all five correct. Great work Patrick, Andy L, MZEBE, Justin...., Aaron R, Chris H, Sandy K, FN, and Mr. Johnson!

Image 1: Morgan Boulevard

The first image shows an eastbound Blue Line train arriving at Morgan Boulevard. Above the tracks, you can see the mezzanine, which clearly exhibits the "Gull II" architecture that the three stations opened in 2004 have. But unlike NoMa and Largo, Morgan Boulevard's mezzanine is above the tracks. Twenty-eight of you got this one right.

Image 2: Brookland

The next picture shows the canopy at Brookland. The primary clue here is the curved roof. Only two stations have curved platforms (and therefore curved canopies): Brookland and Silver Spring. The curvature is greater at Brookland than at Silver Spring, and also you can't see any tall buildings here. Another clue is the Michigan Avenue overpass in the distance, and the perspective of the photo, which was taken from Monroe Street. Twenty-nine of you figured out this was Brookland.

Image 3: East Falls Church

The third image shows the platform at East Falls Church. This is a "general peak" station, as you can see from the line of skylights. But the real clue here is the full-height walls on either side. Only Dunn Loring and East Falls Church have full-height walls like this. You can tell that this isn't Dunn Loring because of the "hole" in the platform floor (by the group of waiting riders) where you can see down into the mezzanine. At Dunn Loring, the mezzanine is above the tracks. Twenty-six guessed correctly on this one.

Image 4: Waterfront

The fourth image shows Waterfront station. This one can only be Waterfront because of two attributes you can see here. First, from the pylon, you can see that this station is only on the Green Line (not the Yellow, too). From there, only two "waffle" stations have Green-only service. The neighboring station, Navy Yard, has mezzanines on either end, which you can tell this station doesn't. Twenty-seven hit the mark.

Image 5: Medical Center

The final image was the hardest. Even for me. Like the rest of you, I get to guess on the photos when Peter submits them (I give him my guesses and (so far) he tells me I'm right). But you can use the process of elimination to narrow this one down to Medical Center.

First off, this is clearly a mezzanine-to-street bank of escalators (because of the visible canopy at the top). It's also a very long bank, so this has to be a deep station without an intermediate distribution level (like at Cleveland Park and Van Ness). Only a few stations fit those criteria.

The only stations that do that and also have the escalator canopy are Dupont Circle (south) and Medical Center. Stations like Wheaton and Bethesda have escalators that land in a covered mezzanine, and Woodley Park's has a landing just below street level (to allow for a future entrance across Connecticut Avenue). And this can't be the south Dupont entrance because those escalators are silver, are close together, and have higher sides. Only 15 of you got this one right.

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

Thanks again to Peter K for submitting photos. If you think you have what it takes, email your photos to

Haikus capture tourists on Metro

It's April, and that means the tourists are coming out of the woodwork, especially on Metro. Since it's National Poetry Month, and to celebrate the Cherry Blossom Festival, I composed a series of haikus about the interaction between tourists and locals.

Spring on WMATA:
Tourists confused by faregates.
Commuters roll eyes.
Do-not-enter gate;
Find one with a green arrow!
Not complicated.

This is my ninth spring in Washington, and every year I get a somewhat rude awakening when the tourists suddenly appear in the last week of March. I was inspired to start the haikus last week when, getting on the Metro at Greenbelt, I encountered a tourist trying in vain to get through the faregates. Starting at the far right of the fare array, he was trying every single gate but couldn't get through.

Of course, that's because those are exit gates. I went up to him and showed him the do-not-enter symbol on the gate. But he just gave me a puzzled look. So I told him to "find one with a green arrow." Hopefully he didn't make the same mistake during the rest of his trip.

Copy the locals:
Tap my card on the faregate.
Alas! It's paper.
Stick the farecard in:
Pops out top slot. Gate stays closed.
Take card to open!

Since I get on Metro at an end-of-line station, I frequently see faregate problems because there are so many tourists making their first attempt at getting on Metro. Some tourists are savvy enough to try and copy the regulars, tapping their cards on the SmarTrip target. But sometimes that's not the right thing to do: like when they've bought a paper farecard.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

It's certainly easy to view these seemingly helpless tourists with derision and annoyance. But sometimes they bring happiness and amusement. Especially when watching what is probably a kid's first trip on a subway.

Stand on the left, right?
This train goes to the blossoms?
Clueless visitors.
Greenbelt: At line's end.
She asks: "Which track to downtown?"
They seem so helpless.
Eyes wide with wonder:
As the tunnel lights zip past.
Boy's first subway ride!
Mouth agape, eyes wide:
Awestruck by the high Weese vault;
Bumps right into me.

Of course, the tension between locals and tourists stems from the delays sightseers cause commuters, generally from ignorance.

At Metro Center;
Straphangers meet lost tourists.
Rush hour begins.
With matching t-shirts,
Groups of sixty-five or more:
Use only one door.
I am still sitting-
Doors have opened: wait wait wait!
This is my station!
Family of five;
Been sight-seeing on the Mall.
We'll take up eight seats!
Bing bing: Doors open;
Sight-seers blocking the way.
Why the angry glare?
Subway doors open;
My stop? Should I stay or go?
"Move!" "Move!" comes the cry!

For families from rural areas, riding transit for the first time can't be easy. Especially in a strange city.

Grosvenor? Where is that?!
I can't find it on the map.
Wait for "Shady Grove."
Mount Vernon Square:
Took Metro here, looking for-
Prez George's mansion.
Lines crissing, crossing:
Did Jackson Pollack paint this?
Decode the bus map.
They wait at the curb.
On a sunny Saturday.
Weekday only bus.

While tourists are mainly here to see the major landmarks and museums, I hope some of them venture out into some of the great neighborhoods in the city, too. To only see the sights on the Mall is to miss the real DC.

All the locals know.
Smithsonian's subway stop:
Avoid tourist turf!
Off to see the sights!
Mall, museum, Capitol.
Miss the real DC.

Can you come up with any haikus to describe seeing tourists wrestling with Metro for the first time?

How well do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 46

It's time for the forty-sixth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of 5 stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?

This week, all 5 photos come from reigning champion Peter K. If you're interested in submitting one or more of your own, please send them in!

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.

I'd also like to give a special thanks to Peter K for submitting photos. If you think you have what it takes, email your photos to

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