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How can Metro make Yellow Line service clearer?

With the start of Rush Plus service last year, Metro riders know they can now get the Yellow Line north of Mount Vernon Square at rush hour. But many are surprised to find that they can only catch it every 20 minutes.

Metro hasn't done a whole lot to clarify the situation, and the outcome is confusion and wasted time for some riders.

The current map shows the Yellow Line as a solid line running between Huntington and Fort Totten. Dashes continue north to Greenbelt and west to Franconia-Springfield, showing "rush only service." Most have interpreted this to mean that Yellow Line trains run from Huntington to Fort Totten, except during rush hour, when they're extended to Greenbelt and Franconia.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. How could we make the map clearer?

In reality, 77% of rush hour Yellow Line trains only run between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square. Service north of Mount Vernon Square, and west of King Street, only runs every 20 minutes. This means someone transferring from Red or Green to Yellow at Fort Totten might incur a wait of 15 or 20 minutes longer than if they'd transferred at Gallery Place.

Graphic by the author.

The charts above show the number of southbound trains at Fort Totten and Mount Vernon Square. As you can see, at Fort Totten there is 1 Yellow Line train for every 3 Green Line trains in each of the 3 hours between 6am and 9am. Compare that to Mount Vernon Square, where for the 10 Green Line trains, there are 13 Yellow Line trains.

At Fort Totten, transferring passengers may have to wait up to 20 minutes for a Yellow Line train. At Mount Vernon Square, on the other hand, passengers never have to wait more than 6 minutes, and sometimes the interval between Yellows is as little as 4 minutes.

The change

In June of last year, Metro introduced a new map to go along with new service patterns. The changes, dubbed "Rush Plus," send some Orange Line trains to Largo and some Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt during rush hour. These changes were not implemented to add service to Largo and Greenbelt, but to help balance the number of trains at Rosslyn, which has reached its maximum throughput of 26 trains per hour.

By moving 3 trains per hour from the Blue Line to the Yellow Line, Metro was able to add 3 more Orange Line trains. This will be even more important when the Silver Line opens early next year.

For the Yellow Line, there was essentially no change. During rush hours, trains from Huntington leave every 6 minutes and run only as far as Mount Vernon Square, just like before Rush Plus was implemented.

The big change was to the Blue Line. Trains still leave Franconia every 6 minutes. But instead of sending 10 trains per hour to Largo, now, only 7 go to Largo. The other 3 are now called Yellow Line trains, and they run to Greenbelt. They are the only Yellow Line trains that operate during rush hour north of Mount Vernon Square.

Graphic by the author.

Metro is forced to keep this convoluted service pattern for a few reasons. The primary reason is a lack of railcars. In order to run all Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt during rush hour, they would need to purchase 60 additional railcars.

Mapping Yellow

When Metro was designing the new map, they struggled with how to depict the section of the Yellow Line between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten. Prior to the Rush Plus map, the Yellow Line was shown with a solid line for its entire length, despite only running to Fort Totten off-peak.

With the new Rush Plus service pattern, during off-peak times, the Yellow Line would continue to serve the segment between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten. But during rush hour, those trains would only run between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square. However, a few new trains would run between Franconia and Greenbelt.

That means that, technically speaking, the tracks between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten would have Yellow Line service at all times. Counterintuitively, there is more Yellow Line service during middays than at rush hour.

One alternative that Metro considered for displaying the Franconia-Greenbelt "Rush Plus" service was using a new color. But for several reasons, that was a less than ideal approach. Showing the service as a branch of the Yellow Line was an elegant solution.

In the end, Metro decided to show the service as a solid line between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten, but dashed north of Fort Totten. However, this is misleading. Even more than a year after the introduction of the service, I still regularly encounter riders confused about why they have to get off their northbound Yellow Line trains at Mount Vernon Square, and others who wonder why the wait at Fort Totten is so long.


I don't think Metro needs to use a separate color to indicate the Franconia to Greenbelt service. Using the color yellow is still the easiest way to show the route. But there are other things Metro could do to cut down on the confusion.

Dashing the line north of Mount Vernon Square would be an excellent indicator that riders should expect more limited service in the area. It would also call attention to the location of Mount Vernon Square, which is the only terminal station located in the crowded central portion of the map. A dashed line does not have to indicate "rush only" service. It could be labeled as "part-time" service.

Metro should also consider discouraging riders from transferring to the Yellow Line at Fort Totten, at least during peak hours. Right now, many train operators on the Red Line and southbound Green Line trains announce Fort Totten as a transfer point to the Yellow Line.

Though it has some of the worst crowding issues in the system, Gallery Place is a better place for riders to switch trains because the wait for a train is shorter. And because the travel time is similar between Fort Totten and Gallery Place on the Red or Green lines, doing so won't overly burden passengers.

Until Metro can buy more railcars, the Yellow Line will continue to have a complicated service pattern. But riders shouldn't have to wait 20 minutes for a train because they don't know about other options.

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. Heís a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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But off-peak yellow line trains periodically go to Greenbelt as well. While I don't think it's a great idea either, having a "new" line that travels from Greenbelt to Springfield or numbering the yellow line terminus may solve some of the the problems.

by Randall M. on Sep 16, 2013 12:30 pm • linkreport

Something as simple as a freaking sign inside each Yellow Line station explaining how the Yellow line works would be super helpful, especially at Mount Vernon Square.

by kob on Sep 16, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

what do people think about changing the color of a train mid way? what if a train was blue until L'Enfant and then turned green?

by sbc on Sep 16, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport

That graphic is how the station lists on the on-platform pylons should look. Those things are tough to interpret even when you know how to read them.

by Another Nick on Sep 16, 2013 12:38 pm • linkreport

If you dash the yellow line from Mt Vernon to Ft Totten shouldnt you also dash the Blue line from Pentagon to Rosslyn(or in fact the whole way?)

There are the same number of yellow line trains serving Shaw at all hours than there ANY trains serving Arlington Cemetery during rush hour. When the silver line is added there will be more yellow line trains serving Shaw than any trains serving Arlington Cemetery.

by Richard B on Sep 16, 2013 12:38 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure if this is a stupid question, but why doesn't WMATA terminate Rush Plus yellow trains at Mt. Vernon Square and run a few more green trains instead?

This would simplify things quite a bit. Would it over-burden the stretch between Mt. Vernon and L'Enfant?

by Gray on Sep 16, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

Or, you know, WMATA could buy the damn railcars and build a pocket track and actually improve the service.

by MetroDerp on Sep 16, 2013 12:49 pm • linkreport

@Gray: the reason the Yellows are so useful is because they take you to Virginia. If WMATA is serious about trying to get people to switch from the Blue Line to the Yellow, they can't cut that service.

by MetroDerp on Sep 16, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport

I even get confused by the yellow line and I live on it. I say dash it all the way from Mt. Vernon to Green Belt and add a Rush Only notice. Rush Plus is just a confusing term.

by BTA on Sep 16, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport


Short story is they are buying more cars, but they got delayed due to the Tsunami in 2011.

by BTA on Sep 16, 2013 12:55 pm • linkreport

This is a total shameless self plug, but I cooked up a theoretical metro map redesign where I proposed one way of indicating this service adjustment:

by pdovak on Sep 16, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

@MetroDerp: I wasn't proposing cutting yellow sign service to VA. I am questioning, though, whether providing direct service (at low frequency) to VA from Shaw, U St, Columbia Heights, Petworth, and Ft Totten is worth the added complexity.

by Gray on Sep 16, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

Obvious correction: yellow LINE, not sign.

by Gray on Sep 16, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson-thanks for this. i agree its a major deficit in communication.

If the service is not a rush hour or peak headway (every 4-6 mins) then it should NOT say "rush hour service". It should say "service 7-9AM & 4-7PM (whatever peak hours are) every 20mins." And the other part of the YL line should be labled "peak and non-peak regular headways"

Its so misleading to label the service as "peak only" but not have peak level headways especially when one is paying peak fare! I didn't know this was the schedule until the other day in a comment thread about the new map MJ mentioned it.

by Tina on Sep 16, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

@pdovak-like the map a lot -but the legend for YL line service "reductions" and "additional service" is still very misleading.

The line above says ~"6min headways on most lines during peak", then YL "additional service during peak" is indicated -thus the reader thinks the additional YL service during peak has 6min headways. there is nothing to indicate there would be an exception. To communicate effectively there must be information that the additional YL peak service does not opperate on the normal peak headway.

by Tina on Sep 16, 2013 1:30 pm • linkreport

@Gray: The 7th St subway (shared Yellow/Green) is pretty much at capacity. The 7th/Mid-City subway and the 14th Bridge need the capacity, not the Greenbelt and Branch Ave ends. Hence, a few Yellow Line trains get brought up through the Mid-City subway to Ft. Totten to add capacity.

In other words, you can't run more Green Line trains because there isn't room in the 7th St tunnel, between MVS & Waterfront, for them.

by Payton on Sep 16, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

now that we are in the realm of three lines running in one tunnel(at least on the display) the rush+ trains north of Ft Totten could be recolored to green and then they would cross the potomac instead of the anacostia and would be shown running with yellow and blue down near DCA.

by Richard B on Sep 16, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

Lines are colored more or less by destination. Going to Glenmont? Red. Going to Vienna? Orange. Going to Largo? Blue or Silver. Going to Greenbelt? Green

These trains go to Greenbelt, they should be Green Line trains. This would create the following changes:

1. We already have a precedent for three lines sharing the same track (Orange, Blue, Silver from Rosslyn to Stadium-Armory so it's not much of a stretch to have Blue, Yellow, Green-Rush (Dashed) to share King St-Pentagon.
2. Fort Totten to Greenbelt would just be Green
3. Mt. Vernon to Fort Totten would be shaded a new pattern to indicate off-peak only service.


by Jared Christian on Sep 16, 2013 2:11 pm • linkreport

I think it'd be appropriate to simply make the terminal stations a bit more prominent on the map.

Remember that any changes here would should also affect the Grosvenor-Silver Spring trains that run during rush hour.

That being said, I'm not sure that extended Mt Vernon->Greenbelt service is really worth the extra ~$60 million investment (plus operational expenses). Especially with the new Rush+ trains, this portion of the city gets pretty decent service during rush hour, and the trains aren't too full.

The short-turn trains make sense on the Red Line, and I think that they also make just as much sense on the Green/Yellow lines.

by andrew on Sep 16, 2013 2:14 pm • linkreport

Use a different color. It really is that easy. The current map with the dashed lines is unclear and not fit for the purpose,

by renegade09 on Sep 16, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport

If Metro is going to continue with these more complicated service patterns, then Metro needs to move away from naming services solely based on colors.

by Alex B. on Sep 16, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport

I agree another color is needed. One color is trying to be the unifying entity of five different destinations. There is just no way to clearly convey that to everyone.

On the other extreme, if a Metrobus route takes as much as a two block deviation when going from the same origin to the same destination as another service pattern, it gets a unique route number, hence all the complicated timetables such as the Q and Y lines.

I feel that is overkill, but there has to be some sort of sweet spot.

by A. P. on Sep 16, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

Why don't they call them Blue Line trains to Greenbelt and then provide the headways for those? It would complicate the map slightly (a dashed blue line would have to go through the entire length of the line), but it makes the most sense to me (note: I live on the Huntington end of the Yellow and so, that is my frame of reference).

by Thad on Sep 16, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

"Why don't they call them Blue Line trains to Greenbelt and then provide the headways for those?"

Because it would be much too confusing to have one Blue Line cross another Blue Line at L'Enfant Plaza. As confusing as the current route designations are they're probably the least bad alternative, notwithstanding the need for more clarity about service frequencies.

by jimble on Sep 16, 2013 3:52 pm • linkreport

This problem with the yellow line is simply evidence of the larger capacity problem within the Metrorail system. Adding new colors or other identifying information will help in the short-term but ultimately it's as productive as sifting deck chairs on the Titanic.

by Randall M. on Sep 16, 2013 4:53 pm • linkreport

We can all agree that what really needs to be done is acquire new rolling stock and build a pocket track at Fort Totten, but really: even if WMATA announced at 5:30 this afternoon "we're going to buy trains and improve trackage to allow regular Totten turnarounds," it wouldn't be done until ~2018 or so at the earliest (rolling stock takes a long time to procure). So yeah, we need an interim solution.

I for one greatly dislike the Wyman maps, and support ones like Cameron Booth's (, the winner of the popular vote for the "Redesign Metro Map contest" in the sidebar . A map in that style could fit 3 lines abreast fairly easily. Obviously that's not going to happen, because WMATA loves the status quo, so what can we do instead? The current service isn't remotely clear, and adding the Green Line from Pentagon-King Street takes up a lot of space on the already crowded map. So why not make a thin line of Green inside the Yellow from L'Enfant to Franconia? I'm thinking of something like Map R ( from the contest, but in the style of the current maps (and with indication in the legend that Franconia service is rush only, and Yellow goes to Fort Totten off-peak).

by ImThat1Guy on Sep 16, 2013 5:05 pm • linkreport

*Green inside the Yellow from L'Enfant to King, then inside the Blue until Franconia, or inside the Yellow over the Long Bridge and the Blue from there on out. My previous wording might've implied that we should keep the Yellow Line on the map from King to Franconia.

And obviously the above plan would come with current "Rush Plus" Franconia-Greenbelt trains being signed as Green trains rather than the current Yellow.

by ImThat1Guy on Sep 16, 2013 5:09 pm • linkreport

To be blunt for a minute what needs to be done is include a big ass bubble or asterisk that clearly explains everything.

Either there needs to be explaining of when trains are not going the full route as pictures or there needs to be another color added.

They need a bubble or something on every map near Mt Vernon Square that states which hours the Yellow Line will operate to where

It could be the Yellow Line will operate between the following

Mt Vernon Sq to Huntington from XX to XX

Ft Totten to Huntington from XX to XX
(last train from Huntington to Ft Totten or beyond is at XX)

Greenbelt to Franconia Springfield from XX to XX
(Last train from Franconia to Greenbelt is at XX)
And the same for the Red Line and Orange Line

WMATA loves to put that on bus maps and schedules why the rail map

If they can not achieve that in some way that is clearly visible they need a new color. Because at this point it is almost false advertisement

by kk on Sep 16, 2013 5:29 pm • linkreport

You posted that Yellow Line service north of MVSq is every 20 minutes during rush hours, but according to the schedule you posted, it is actually every 18 minutes.

by NS on Sep 16, 2013 5:38 pm • linkreport

Wow, until I read this I had no idea that's how the yellow line operates. The official map is very misleading.

by AL on Sep 16, 2013 5:44 pm • linkreport

Great map pdovak. Really like the look. A modern take and a lot of throwback to the current map. Very good.

by Sherman Circle on Sep 16, 2013 6:22 pm • linkreport

@pdovak, hate to be negative, but that map has *way* too many angles. For a system as simple as Metro, 45 degree angles provide more than enough options. Otherwise, it's really good. It kind of reminds me of the Booth map I linked above, but slightly more true to the current maps. On a more positive note, the multi-line non-transfer stations are *awesome*, even though I'm not generally a fan of spacing between lines. Though, the transfer stations, IMO, could use a bit of work.

by ImThat1Guy on Sep 16, 2013 6:30 pm • linkreport

Thanks to everyone who commented on my map! The project is definitely a living one, and I will take all of the inputs into consideration for the next iteration. Cheers!

I agree with the original posting, that the Yellow line's unique running pattern is very hard to display graphically, and moreover pretty hard to explain simply enough for someone to understand at first glance. Honestly, for that reason, I think WMATA's solution is a perfectly valid one. It may cause confusion for some, but you're not going to dispel that confusion with just a call-out box.

Consider that even Cameron Booth, winner of the map redesign contest, abandoned the idea of displaying a unique Yellow Rush+ line for its entire length on his final version: It just might not be worth the trouble!

by pdovak on Sep 16, 2013 11:52 pm • linkreport

"Dashing the line north of Mount Vernon Square would be an excellent indicator that riders should expect more limited service in the area."

Agreed. It gets the message across to the less metro savvy with the least clutter: If you are on a northbound yellow don't count on it continuing past Mt. Vernon, and if you want a southbound yellow seek it at Gallery Place not Ft Totten.

by jonglix on Sep 17, 2013 8:38 am • linkreport

Matt you make some good points. However, once the Silver Line opens, the number of Rush Plus trains will increase from 3 per hour to 6 per hour. That will mean Yellow line Rush Plus service to/from Greenbelt will be every 10 minutes instead of every 20 minutes. I think that solves many of your concerns about the map. When the Silver Line launches revenue service, service to Ft. Totten (and beyond) will be every 10 minutes which while not optimal makes modifying the map less pressing.

by Dharm Guruswamy on Sep 17, 2013 10:20 am • linkreport

It's time Metro to go the NYC/MTA route and start using numbers or letters to identify the various Rush Plus routings on the Blue/Green/Yellow/Silver/Orange lines. That should alleviate some of the confusion of which train goes where. My idea would number each rail line which each variation getting their own route number like this:
1-Red Line
2-Blue Line
3-Orange Line
4-Silver Line
5-Green Line
6-Yellow Line [Mt. Vernon(peak)Ft.Totten-Huntington]
7-Yellow Line [Greenbelt-Franc/Sprgfld]
The Yellow line service would have it's own separate designator with the 6 being the regular rush-hour Yellow Line and the off peak extension to Ft. Totten, and the 7 doing the peak hour Greenbelt-Springfield run. Metro could issue separate timetables for each route [online] and passengers could know the schedule of each route.

by Mark DeLoatch on Sep 17, 2013 11:46 pm • linkreport

The problem with the communication re: the YL line north of MVS is that it is called "rush plus" & only runs during rush -- thus both its name and the time of its service strongly imply it has rush hour headways when it does not.

There HAS to be text indicating that this rush hour train does not have the normally expected rush hour service DURING RUSH.

by Tina on Sep 18, 2013 8:27 am • linkreport

I can't help but wonder if this isn't something that could be solved by switching the Blue and Yellow lines entirely to be like they were originally designed. I'm not familiar with the logistics, but it seems to me most people coming from Springfield are headed downtown along the route 395 would take them.

I've also commented about this before: if the dashed lines were made narrower so that it were half the width of a regular subway line, I think the lower-frequency service would be much clearer. It should really be more of an afterthought -- most people won't actually benefit from "Rush Plus," a doublethink name that was come up with to soften the impact of fewer Blue Line trains going to Rosslyn.

by Omar on Sep 18, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

I must also refer to Map C from the Metro map redesign contest: treating all peak service equally on all the lines would help reduce confusion as to what is meant by "peak service" (a change in destination, not increased frequency).

by Omar on Sep 18, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

Why not just publish a damned schedule since it has got too confusing for a simple map? Fact is, if you want to travel the yellow line north of Mt. Vernon Square at rush hour, you're more or less taking a chance. Just let us know which damned trains go to where and when. Why do they keep this a secret in the first place?

by Scott on Sep 21, 2013 1:17 am • linkreport

The Yellow line service pattern is no doubt difficult to display on a map, but by your reasoning isn't it also misleading to display the Red line as a solid line all the way to Shady Grove and Glenmont when half the trains during rush hour go only as far as Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring? Why are riders not confused about why they have to get off at those stations?

Also, how would displaying the Yellow line as a dashed line north of Mt. Vernon Square inform riders unfamiliar with the system of when they can actually take the Yellow line to any of those stations? As it stands, the map makes it clear that the dashed lines indicate rush only service. Dashing the Yellow line north of Mt. Vernon Square would actually be more misleading in my opinion because it would then appear that the Yellow line does not always run to Ft. Totten, which is simply not the case.

by Joe on Sep 21, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

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