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A cheaper route to Metro core capacity, part 2: Virginia service patterns

One of the possibilities from Metro's core capacity study involves a short 9th Street tunnel from L'Enfant Plaza to Mount Vernon Square. That could be a cheaper way to add Metro capacity across the Potomac, the system's current bottleneck. It wouldn't add service to much-needed areas like the McMillan/AFRH area of DC, (though allowing that possibility in the future), but would address the impending overload of trains from Virginia once the Silver Line opens.

If we could run more trains over the 14th Street bridge, where would they go in Virginia? I can see two possibilities: convert the Arlington Cemetery segment to a shuttle train, or add connections to route the Silver Line over that segment as well as the Blue Line.

The shuttle train option

Click to enlarge.

The Blue Line could simply run over the 14th Street Bridge with the Yellow Line to the new section. Silver and Orange share some tracks, Blue and Yellow others, with no other merges. To replace Blue at Arlington Cemetery, create a shuttle train

To avoid having the shuttle merge and unmerge with Orange/Silver at Rosslyn and Blue/Yellow at Pentagon, Metro would need to add a new platform at each station. Probably this could work with just a single platform inside the station, with a switch as close as possible. Trains would come in, unload and reload, then reverse out to make room for another train. Such an arragement would limit the capacity on the line, of course. Ideally, the platform(s) would go right across the platform from one of the two existing tracks in each station, minimizing the walk necessary to tranfer.

Pros: This requires fewer merges than in the current arrangement. Also, all merges happen outside of the highest ridership core areas, minimizing delays.

Cons: Commuting from Alexandria to "Orangeton," or southern Fairfax to Tysons, becomes more difficult, requiring either two transfers or a trip through DC.

The new connections option

Click to enlarge.

Squalish got this one. In Metro's earlier core capacity study, they suggested adding some track connections for service flexibility. Those included a connection from Court House to the Arlington Cemetery tracks, and another one from the other end of those tracks to the 14th Street Bridge. If we built both of those, then the Silver Line could use the track in the opposite direction from the Blue Line, to get from Court House to L'Enfant Plaza.

Pros: There are lots of services going to lots of places. Riders along Rosslyn-Ballston or King St-Pentagon can choose either bridge. And except going to and from Yellow Line stations south of King Street, riders can go between any two Virginia stations entirely within Virginia with at most a single transfer.

Cons: Lines are merging and unmerging a lot, which creates operational challenges. Silver and Blue each have to share tracks with three other lines for part of their routes. If all lines are running at capacity, then at Pentagon (for example), a Silver Line train needs to reach the wye just as a Blue Line train reaches it from the other direction, or else one of the trains will have to wait, delaying all later trains.

Next: A hybrid option?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I've long advocated running the Silver Line down the center of I-66 all the way to Rosslyn as an express route, then down through Arlington Cemetery as you suggest. It would significantly shorten the commute time to and from Tysons and beyond. Plus it would result it less of a crush on the Orange line as it would divert more people away from the Wilson corridor (sorry, I just am not going to start calling it Orangeton).

by Reid on Jun 30, 2009 10:15 am • linkreport

I'd prefer an option where some of the Silver trains continue into downtown under the Roosevelt Island tunnel while others run all the way south to Franconia-Springfield as if they were Blue.

This would solve the one major flaw in both of the proposals above (though I haven't seen your hybrid yet), in that a surprising number of Pentagon commuters live along the current Orange line corridor and also out toward Dulles. My solution provides them a one-seat ride to the Pentagon. It also continues to provide frequent cross-Arlington service (e.g., Crystal City to Rosslyn) that could be taken away if the "operational blue line split" (or, rather, rebranding of some trains to F-S as yellow) were to take place.

I think any proposal that narrowly excludes both Rosslyn and the Pentagon from any new connection is really missing the mark, as they're two of the largest employment centers inside the Beltway.

by Joey on Jun 30, 2009 10:21 am • linkreport

I like this option ... plus, leave the potential for expansion northward

by coneyraven on Jun 30, 2009 10:21 am • linkreport

Thought I'd point out that the shuttle train option is something that some have suggested (such as BDC), even without building a 9th St Metrorail tunnel.

by Froggie on Jun 30, 2009 10:26 am • linkreport

@Reid: I-66 lacks sufficent median space between Ballston and Rosslyn to implement your suggestion.

by Paul S on Jun 30, 2009 10:27 am • linkreport

Re: Shuttle Train

If a shuttle between Rosslyn and Pentagon is deemed the best option then it does need to be a train that uses the existing track. A shuttle bus just wouldn't cut it. To change a one transfer trip to a two transfers trip accompanied by an annoying mid trip Rosslyn escalator ride to street level would deter ridership.

by Paul S on Jun 30, 2009 10:35 am • linkreport

I really don't like the 'new connections' option. You miss the Pentagon. Actually, both of these have flaws that ultimately make them unacceptable. I think we will have to face the music and separate the blue from the orange through DC to get Metro working like it should. Separating the Yellow from the Green is a pretty good idea though.

by NikolasM on Jun 30, 2009 10:38 am • linkreport

Paul S: I disagree. I think there is enough space to push the lanes apart and squeeze the line in (remember, it wouldn't necessitate the building of a station since it's an express route). Let me put it this way, Fairfax sure thinks they can squeeze in more car lanes, why not put in train tracks instead?

by Reid on Jun 30, 2009 10:38 am • linkreport

What I really love about this nonsense is in order to accommodate Silver line traffic to Dulles, you are going to kill easy access for Orange line commuters to National. Have you ever tried to lug some bags through the rosslyn station? Nightmare.

You proposals would be 40 minute waits in off peak hours for a shuttle bus and/or delayed Blue line trains to the airport for people who live on the orange line.

At that point, cabbing or driving to the airport makes more sense.

by charlie on Jun 30, 2009 10:40 am • linkreport

Good point, Reid.

by NikolasM on Jun 30, 2009 10:47 am • linkreport

Charlie: Easy service to the region's largest airport AND the region's 2nd biggest activity center in exchange for slightly less convenient service to the region's 3rd largest airport? Sounds like a good trade to me.

by BeyondDC on Jun 30, 2009 10:49 am • linkreport

Any option that requires any construction at or close to the Pentagon station is a non-starter in this era of heightened paranoia (er, sorry, I mean heightened security).

by Simon on Jun 30, 2009 10:55 am • linkreport

and what about those in VA that work near Farragut West? Just screw them?

by Mark on Jun 30, 2009 10:56 am • linkreport

Although these solutions appear workable in the abstract, the fact that only one tunnel and one track continues to be utilized for all Metro service between the Rosslyn-Ballson corridor (and beyond) and DC is problematic.

In spite of the current major recession, robust residential and commercial development continues apace along the Orange line's path, with few signs of it slowing. Large developments are underway in Claredon and Ballston and much more is planned. In addition, mid- and high-rise residential development is now sprouting up in and around the East Falls Church and Dunn Loring Metro stations. There is also chatter, too, of extending the Orange line beyond the Vienna station, which itself is slated for dense development. It goes without saying that the additional residents and workers this development will generate will only increase pressure on a system that is bursting at the seams as it is.

The only long-range solution to this festering problem is another tunnel and track under the Potomac. Rerouting Blue and future Silver line trains to bypass the tunnel is nothing short of a band-aid approach. WMATA needs to plan for another Rosslyn tunnel not five or 10 years down the road, but now, right now, before the situation becomes acute.

by InArlington on Jun 30, 2009 11:22 am • linkreport

What's this talk about a bus, aren't we talking more like a NYC 42nd street shuttle type of thing? Lugging bags up escalators wouldn't be an issue if this is in fact the case. Just some construction and coordinating the shuttle with the normal service trains. I think it's a good idea, Arlington Cemetary isn't used a lot and it's only one more transfer. That's a small trade-off in my opinion.

by Vik on Jun 30, 2009 11:27 am • linkreport

I need to add that a shuttle train should have a separate track, but it doesn't need to be a 40 minute wait. It should be half that at most, IMO. Basically, I don't know where the bus idea comes from. That's a complete non-starter to link people from the south to western destinations and vice-versa.

And I do agree with InArlington, this is a band-aid. Innovative solutions like this are needed and should be encouraged all the time but a tunnel is what's needed and we need to do what's necessary to start to fund this.

by Vik on Jun 30, 2009 11:31 am • linkreport

Vik, building a tunnel through downtown is a band-aid?

The Silver Line option is interesting, but might require a Pentagon-north station. The shuttle would come to infrequently and would cause all kinds of fuss reversing and going through two interlockings at rush hour. Besides, anything that would so significantly reduce existing service would be politically herculean.

by цarьchitect on Jun 30, 2009 11:38 am • linkreport

Reid/Nik: there's a notable difference between I-66 west of Fairfax Dr and I-66 east of there: to the west, I-66 still has a median, even with the Orange Line running through it. I-66 east of Fairfax Dr, and ESPECIALLY east of Lee Hwy, lacks that. Nevermind the stretch east of Lee Hwy where you have a retaining wall along the edge of the eastbound outside shoulder, and a dropdown down to Sprout Run Pkwy on the opposite side. You can't exactly squeeze 2 Metro tracks onto I-66 here...

by Froggie on Jun 30, 2009 11:46 am • linkreport

This might be where the "hybrid" idea is going but how about...

Use the shuttle train option but also have the track from Court House to Arlington Cemetery.

Instead of having the Blue Line into the city, have the Blue Line become an all Virginia train, running from Dulles through Court House and Arlington Cemetery to Franconia-Springfield.

This creates:

-An easy commute from the Dulles Corridor to the Pentagon and south
An easier commute from East Falls Church through Court House to National Airport and Alexandria.
- You could probably get away with running these trains a tad less frequently than the Silver and Orange line trains, addressing the biggest concern: congestion from East Falls Church and points east into the city once the Silver Line is completed.

Granted, people commuting to Farragut West, etc., from the Pentagon and points south now have to make a transfer, but I think given all the options, a transfer at Court House or L'Enfant Plaza adds maybe 10 minutes to their commute? I think it might be a sacrifice that has to be made.

by Justin on Jun 30, 2009 11:50 am • linkreport

If you can add a Pentagon station to the Silver, then I think the Silver option is darn near perfect.

by tom veil on Jun 30, 2009 11:52 am • linkreport

I like the tunnel through downtown, I don't consider that specifically a band-aid, but I'm not completely sure how much excess capacity the 14st bridge has. The silver line is going to be adding a lot more demand it seems and 2030 could be conservative. We want to provide a good level of service, not just mediocre or sufficient. I understand the fiscal and economic situation but as our system and ridership grows, I'd hate to see quality significantly compromised. I think all modifications from minor to significant to be considered and implemented.

I do like the new connections option with an addition of another pentagon station, which could be a problem. I'd hate to see the security situation prevent us from pursuing this. Schematically, it looks like a good plan. The cons as noted would be of high concern to me though.

by Vik on Jun 30, 2009 12:18 pm • linkreport

Why do we worry about these non-options? What is this is solution for? We need more capacity over the Potomac, that is clear. But allowing these options to happen only helps a few folks who are coming across the river and does nothing for the thousands and thousands that need a separated blue line. Doing this will only delay such an option, wile waiting precious billions.

By the way. I never see how the silver line will cause mayhem on Rosslyn. In rush hour, you now have 2 orange lines for every blue. What's gonna happen is that one of those two will be replaced by a silver line. That only affects the beyond EFC stations on the orange line, and that's fine.

by Jasper on Jun 30, 2009 12:19 pm • linkreport

beyondDC; you are wack if you think metro access to dulles is going to be easy. 40 minute + train rides packed to the gills during rush hour with 20+ stops from downtown. Nice.

So, yes, I'd rather have easier access to National than mediocre access to Dulles. As I've said, if you want transit to Dulles take the damn bus at Falls Church.

(yes, I know Metro to dulles is really metro to Wiehle road, but whatever)

by charlie on Jun 30, 2009 12:46 pm • linkreport

Jasper just stated the point I've been making all along regarding the Silver Line: silver line trains will replace orange line trains, which will have absolutely zero impact for those who don't travel west of the East Falls Church station. Yeah, there will be loss of service for those from West Falls Church to Vienna, but I'd suspect that some of those users are people who would be better served by the Silver Line anyway.

by Froggie on Jun 30, 2009 1:13 pm • linkreport

Yes, the Silver Line is really immaterial to the discussion. The issue is how to put the maximum number of trains through the R-B corridor, since that is the most overcongested part of the system. If those trains (whatever color they are) don't have to compete with Blue Line trains, then there can be more of them.

One way is to have Blue Line trains take a different tunnel from Rosslyn. That's the ideal solution. But we could also decouple Blue and Orange/Silver/whatever if we weren't putting the trains from the south across the Potomac at Rosslyn at all (possibility 1) or if some of the trains from R-B could go down to 14th Street instead of the Rosslyn tunnel (possibility 2).

by David Alpert on Jun 30, 2009 1:15 pm • linkreport

I agree with Dave. We can choose to not worry about what happens at Rosslyn, but we have to think about the service provided to metro riders as well. We need to be able to handle more capacity or allow for more western riders to "comfortably" commute. Wait times and capacity could be improved.

A separate blue line, not sure what alignment is being thought up, is another long-term issue that doesn't even seem related to this. Like a green-line extension to BWI. I think fixing this bridge/tunnel situation is the most important thing, if that's done, than maybe a separate blue line is even more attractive.

by Vik on Jun 30, 2009 1:27 pm • linkreport

Froggie and Jasper are missing the point regarding the Silver Line. The issue isn't displacing Orange Line trains, we know that there will be the same number of trains east of East Falls Church. The issue is that there will be many more people taking trains into the city from Tyson's Corner and beyond, which means that the trains, already at capacity during rush hour, will have dramatically increased demand. The only way to make the Orange/Silver line commute into the city bearable is to have more trains running... more Orange Line, more Silver Line, whatever. And the only way to add more trains from the west is to get the Blue Line off of those tracks heading into the city.

I agree with all who say these options are just band-aids... More tracks, separated tracks, etc. are inevitably necessary.

by Justin on Jun 30, 2009 1:35 pm • linkreport

I like the idea of a shuttle. It needs to not go through the interlockings. The notion would be to keep the K lines switched through to the tunnel at all times (at least all rush hour times; it's possible you'd let C line non-revenue traffic through the tunnel at non-rush hours because of access to the Alexandria yard). There'd be a new platform, presumably on the north side of the C line, prior to the C-K interlock. Similarly at the Pentagon, there'd be a new platform west of the C-L interlock and the L lines would be switched through to the Pentagon station at all times.

Commuting from Alexandria to the R-B corridor now is not that much fun. I worked in Ballston for several years and it was much easier for me to drive from Alexandria along George Mason Dr., park the other side of 66 and scooter along the bike paths than brave the Blue and Orange lines. I don't know that changing at L'Enfant Plaza makes it that much worse.

A shuttle would be fairly fast. WMATA timetables Blue line between Pentagon and Rosslyn at 5 minutes (with the stop at Arlington Cemetery). So figure round trip around 12 minutes with one trainset (evenings). Two trainsets (non-rush days) give six minutes headway. Four trainsets (rush-hours), three. You probably only need two-car trainsets.

My own preference, though, is to extend the Rt 1 streetcar along the Pentagon-Rosslyn metro tracks (and then, ideally, across Key Bridge into Georgetown).

by jim on Jun 30, 2009 1:55 pm • linkreport

To clarify: I built on the "New Connections" option in this diagram, based on the number of trains you can run every 12 minutes in peak service and multiple-termination routes:

Mixing the routes like that would preserve existing transit paths for the current ridership while maximizing the river-crossings and making for far fewer connections in the overall system - something that becomes more important once people have picked apartments based on proximity to their line, or are lugging heavy bags to get to the airport.

It's certainly not a replacement for the Separated Blue Line, but it's an alternative and potentially a complementary one.

Regarding skipping the Pentagon -
You're right, it's a problem. Potential solutions involve a pocket track that WMATA already plans to construct past the station, or a Pentagon North station - which is not entirely inappropriate given that it can be a 1km walk from the parking lot to the existing station.

by Squalish on Jun 30, 2009 2:03 pm • linkreport

Jim has the same idea I've had for a long time. Use the ROW between Rosslyn and the Pentagon as part of Arlington's streetcar network.

by spookiness on Jun 30, 2009 2:14 pm • linkreport

@ Justin: Trust me. I am not missing the point. The point is that we need more capacity from Rosslyn to DC. Not from the Pentagon to DC. Building a separate tunnel for the yellow line, is an utter waste of money. With the Silver en Purple lines moving, the next largest priority for metro is a new point to get from Rosslyn to DC. No discussion needed. Whatever else happens (extension from the yellow and blue lines southwards) will only make the this more obvious.

So again, I do not understand why anybody is focusing on burning money on a project that ultimately is no solution for the problem.

by Jasper on Jun 30, 2009 4:52 pm • linkreport

Jasper: I actually agree with you on that point. I don't see the need for a separate Yellow Line that alot of people seem to. I do however think getting the Blue Line off the tracks between Rosslyn and the city should be a priority. Other than the Arlington Cemetery stop, I don't really see the need for the Blue Line, as it exists today, at all. And the shuttle train between the Pentagon and Rosslyn would serve that purpose.

I do think, we need more ways into the city in the long run, but the Silver Line is going to be up and running, stretching capacity, before we get anything like that built. The only way to make room for more Orange Line and Silver Line trains is to get the Blue Line trains off the same track. Without the Blue Line as it exists today, more Yellow Line trains could run on the same tracks that they run today and it's a reasonable way for South Arlingtonians and Alexandrians to get into the city.

by Justin on Jun 30, 2009 5:07 pm • linkreport

The point of the separated Yellow line is not to get people from VA into DC; it's to free up slots on the Green line. Currently Green line trains are throttled so that Yellow line trains can service four stations at rush hour. Separate out that service and Metro can run many more Green line trains in an expanding corridor.

Metro's a network.

I agree that we need another Potomac crossing. But we aren't going to get one anytime soon. We are going to have all the Yellow and Blue trains going over the 14th St bridge once the Silver line comes on. There aren't any other alternatives. If we try to send all that traffic up the E tracks, then we may have to throttle the Green line back further. A short stretch (it's just over a mile from the existing yellow line tracks up 9th St to Mt. Vernon Sq.) of tunnel, some of which is under the Mall and a connecting pedestrian tunnel to L'Enfant Plaza is not that expensive and relieves the pressure on SE Washington.

by jim on Jun 30, 2009 5:44 pm • linkreport

@ Justin: I am not objective on the issue of the blue line realignment because I use it, on the part that everybody wants canceled. I also think that people - including metro - underestimate how many people use the blue line to get from north of the Mall to Alexandria. Why do I think that? Because during rush hour, the blue line trains are packed full beyond funny. Both in and outbound. It often happens that leaving F-S in the morning, there is no seating left, and standing room disappears at the Pentagon. Clearly, there is plenty of demand for that route. Furthermore, by disconnecting the blue line, North and South Arlington would be disconnecting themselves. That seems undesirable, but I do not know what the numbers say on that.

@ Jim: Metro's a network.

It is not. If you look carefully, you see that metro depends very much on a few transfer stations downtown. That is the whole problem To get rid of that, we need more metro. Everywhere. Extensions at the end of lines. New lines. And more capacity downtown. Reshuffling lines does not create more capacity. It's pushing the problem more to the future.

by Jasper on Jun 30, 2009 6:06 pm • linkreport

Metro's a network.

Make a change one place and it impacts someplace else. In our case ('cos my stop is King St.), the development along the Rosslyn-Ballston strip has meant that jam-packed Orange line trains have pushed Blue line trains out of the tunnel. Blue line trains, even in rush hour, run at six minute headways. Orange line trains run at three minute headways. That's because Blue line trains get only a third of the tunnel. Once the Silver line trains want to get through the tunnel as well, there will be even less room for Blue line trains. That's a network effect. Add traffic along one set of tracks, traffic along another set of tracks will be inhibited.

It's not a question of transfer points. It's a question of tracks and switches.

by jim on Jun 30, 2009 7:57 pm • linkreport

As a Nats fan, I would really like to see the L'Enfant Plaza-Arlington Cem-Courthouse connections, would greatly cut down metro times to Nats Park for the many Virginia fans who live in Arlington, Falls Church, and Eastern Fairfax, or drive to Arlington to metro in.

by David on Jun 30, 2009 9:16 pm • linkreport

I don't think these ideas with a 9th street subway really address the issues at hand. If you want to build half of a subway, why not just build half of the New Blue line? That way you'll at least have a plan to expand in a meaningful way.

With the 9th street idea, completing the entire line would mean that you have a new Yellow line before you have a new Blue line, which I think everyone would agree is the wrong order.

Any such ideas ought to have a long term plan behind them. We benefit today from the fact that Metro was conceived and built as a whole 100 mile system. Expansions should be similarly planned as a whole.

More thoughts on the issue here:

by Alex B. on Jun 30, 2009 10:09 pm • linkreport

A "shuttle train" from Rosslyn to Pentagon through Arlington Cemetery seems like a poor use for a trainset. It's about 2.5 mi -- you're just going to run a train back and forth along that length?

Unless you're going to one of those three stations, you're guaranteed a two-transfer trip by using that shuttle.

by Gavin Baker on Jun 30, 2009 10:33 pm • linkreport

FWIW, Jasper, that map of Montréal's system is a little out-of-date. The system has picked up three more stations and some more commuter rail lines:


(commuter rail)

by Craig on Jul 1, 2009 12:09 am • linkreport

@ Craig: I stand corrected. But it amplifies my point. Montreal is quite a bit smaller than DC, yet has an expanding metro system...

by Jasper on Jul 1, 2009 1:01 am • linkreport

Adding an option to WALK between Gallery Place and Metro Center and between Farragut West and North would be ideal. In Philadelphia, there are many pedestrian tunnels that run parallel to the track.

by wlerik on Jan 24, 2013 9:58 pm • linkreport

Recall that Amtrak wants to spend $7b rebuilding Union Station in situ. For the same $7b why not build it in L'Enfant (sitting atop what will always be a better nexus of Metro Lines: 4 today and perhaps 5 in the future).

Part of the justification of a separated Blue Line is that the Red Line is Maxed out. Part of justifying a new Union Station is its importance delivering people to downtown.

Seems that a new 10th Ave Subway with a new Amtrak Central Station on top of it is better & cheaper than what Amtrak and Metro are proposing separately.

by Kevin C on Jan 26, 2013 11:21 pm • linkreport

I am pretty sure there isn't sufficient space at L'enfant for an equivalent to Union Station.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 27, 2013 12:27 am • linkreport

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