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WMATA readying software for Farragut "virtual tunnel"

WMATA is moving ahead with the out-of-system transfer between Farragut North and West and is scheduled to begin internal testing by the end of January, they said in an email.

In June, WMATA expressed interest implementing the Farragut "virtual tunnel" rail-to-rail transfer. At that time, Mike Russo of WMATA responded to an email inquiry by saying, "We look forward to re-examining the Farragut transfer concept later this year."

Since it's almost the end of the year, I followed up to see what was happening. Raj Srinath, WMATA Treasurer, replied:

Preliminary analysis of the concept and technical discussion regarding the business rules of this transfer proposal have begun. Based on the preliminary analysis, certain programming and software changes have been identified as necessary to implement the "Farragut-to-Farragut virtual tunnel concept."

Programming and software changes will be completed to test the concept and identify any other potential issues by the end of January 2011. Upon the completion of these changes, staff will be able to determine an implementation plan and timeframe for the virtual tunnel, assuming no major issues have been uncovered.

I am pleased with their responsiveness and that they are moving forward with this project. If all goes well, perhaps the "tunnel" will open in the spring.
Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver. 


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Will the virtual tunnel include the Gallery Place - Metro Center transfer? It seems that allowing, say, a half-hour free reentry into any Metro station would make sense.

by Dave M on Dec 11, 2010 10:25 am • linkreport

Will it be smartrip only like they are trying to do with everything else nowdays ?

by kk on Dec 11, 2010 11:03 am • linkreport

The Farragut one is nice, but there will have to be a short time limit (15, 20 at the most), since that makes it possible to get out at one Farragut, run your errand, and get back in at the other one, with then a 1-stop transfer at Metro Center to get back to your original line. Waste 10 minutes to save $2? I'd do it.

Gallery-Metro Center isn't especially needed, since there's always the Red Line. Even if the headways are long, you probably don't save a whole lot of time walking from one to the other.

What I'd really like to see is the ability to exit the station you entered within 20 minutes at no charge in case of delays, overcrowding, disruptions, etc..

by Matthew on Dec 11, 2010 11:17 am • linkreport

What I'd really like to see is the ability to exit the station you entered within 20 minutes at no charge in case of delays, overcrowding, disruptions, etc..

Agreed here.

by Froggie on Dec 11, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport

Will this slow down the SmartTrip system like the last "upgrade?"

by Joshua Davis on Dec 11, 2010 12:07 pm • linkreport


Agreed on the no-charge exit. However, I am all for an actual pedestrian tunnel between Gallery Place and Metro Center. There's no reason to jam red line trains during rush hour to move people one stop when passengers are ready and able to walk the block-long distance between the two station platforms.

by Adam L on Dec 11, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport

@Adam: What should be cut to pay for the real tunnel? I agree with you that it would be a nice thing to have, but it's going to cost real dollars to implement. Plus you have to wonder what they will hit along the way, as it is obvious that neither the DC government nor Metro keep very good maps.

by Dave J on Dec 11, 2010 12:28 pm • linkreport

Gallery Place to Metro Center just doesn't seem feasible. A tunnel could be on the lower level and run directly below the red line tracks to avoid hitting anything. This would be the most convenient given it's for lower line transfers.

But you can't get from the center platforms to the tunnel.

Less conveniently, it would be on the upper level at the end of one of the platforms (better if there were two) and go alongside the Red line tracks. But that corrals transfer crowds through the Red Line platforms anyway. While squeezing your way through, a Red comes along and you just hop on it Just doesn't seem worth it.

Farragut to Farragut is the only one that makes sense.

by Bob See on Dec 11, 2010 1:01 pm • linkreport

I'm also in favor of the virtual tunnel between Gallery Place-Chinatown and Metro Center, particularly given how awfully crowded the Red Line platforms at both stations can get.

Ultimately, though, I'd also like to see some more ideas generated on how to encourage short-trip riders in the core (tourists in particular) to do more of their travel above ground. I recognize that travelers with health problems are more dependent on public transit, but if we can get healthier people - visitors and residents - to think in terms of how short it can be to walk to their destination, it would probably help to extend the life of the system.

by Craig on Dec 11, 2010 1:12 pm • linkreport

Anyone know why Metro Center & Gallery Place or Farragut North & Farragut West arent just 2 big stations instead of four ?

Why do we have stations so close that you can see the station before/after it through the tunnel why not just build a big ass central station that is 4 or 5 blocks long.

@ Craig

One problem with that is you may have a mixed group of tourist

If you have a group of 5 and one with health problems they will be taking the train there is no way around it.

We should be encouraging all to travel above ground by making the streets accommodate people with health problems (longer crosswalks, wider sidewalks, tree cover for shade, flat sidewalks for easy use of wheelchairs and less tripping hazards, not having all transit above ground take the same streets such as H, 11th and 13th streets) so that they can also take the metrorail system less.

by kk on Dec 11, 2010 2:58 pm • linkreport

Finally. This took WMATA what, 15 years?

by Jasper on Dec 11, 2010 3:21 pm • linkreport

Imagine putting all the red line passengers from Metro Center and Gallery Place on two platforms instead of four. While there could be a wider platform, it would be masses entering a train at once. Also, the yellow/green line trains in Gallery Pl are under 7th st. The blue/orange lines in Metro Center are under 14th st. The distance is too long to put a single platform in. Even so, if one was put in the middle, instead of having Gallery Pl's bottlenecked T-shape, there'd be a disastrous I shape (damn this font).

However, It would have been much better to have a transfer Farragut station as there are only two line running through the square.

by arm on Dec 11, 2010 5:28 pm • linkreport

@kk re: Farragut, IIRC, that was the plan originally but the park service didn't let them dig the station under the park and they had to reevaluate. This reevaluating led to the two separate stations.

by timfry on Dec 11, 2010 6:46 pm • linkreport

Sounds like a lot of fancy talk to explain why it took so long to tweak the software.

I have to say though, all the virtual transfer option at Farragut does is reduce the fare of an option that already exists. I wonder how many people do it now? It might not increase that much if you make the software change to allow Smartrip users to continue their trip after switching stations. Unfortunately, the real benefit would come from an underground tunnel, which puts us back to the expensive option.

Regarding the Metro Center/L'Enfant transfer, it looks to my untrained eye like they could almost extend the platforms until they touch, since they are so close.

Regarding free exit with no ride, they should have a reduced charge, like $1 or less, or possibly free, but much more during rush hour and peak. Otherwise people would use the Metro stations with multiple entrances as an underground passageway to avoid the weather. Maybe that's a good thing, I don't know, but with peak fare pricing you reduce the negative impact on platform crowding and leave the option available. Would love to be able to change my mind after walking through the turnstile.

I'm guessing the algorithm for the free or reduced price exit at the same station and the one for the Farragut transfer would be similar, so they should consider both at the same time to save programmer headache. How much can it really cost to make this software change? Aren't there unemployed programmers on every street corner looking for jobs these days?

by Ward 1 Guy on Dec 11, 2010 7:22 pm • linkreport

@ timfry

Is there any reason they didn't just move the station a block or two north or west to have the interchange just at a different location. Did the park service own all the land nearby?

@ arm

I see your point however I was actually thinking along the lines of a intercity rail station. I was thinking of actually a cross between National Airport, Pentagon metrorail stations with an rail terminal.

Shapped sort of like an altered # or the kanji character 日 where the ends would have the b/o on one side and the g/y on the other with two tunnels on the ends leading between the b/o and g/y platforms. The red line would be in the middle with space linking to all other trains

I've seen something similar done somewhere can't think of the location it was in either Russia, Japan, Korea or London, UK

by kk on Dec 11, 2010 7:39 pm • linkreport

Gallery Place to Metro Center should definitely be done too. Whenever there is a problem on the Red, this connection is a choke point crowded by people trying to transit to another line, rather than going to another Red station. A tunnel, virtual or not, would make enormous sense.

by SJE on Dec 11, 2010 10:23 pm • linkreport

I see your point. It definetly sounds like a much more complex station than any I've seen, but it would have been efficient.I do imagine some chokeholds, but it still would make some sense

by arm on Dec 11, 2010 11:14 pm • linkreport

What if they charged a nominal fee ($0.10) to do these transfers and used the money to pay for real tunnels. While I doubt you could charge enough to make it worth your while, I'd love to know how many users they're talking about.

by David C on Dec 12, 2010 12:15 am • linkreport

@Dave J and Bob See

Metro already worked out the schematics for an actual tunnel a couple years ago:

They estimated the cost at about $128 million. I'm not saying that the money is available now to do it. However, has as anybody discussed the appropriateness of simply not fixing the track circuits blamed for the June 2009 crash? If anything, automatic train operation is "nice to have", but other transit systems in the country do just fine without it. I would prefer to spend those billions on other maintenance and capital needs for the Metrorail system, including station upgrades.

by Adam L on Dec 12, 2010 9:21 am • linkreport

A lot of you guys are dreaming and it will never be reality. We've had a massive fare increase and Metro can't even keep the lights on in stations. Really. Take a look sometime. We'll all be dead long before they find the money for any underground tunnels that do not produce additional revenue. Get real. This has enormous potential if the Farragut option works because they can then duplicate it anywhere it makes sense. The day is going to come, whether from terrorist attack or major maintenance requirements where work arounds will require these options.
And yes, Metro could charge a modest reentry fee and we would all be happy to pay.

by Greg D on Dec 12, 2010 9:27 am • linkreport

Adam L thanks for the link. I just can't see someone on the Blue going up two levels, walking 750 feet, and going back down 2 flights to catch a Green...but with additional entrances along the way and with retail, it may work. If they want to spend money, they should widen the Red Line platforms at Gallery Place and Metro Center. These are the absolute two worst, most ineptly designed stations on the entire system...bottlenecked crowds beneath soaring, spacious vaults. It's absurd.

btw, the virtual tunnel idea is a complete no-brainer, but having physical links is sure nice for bad weather.

by Bob See on Dec 12, 2010 11:38 am • linkreport

@Adam L:
Track circuits do more than enable automatic train operation. They prevent 2 trains from being in the same space at the same time. Whether trains are being operated in manual or automatic.

Every heavy rail system in the United States uses them. In New York, for example, where they don't use automated train systems (except on the 7), the track circuits result in a working red/yellow/green signal system. And trip-stops at each signal prevent a train from passing a red signal.

This is not an optional thing. Without working track circuits, the Red Line crash could happen again, even in manual mode.

There are no wayside signals on Metro. Metro trains get "signals" in the form of speed readouts. If there's an occupied block ahead, trains get a "zero" speed readout, and the train stops itself no matter what the driver does with the throttle. (Trains can operate up to 14.5 mph after stop in manual mode with a zero speed command).

If the track circuit is not functioning properly, then even if there is a train in the block ahead, the following train would receive a non-zero speed command. And that is a bad thing. Especially if the train operator of the following train cannot see the train ahead or is going to fast to be able to stop on sight.

So. Saving lives is much more valuable than saving 2-3 minutes off a few peoples' commutes. Fixing the problem track circuits is not optional.

by Matt Johnson on Dec 12, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport

@Matt Johnson

Thanks for the info. Fine, fix the track circuits (though if they're so important, I wonder how Metro has been operating with faulty ones ever since the crash). But once that's fixed, do we really have to spend the money for automatic operation or can we just keeping going in manual?

by Adam L on Dec 12, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

@Adam L:
First off, once the circuits are fixed, there's no reason not to operate in automatic. It actually saves the agency money. It also results in a smoother ride for passengers. And a better platform position for 6-car trains.

The reason that Metro has been operating with faulty ones since the crash is mainly because they didn't have the money to do so. They've now reallocated money from other projects to do that.

They're also working on a realtime backup system which will help to catch instances of wrong-side signal failures (like the one that caused the Red Line crash).

by Matt Johnson on Dec 12, 2010 12:33 pm • linkreport

WMATA did a comprehensive study on the tunnel in 2004 called:
FARRAGUT NORTH AND FARRAGUT WEST PEDESTRIAN PASSAGEWAY TUNNEL STUDY, which contains all the engineering details and use estimates.

If you Google the title, it will give you the link.

by Steve O on Dec 12, 2010 8:19 pm • linkreport

I think most everyone commenting is confused. They aren't going to be digging a tunnel between the stations. It is a _virtual_ tunnel, meaning you will exit one station, walk the steet/sidewalk to the other station, and enter.

by James on Dec 13, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport

An actual tunnel between Gallery Pl-Chinatown and Metro Center or between the Farraguts is just another expensive thing to build and maintain. Metro should just use the previously-built incentive provided by the District of Columbia for moving people between the two stations -- the sidewalk.

But the no-charge exit sounds like a great idea.

by Scoot on Dec 13, 2010 2:53 pm • linkreport

And of course the virtual tunnel is a great idea also, but I fear it will take years to implement given the glacial pace Metro is accustomed to.

by Scoot on Dec 13, 2010 3:11 pm • linkreport

Out-of-system transfers are not a new concept, so it is great that this will finally be an option. Since all the plans I've seen show the Farragut and G Street transfer tunnels being out-of-system anyway, I'm not sure they would make these transfers much faster or easier than using the street. My personal fantasy would be high-speed moving walkways below the lower platforms in Metro Center and Gallery Place--it takes too long to exit and re-enter the stations to make an out-of-system transfer worthwhile.

by Matthias on Dec 14, 2010 8:58 pm • linkreport

Seems to me a lot of commenters here mistake the purpose of the virtual tunnel. It isn't to save people money, raise more revenue, or reduce trip time. It's to distribute transfers more broadly outside of Metro Center, Gallery Place-Chinatown, and L'Enfant Plaza which have become dangerously congested. It's a problem resulting from the hub-and-spoke design of the original system; Fort Totten is the only transfer point outside the downtown core. A grid-like system, or one with more redundancy, wouldn't have the problem of forcing so many riders through the core. If you distribute more ridership outside the downtown core, you free up capacity to either be safer or run trains through it more often.

Chicago uses out-of-system transfers in the loop. They're farther apart and not as easily understood as the block between the Farragut stations. I was on the Sierra Club Transportation Committee roughly 2003-05, and another member back then asked about a SmarTrip-based free transfer between the Farraguts. I can't believe it's still not in effect. I do think real tunnels should eventually be built between the Farraguts and between Metro Center and Gallery Place. London and Paris have combined stations like this, among others. Look at Chatelet-Les Halles. Or even Chicago and NYC. Add retail and you add revenue for WMATA and life to the tunnels and subway system--though at a cost to above-ground life and retail. When Montreal built their underground network, Ste. Catherine St. retail took time to recover.

As a ped advocate, I'd also make the point that wayfinding signs with avg. walking times rather than physical distances could be pretty effective. I'm not sure most people have an instinctive idea of how far 1/4 mile or 1320 feet is, but "Metro Center ~5 mins. -->" would help.

by Jon Morgan on Sep 3, 2011 3:10 am • linkreport

@Matt Johnson
The New York City metro system DOES NOT use Automatic Train Operation. None of the lines in NYC use ATO (except the L and within the next year, the 7). NYC Metro uses fixed-block signaling, which uses track circuits. The difference is that NYC track circuits come with a color-aspect signal for each circuit, so it is easier to find a faulty one.

by Jared Harrison on Oct 19, 2013 11:32 pm • linkreport

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