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The Purple Line will have America's longest railcars

According to the latest plans for Maryland's Purple Line, it will have the longest transit railcars in America. Each train will have a single 136-foot-long five-segment railcar. They'll practically be open-gangway trains.

A Purple Line railcar compared to Metro and DC Streetcar. Image by the author.

Purple Line trains will be Urbos model trams, built by Spanish company CAF. Urbos trams are modular; you can make them as long or as short as you want. These will be unusually long ones.

At 136 feet long, they'll be 2 feet longer than the closest US competitor: Austin Metrorail's 134 foot cars. But Austin's cars are DMUs, a sort of commuter rail / light rail hybrid, built for longer distance and fewer stops compared to the Purple Line.

The next biggest US light rail cars are Dallas' 124 foot cars.

Dallas light rail car. 12 feet shorter than the Purple Line's cars. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Longer is better

Having one long railcar rather than multiple short ones has a lot of advantages. There's less wasted space between cars, less expense per rider, and passengers can move back and forth inside the train to find the least crowded spot. Overall, having one long open interior increases the capacity of a train by about 10%, and it costs less.

The downside is you can't pull individual cars out of service if something goes wrong. It's all or nothing. But as long as everything works, long railcars are great.

Since the Purple Line will be operated by a private company that faces penalties if it doesn't meet service requirements, the onus is on them to keep trains in service.

An open interior train on the Paris Metro. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In transit jargon, these open interior trains are called "open gangway," and almost everyone else in the world uses them, except the United States. For the Purple Line to move in that direction makes it a national model.

Using these long trains was one of the changes project officials made in response to Maryland Governor Hogan's demands to reduce the Purple Line's costs. One long railcar rather than two short ones coupled into a train saves money and keeps train capacity high enough to work.

Hogan's other changes made the Purple Line a lot worse. They reduced train frequency, eliminated the direct transfer to Metro at Silver Spring, and reduced the electrical power of the line, limiting its capacity. But the move to longer railcars with open interiors may be a silver lining.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Who needs Metro? Duck Rapid Transit is the answer to the Blue Line crunch

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Metro's total shutdown earlier this month forced many people to travel by other means for the day. But maybe that's just the way things should be. All the time. It would be much cheaper to get around using existing water infrastructure if the region built Duck Rapid Transit (DuRT).

Concept rendering of a possible Washington-area DuRT line from the from the Institute for Tub and Duck Policy (ITDP). Base duck photo by Jonathan Chen.

DuRT would be perfect for the Washington region, especially the overburdened Blue Line. With minimal investment, passengers could ride aboard a high-speed fleet of DC Duck Tours' amphibious boat/bus vehicles, running primarily on the Potomac River but also on dedicated Duck Occupancy/Toll (DOT) lanes in both Virginia and DC. Travel times would be competitive with Metro.

"Why isn't now the time to ask whether we should keep investing in the Metro system?" asked Thomas O. T. B. Fired, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "Any reasonable metric shows it's not a good form of transit compared to other ones."

If Fired had his way, he said he would close Metro. He was previously quoted by the Washington Post's Kendrick Bunkle saying he'd fill in the tunnels with dirt, but we now know Bunkle misheard him and he really meant DuRT.

Here's one possible transit line alignment, with stops at eight existing Metro stations: Franconia-Springfield, Van Dorn Street, Eisenhower Avenue, Pentagon, Rosslyn, Foggy Bottom-GWU, Dupont Circle, and U Street. A future stop could also be added at the Watergate complex.

The idea garners mixed reviews

The Georgetown Business Improvement District, which spearheaded a study of a gondola from Rosslyn, is eager to see an analysis. "I just want a feasibility study of DuRT," said BID director Stone Jerlieb. However, some residents immediately inveigled against the idea on the local listserv. In response to counter-arguments that this is far in the future, local neighborhood curmudgeon, Ima Ghenstytt, said she had to be opposed "just to be sure."

It's also unclear if Georgetown could even get a DuRT stop, but the BID isn't worried. "The line for Georgetown Cupcake starts in Foggy Bottom, anyway," said Bill Footsfield, BID Coordination Coordinator.

In addition to new Duck Loops at each of the stations, the route would require the construction of ramps to connect dedicated lanes along existing roads like I-95, Virginia 110, and New Hampshire Avenue to waterways like Backlick Run, Cameron Run, and the Potomac River, including a funicular ramp near Key Bridge.

Local transportation innovator Gabe Gross also roundly applauded the idea, saying, "This is a bold step towards having fully accountable public-private partnerships operate all of America's transit. Also, having more transportation options improves the region's resilience in the face of imminent disasters, like floods and electrical cable insulation."

DC Ducks could receive the same fares and public subsidy levels that the Blue Line currently receives, but DuRT operating costs would be lower than Metrorail, since the vehicles can be powered primarily by stale bread crumbs.

The DC government actually considered DuRT under former DDOT head Tan "Danger" Lini. That concept would have further extended the line to Columbia Heights by making the Meridian Hill Park fountain into a log flume. But that plan foundered after the National Park Service told DC it would require a public EIS process that would conclude, at the earliest, on April 1, 2036.

Some park advocates also opposed the idea at the time. Referring to the alignment near the Watergate, Ivana Park, co-chair of the Committee to Re-Engineer Extant Plans (CREEP), said, "The 1930 landscape plan for this area does not show the canal being used for boat transportation, so this use would plainly violate the historic nature of the C&O National Historical Park."

Will people ride it?

A major criticism of DuRT nationwide is whether riding on a duck boat carries a stigma as compared to more upscale-seeming vehicles. For that reason, some cities have tried using swan boats instead.

Miami politicians recently asked to replace a duck project, long in planning, to swans. "People don't like to take ducks," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, "unless they have no alternative."

But proponents like Yorick Yoffe of Citylab argue that these are myths, and if a good-quality DuRT line were built, people would ride it.

The US has not successfully built a DuRT line without it devolving to a bathtub-sized project through "DuRTy Creep," but proponents hope a Backlick Run/Potomac River line could be the one that finally succeeds.


Metro has a brilliant solution to its electrical problems

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

In light of the day-long Metrorail shutdown that occurred on March 16th which uncovered major problems with power cables, WMATA is moving forward with a plan to allow the system to operate at partial capacity without electrical power.

Image from FTA.

Over the next three years, 200 Rider-Powered Rail Cars, or RPRCs, will be introduced into Metro's rolling stock. The technology allows transit riders to push a train along the tracks with their feet using strategically-placed incisions in the floor of a rail car.

By running on nothing but the energy and sweat of their riders, WMATA can allow such cars to operate in all conditions, including future power cable inspections or even a system-wide blackout caused by a lack of funding.

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the project will help overcome what he's called a "modern Stone Age family of maintenance problems." The Federal Transit Administration has said the quality of many parts of Metro are most analogous to "a page right out of history."

Artist's rendering of the new RPRCs.

Modifying cars is simple and cheap

The first 86 RPRCs will come from retrofitted 1000-series railcars, which WMATA had been in the process of decommissioning before this decision was reached.

"The same elements that make the 1000-series 'non crashworthy' also make them perfect for turning into trains powered by people," said WMATA spokesperson Hanna Barbera. Welders are already hard at work removing floor plates in front of the seats on 1000-series cars, he said, so that riders can scoot the train to their destination even while sitting and reading the news.

The remaining 114 RPRCs will need to be designed from the ground up as the first rider-powered heavy rail system. WMATA will begin a procurement process and expects bids from industry-leading companies such as Radio Flyer. Expected features include a metronomic drum beat broadcast over the speaker system that will better coordinate the pace of riders.

Public health stands to gain

Local leaders are hailing WMATA's plan as a win for public health. "Requiring metro riders to push their own rail cars through the 117 miles of track will help make the Washington region a global model for cardiovascular health," said Mayor Muriel Bowser of the decision, noting that widespread use of RPRCs in the Metro system might help DC regain the top spot as the fittest city in America.

Much of the cost of rebuilding the subfleet of cars will be covered through event sponsorships. The 2017 Rock N Roll Marathon will be held on Metro's 26.2-mile long Orange Line tracks, eliminating complaints about closed roads and noisy outdoor concerts, while providing Metro's electricians with a bonus workday to upgrade signals and switches.

Reports indicate that Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefield is currently in negotiations with SoulCycle to provide trainers throughout the Metrorail system as additional motivation to riders.

When asked for comment, WMATA Board chairman Jack Evans said, "Yabba dabba doo!"


Closing Metro lines for months could work, but only if the region provides transit alternatives

WMATA may shut down entire rail lines for months in order to catch up on maintenance more quickly (though, officials noted, no decisions have been made yet and they will talk to the public before doing anything). If a shutdown does happen, Metro must thoroughly prepare, communicate, and provide riders who rely on Metro with reasonable alternatives.

Special event bus shuttles. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

A months-long shutdown may make sense

For years, WMATA has been struggling to perform maintenance at nights and on weekends. There's so much work to do that they can't complete it all.

Meanwhile, many riders who've endured year after year of worsening service are abandoning Metro, especially on the weekends when trains can be 30 minutes apart.

A months-long shutdown would theoretically put an end to that, or at least significantly reduce the need for weekend track work. It would let WMATA catch up on all its maintenance needs for a line in one fell swoop. We'd be trading a few months of pain for years of happiness.

WMATA GM Paul Wiedefeld says he is indeed considering the idea. He adds, "In the last few years, we've been trying to do this [maintenance] in a sort of piecemeal way, and basically we've alienated everyone."

He's right. Working at night and on weekends is fine when you're just doing preventative maintenance. But after years of increasingly terrible weekend service, it's become clear that model won't work with WMATA's need for major rebuilding. With no end to the rebuilding in sight, it's time to try something new.

This is getting old. Photo by the author.

Closing an entire line end to end may not prove necessary. You can rebuild the Virginia section of a line without closing the Maryland section, for example. And closing the core is much harder than closing outer sections. But closing long segments of a line, say four or five stations long, may well make a lot of sense. On the other hand, if a whole line needs work, maybe shutting it down completely is the way to go.

Whether or not WMATA has the equipment and work crew capacity to do such a big job is an open question. But if so, or if it can expand as needed to do so, it may not be a terrible idea.

Leaving riders without options wouldn't be acceptable

So yes, it's very possible that closing major segments of Metro lines for months would be the best way to get this painful decade of rebuilding behind us.

But we absolutely cannot simply shut down Metro and hope for the best. Metrorail is not an optional service for the Washington region. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on it every day, including many who don't have access to cars. Telecommuting saved us for one day, but can't work for months on end.

We've literally built our region around Metro. Without it, 166 blocks of downtown DC would have to be bulldozed and converted to parking garages.

Simply closing Metro without providing alternatives isn't an option. Too many people wouldn't be able to reach their jobs. It would be a calamity, economically and for thousands, personally:

We'd need bus shuttles, bus lanes, and more

If this is really going to happen, WMATA and the affected jurisdictions would have to work together to provide transit alternatives. We'd need special bus shuttles to replace the shuttered Metro line, temporary bus lanes to make longer-distance bus travel fast enough to be practical, greatly expanded transportation demand management, and more. We'd need a comprehensive transportation management plan.

Such a plan might look something like what Matt Johnson suggested in 2013, when WMATA considered closing part of the Red Line for six weeks. That shutdown hasn't happened, but many of the same ideas would be necessary anywhere.

Luckily, these are not impossible ideas. Other cities have made long term closures work. We could too.

It wouldn't be easy, and it would require sacrifice from everyone, including drivers who don't use Metro. It's impossible to stop running a transit line that carries a hundred thousand passengers without making life hard. Substitute buses absolutely would not be as good as Metrorail, not for transit riders and not for car drivers who have to share road space.

But the current situation is hard too.

WMATA will need to study this concept in detail. Then they'll need to share their detailed findings with the public. What are the real options, what are the trade-offs, how much time and money would this save, and what will the Metro system look like when it's over? If Metro expects the public to buy this idea, they'll need to be forthright.

But it's possible. WMATA could do this and it might be successful, if and only if they take the time and money to plan, prepare, and do it correctly.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


A regional summit on fixing Metro shows agreement on WMATA's leadership, divisions on its funding

"If we don't do something, ten years from now the system won't be running," said WMATA Board chairman Jack Evans. "The financial situation is dire."

COG chairman Roger Berliner addresses a summit of regional leaders on Metro. Photo by the author.

Evans minced no words while speaking at a summit Wednesday morning on the future of Metro, which has just celebrated its 40th anniversary. Regional leaders, convened by the Council of Governments and Board of Trade, gathered to discuss how to ensure Metro thrives in its next 40 years.

"There's no pride in Metro any more," said Doug Duncan, who served for 12 years as county executive of Montgomery County and now leads the regional Leadership Greater Washington program. "The cars are pigsties," he said, with banana peels and the like everywhere.

Duncan compared the state of Metro, which he said he rides every day, to the early days. So did Evans, who likened riding Metro in 1976 to the Jetsons. But, he noted, if you want to see one of those 1976 cars you don't have to go to the Smithsonian. You just have to hop on one of many running Metro trains.

WMATA is trying to replace the old 1000 series cars, but production from Kawasaki was delayed due to the Japanese tsunami and has remained behind schedule and below quality expectations.

Evans castigated his own baby boomer generation for allowing this situation to develop. "Our generation took our parents' accomplishments and let them go to wreck and ruin," he said. It's not just WMATA; he mentioned the Memorial Bridge, which may have to close to traffic entirely in five years. "I don't want that to be our legacy. I want our generation to leave things better than we found them."

A 1000 series railcar. Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

Leaders unite behind Wiedefeld

Speakers across the region and the political spectrum agreed that Paul Wiedefeld is well-equipped to address many of these problems. Pete Rahn, Maryland's Secretary of Transportation, said, "Somehow the board found THE person who can make the changes that must occur." And he urged the WMATA board to let Wiedefeld work, focusing on policy rather than the operations of the agency.

District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo, who is also a member of the WMATA board, said Wiedefeld has the necessary "back to basics" focus on "safety and reliability." He added, "There was a misdiagnosis about the core problems of Metro a year ago because of a lack of information of what the problems were," but now, the leadership has the right priorities.

Getting those priorities to filter down to all ten thousand WMATA employees is not an easy challenge, however, like the issues with railcar cleanliness Duncan mentioned. Wiedefeld said a big focus of his work will be on the front-line employees. "There has been a disconnect between management and employees," he said, and in past comments has been clear that he thinks management bears much of the blame for that situation.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Show us the money?

There wasn't the same unanimity when the discussion turned to funding Metro. Evans is adamant that Metro needs a substantial infusion of new cash to succeed.

He'd served on the board many years ago while the system was being built and it was a jewel of the Washington area. After being re-appointed last year, he said, DC CFO Jeff DeWitt came into his office and said the finances were "in shambles." Just as one example, WMATA has a $2.5 billion unfunded pension liability.

Evans said that former WMATA General Manager Dick White warned of this very crisis in a report a decade ago. He predicted the agency would hit a wall financially and, Evans said, White's predicted timeline was only off by two months.

The agency will be starting labor negotiations in June, and Evans predicted that will mean labor costs rise (as they have regularly in the past). Labor makes up $1.2 billion of WMATA's $1.8 billion annual operating budget. All labor contracts go to binding arbitration, and since past arbitrators have generously interpreted WMATA's means, salary levels are only somewhat in the board's control.

Evans said he's absolutely opposed to raising fares or cutting service. That just leaves more funding from local and federal governments. Evans proposed the region's governments find another $900 million a year for Metro, and the federal government commit $300 million.

It's not clear other governments will go along. Maryland's Pete Rahn said it will be difficult to get more money until WMATA can "get its own house in order."

Rahn said WMATA already takes up 11% of the state's transportation budget. That's funding the Hogan administration supports because of Metro's importance, but they have also sought to limit spending, such as refusing to pay for Maryland's ridership share of the 5A bus to Dulles Airport.

Evans compared the situation to DC's fiscal straits in the 1990s, when a federally-chartered control board reformed the city's finances. Evans was very involved in that turnaround as a councilmember at the time, and said Metro can reform as well and gain the credibility it needs to win funding.

But, he also warned, this can turn into a catch-22. "We heard, 'get your house in order' before we'll give you money" during the control board era, Evans said. "Then we got our house in order, and they said, 'you don't need money.'"

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Governance changes are "a waste of time"

One oft-heard recommendation is to reform the WMATA board. There was widespread agreement that it's probably too large, at 16 members. There have long been debates over whether the board has too many elected officials or not enough of them.

However, several argued this isn't WMATA's biggest problem and changing governance is probably not worth the effort. Dormsjo said when he worked for Maryland, he thought that state's method of appointing board members was the best one. But once he came to DC, he saw the value of DC's method as well.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne reminded participants that to change the compact requires DC, Maryland, and Virginia to pass identical legislation, then receive approval from Congress. That's very hard, he said. Recently, there was a very minor compact amendment to let the US Department of Transportation appoint federal board members instead of the General Services Administration; the Virginia House initially voted that proposal down before ultimately agreeing to it.

Evans agreed that trying to amend the compact would be "a waste of time." He said he absolutely thinks the board is too large, and he'd eagerly join any effort to shrink it, but noted that any such change would have winners and losers, and those who lose would not acquiesce quietly.

What's next?

Wiedefeld is intent on tackling WMATA's challenges. "We cannot go on moving from crisis to crisis," he said. But the solution "may be hard on riders and jurisdictions."

Evans agreed. "The only way to get the system fixed is to make unpopular decisions." Whether more shutdowns or finding more money in the budget, fixing Metro will demand political courage from regional leaders. That is, if DC, Maryland, and Virginia can all agree on which courageous step is needed.


To save Maryland's second oldest tree, the Red Line moved

You probably didn't know that Maryland's oldest tree is Metro-accessible. It could have easily been sawdust without a shift in the Red Line.

The Linden Oak at center-right. The Metro viaduct at far left. Image from Google street view.

In the late 1970s, Metro planners moved the proposed alignment of the Red Line just south of Grosvenor station to fly above the median of Rockville Pike (MD 355) instead of running along the eastern side. That shift was to save what was then the second-oldest tree in Maryland, the Linden Oak.

In 2002, Maryland's oldest tree, the Wye Oak, died at the ripe old age of 462 when it was felled in a thunderstorm. The death of that tree promoted the Linden Oak to oldest tree in the state. Today, the white oak is about 300 years old.

The tree's champion was Montgomery County councilwoman Idamae Garrott, who successfully fought to get the proposed Metro tracks moved west.

Today, the Red Line tracks make an odd curve to the west after emerging from the subway and crossing the Beltway. After passing the Linden Oak, the tracks bend eastward to end up on the east side of Rockville Pike. Along the way, passengers on the right side of a northbound train can catch a glimpse of a tree older than the country.


All 91 Metro stations, ranked by ridership

WMATA's PlanItMetro blog has released a trove of data on Metro station use. Here's one snippet: All 91 stations, ranked by the average number of riders who entered the faregates each weekday in February, 2016.

Farragut West, the 5th busiest station. Photo by the author.

  1. Union Station 29,371
  2. Gallery Place 25,537
  3. Farragut North 24,597
  4. Metro Center 24,330
  5. Farragut West 20,917
  6. Foggy Bottom 20,121
  7. L'Enfant Plaza 19,343
  8. Dupont Circle 18,653
  9. Pentagon 14,584
  10. McPherson Square 14,340

What jumps out to you, both from this list and the rest of WMATA's data? Here's the rest of the list:

  1. Rosslyn 13,666
  2. Pentagon City 12,558
  3. Silver Spring 12,269
  4. Columbia Heights 11,840
  5. Shady Grove 11,732
  6. Crystal City 11,480
  7. Ballston 10,759
  8. Vienna 10,005
  9. Bethesda 9,883
  10. NoMa 9,038
  11. Judiciary Square 8,722
  12. Friendship Heights 8,503
  13. Archives 7,829
  14. Fort Totten 7,543
  15. Federal Triangle 7,381
  16. Wiehle 7,306
  17. King Street 7,238
  18. New Carrollton 7,209
  19. Smithsonian 7,149
  20. Court House 7,074
  21. Huntington 7,002
  22. Capitol South 6,957
  23. Navy Yard 6,834
  24. Franconia-Springfield 6,821
  25. Anacostia 6,799
  26. U Street-Cardozo 6,671
  27. Tenleytown 6,587
  28. Brookland 6,324
  29. Van Ness 6,158
  30. Georgia Avenue-Petworth 6,151
  31. Glenmont 5,881
  32. Woodley Park 5,861
  33. Greenbelt 5,738
  34. Rhode Island Avenue 5,727
  35. Federal Center SW 5,697
  36. Reagan National Airport 5,631
  37. Medical Center 5,591
  38. Eastern Market 5,500
  39. Branch Avenue 5,449
  40. Takoma 5,329
  41. Grosvenor 5,206
  42. Shaw 4,989
  43. Suitland 4,918
  44. Southern Avenue 4,751
  45. Braddock Road 4,543
  46. Largo Town Center 4,435
  47. Clarendon 4,423
  48. Prince George's Plaza 4,385
  49. Rockville 4,245
  50. Mt. Vernon Square 4,243
  51. Twinbrook 4,163
  52. Dunn Loring 4,081
  53. College Park 4,068
  54. Waterfront 4,008
  55. Cleveland Park 3,961
  56. East Falls Church 3,913
  57. Virginia Square 3,898
  58. Wheaton 3,864
  59. White Flint 3,641
  60. Potomac Avenue 3,635
  61. West Hyattsville 3,402
  62. Addison Road 2,971
  63. Van Dorn Street 2,970
  64. Tysons Corner 2,857
  65. Benning Road 2,823
  66. West Falls Church 2,715
  67. Naylor Road 2,471
  68. Congress Heights 2,431
  69. Stadium-Armory 2,430
  70. Minnesota Avenue 2,387
  71. Forest Glen 2,230
  72. Capitol Heights 1,893
  73. Morgan Blvd. 1,849
  74. Landover 1,667
  75. McLean 1,562
  76. Eisenhower Avenue 1,486
  77. Deanwood 1,347
  78. Cheverly 1,153
  79. Greensboro 1,079
  80. Spring Hill 1,042
  81. Arlington Cemetery 363
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


How much could you save with a Metro SelectPass? Use our calculator to find out!

SelectPass, Metro's new monthly pass program, currently has two versions: one that charges $2.25 per trip, and one that charges $3.75. Those whose regular fares are usually less than $2.25 or more than $3.75 may be unsure of whether the program would save them money, so we've created a calculator to show whether it would.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The program works by allowing riders to pay upfront for 18 days' worth of round-trip commutes, at costs of either $2.25 or $3.75 per trip. Any extra trips of the same or lesser value are free, and longer ones just cost the difference between that trip and the single-trip charge.

Would getting a SelectPass save you money?

Because the pilot only offers passes at two price points, WMATA has suggested that it only offers savings to those whose one-way commute costs between $2.25 and $3.75. But since the SelectPass allows you to take more expensive trips for a reduced price, it also offers savings to anyone who regularly takes longer trips. Other riders, like those with less regular commutes but quite a few short trips each month, could also save.

To find out what your savings could be, use the calculator below, which Greater Greater Washington contributor Chris Slatt developed and I adapted and expanded.

We've filled it in with an example representing someone who commutes 20 days a month at rush hour between East Falls Church and Farragut West (40 trips at $3.30 each), and does a round trip in the afternoon between Farragut West and Capitol South once a week (eight trips at $1.75 each). If you don't know how much your trips cost, go to the Metrorail stations page and click on the station where you're starting your trip.

WMATA SelectPass Savings Calculator

In a typical month, how many one-way trips do you take and how much do they cost?

Trips per Month Fare per Trip

Monthly Fares Paid and Savings

Normal Fare: $
$2.25 SelectPass Fare: $
$3.75 SelectPass Fare: $

It's worth repeating that the program is only a pilot right now, meaning WMATA could add more versions (i.e., more options for what price you buy your pass at) as it develops.

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