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Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 92

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

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun.

Please have your answers submitted by noon on Thursday. Good luck!

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at


Why can't Metro change how it runs escalators, what info its signs display, or how easy it is to walk on station stairs?

There will soon be compass roses outside of every Metro station to help riders find their way thanks to our MetroGreater contest. This was a great idea, but so were others, like making the system's escalators and signs more sensible and making dimly-lit stairs easier to walk on. Here's why those ideas didn't win.

This sign in Berlin isn't that different from Metro's, but the white paint at the top actually makes a big difference in how much info the sign can display. Photo by Matt Johnson.

No need to change how the escalators run... right?

One idea, from Larry M., was to "run escalators with rationale," or in other words, run them in the direction most people want to go in. For example, if it's rush hour at a more suburban station, it'd probably make sense to set most of the escalators to run out of the station, as the majority of the users are probably on their way out. During particularly busy events, the escalators can sometimes become the limiting factor preventing people from entering or leaving a station—not the trains—so making sure they're configured properly can be a big deal.

According to a Metro representative I spoke with, this is already happening all over the system. Metro's overall approach is to run more escalators out of stations rather than in since people tend to trickle in to wait on trains but leave all at the same time. In other words, Metro says its approach to escalators is rational.

Station managers also generally don't reverse escalators by themselves; the reversal process typically requires two people for safety—one at the bottom and one at the top—to make sure nobody tries to get on while it's being reversed. Also since escalators can wear into operating in a particular direction, it might require a "tune-up" of sorts before being switched in the opposite direction.

Photo by Pabak Sarkar on Flickr.

One way to ensure that escalators do in fact run in a rational direction would be to encourage—or even require?—station managers that might not already be doing so to walk around the inside of the station every so often to make sure not only the escalators and other equipment are working properly, but also to ensure the escalators are set in the direction of the most traffic when possible.

At stations with more than two escalators at an entrance, ensure at least one is going in either direction, and allow the third or fourth to be switched per the station manager's discretion (with the help of escalator maintenance or MTPD). Or maybe an internal Metro department should perform more unannounced "spot" checks to ensure the escalators are in the right positions. Or maybe there should be better schedules for station managers to use to know which directions their escalators should be running in to best manage crowds.

Changing Metro's display screens would take too long

Another suggestion, this one from from Scott K. in Alexandria, was to create extra space on Metro PID displays by painting the Line/Car/Destination headings, which currently take up a row on the screen itself, onto the actual signs.

As Matt Johnson wrote back in 2010, that'd mean room for both estimated train arrival times, as well as other crucial info, all on the same screen:

With this approach, Metro's signs could use the top three rows for next trains and the bottom row for disruptions and elevator outages. Major disruptions might warrant using the bottom 2 rows. If there are no disruptions, four next train departures could be shown.
According to the Metro official I spoke with, this idea isn't doable because it'd take longer than six months, and part of the MetroGreater rules were that ideas have to be doable within less time than that. More specifically, painting all of the PIDS would require track access at each station, which would mean shutting down power and working the updates in with other overnight system work already on the schedule. It'd also mean experimenting with the best paint materials, which would take a while.

Stairwells could be easier to see in

Another idea came from Melanie in Arlington, who suggested adding reflective stripes to stairs in dimly-lit stairwells, like on the eastern side of the Navy Yard station, so people walking on them are less likely to fall.

When I spoke to Metro, they said this is an idea the agency is open to, and may try out as a pilot at a few stations to figure out what materials, colors, and reflective surfaces, work best and are least confusing to passengers. There was a concern that installing and maintaining striping could cost more than $100,000 over the long run given time and material costs.

Picture this kind of tape, but maybe brighter. Photo by vxla on Flickr.

Metro is definitely aware that lighting around its stations isn't totally adequate. One line of the WMATA Customer Accountability Report includes some station lighting improvements, partly due in thanks to the Accessibility Advisory Committee. The agency is currently testing a few different types of station lighting for the entire system, although there's no timeline for that project yet.

While these three ideas didn't make the cut in MetroGreater, there's no reason to stop talking about them. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is continuing to beat the drum of safety, reliability, financial well-being, and a focus on the customer. Small improvements proposed by customers are likely to be a key way for the system to get better.

Update: We've updated this post to include more detail on Metro escalator policy which says most escalators should be in the up direction out of a station. The post previously did not make note of this policy, which can restrict which station managers are allowed to change escalator directions.


So you've got a friend in town and they're really into trains. Here's where to take them.

Last year, we published lists of toys you could give to a young train buff and places you could take them to visit. But what about the railfans who are all grown up? Where are the best places to take adult friends to hang out, do some train spotting, and learn some rail history?

The Dew Drop Inn. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Restaurants and bars are a good start

Payton Chung suggests a few places in DC to check out. The Dew Drop Inn, located in the Edgewood neighborhood near Brookland, is named for a number of "Dew Drop Inns" across America. Housed in a rustic stone industrial building that was used as a workspace for stonemasons and metal workers, you can get a great view of the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks on the Red Line between the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland stations when you're hanging out on the porch.

Along the H Street corridor, there's Maketto, a communal marketplace that's made up of two buildings with a courtyard, roof deck, and a catwalk that connects the spaces together. The catwalk has retail, a Cambodian/Taiwanese restaurant, and a cafť and bakery on the second floor where you can get a great view of the DC Streetcar.

In Maryland, Julie Lawson says to check out Lotus Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant located in Downtown Silver Spring at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Sligo Avenue that overlooks the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks as they cross over Georgia Avenue. She says her son "loves to watch the trains there so I would assume grownup railfans might enjoy it for dinner too."

The view from Lotus Cafe. Image from Google Maps.

A short walk from Lotus Cafe, there's Denizens Brewing Company, located on East-West Highway on the opposite side of Georgia Avenue near the rail overpass. Dan Reed mentions that the place as an appropriately-named beer called "Trainspotting".

Walk around and explore

If you live near a rail line and feel like doing a little bit of exploring, a simple walk around is always a best bet.

Jonathan Neeley says there's plenty to see in his neighborhood, Brookland:

I like going on walks, and a lot of my friends do too, so I'd probably go with something simple like being sure to walk over the Michigan Avenue and Taylor Street bridges by my house, where you can watch trains come and go from far away. I'd probably also take them on a ride on the Red Line between Rhode Island Ave and Silver Spring just to see the graffiti.

Looking south from the Taylor Street bridge. Photo by Jonathan Neeley

The Washington DC Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society has a list of "railfan hotspots" located within two hours of the beltway that have a lot of rail activity and history.

One of these hotspots is Long Bridge Park in Arlington, which has an extensive railroad history and a name that's a reference to the railroad bridge connecting Washington with Northern Virginia. Chris Slatt mentions that the esplanade is a "top notch spot for viewing CSX freight trains, Amtrak trains, and VRE trains."

The esplanade at Long Bridge Park in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Chris Slatt.

Another hotspot, this one suggested by Canaan Merchant, is Burke Lake Park in Fairfax County. The park has an attraction that young railfans, and even some grown ups, can enjoy. The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine is a new version of the original one-third scale replica that makes the rounds on its own narrow gauge 1.75 mile track.

The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine at Burke Lake Park. Photo by Fairfax County Department of Parks.

David Cranor adds "there are several rail trails in the area, but the W&OD really does the best job of celebrating that. There are old train cars set up along it and lots of historical information/markers about the railroad too." Payton also mentions that "a ride along the Metropolitan Branch Trail is also a good option; it even parallels the Acela tracks for a bit."

Our region also has quite a few museums and other attractions around that are good bets for taking train aficionados or folks who just want to learn more.

Canaan points us to the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum in its namesake location in Fairfax County. This museum has displays, activities, and events that help preserve local history and promote railroading—even "a couple of cars you can go inside." The station itself played a critical role in the American Civil War as an important supply and medical evacuation site where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, assisted in relief and evacuation efforts during the Battle of Bull Run in 1862.

The National Museum of American History in DC and the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville in Montgomery County are also great options for railfans who want to learn more history.

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture will have an exhibit dedicated to transportation and race, exploring how Jim Crow laws affected streetcar and railroad travel, as well as the history of Pullman porters and railroaders behind the scenes.

Are there any other places in the area you know of that would be good spots to take a railfan? Let us know in the comments.


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 91

On Tuesday, we featured the ninety-first challenge to see how well you knew the Metro system. Here are the answers. How'd you do?

This week, we got 44 guesses. 24 of you got all five. Great work, everyone!

Image 1: Georgia Avenue

The first image shows an entrance to Georgia Avenue station, viewed from the Park Place across the street. The primary clue here is the lozenge-shaped entrance pavilion. This style of entrance is only present at three stations, with Columbia Heights and Congress Heights rounding out the set.

Other clues included the acute intersection of Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues and the rowhouses of Pleasant Plains in the background. 37 got it right.

Image 2: Ballston

The second image shows the entrance at Ballston station. This canopy is fairly unique, though a similar style is used for the eastern entrance at Judiciary Square. The commuter store in the center provides another hint.

39 knew this one.

Image 3: Judiciary Square

The third photo was taken at Judiciary Square. While there's not a lot of direct evidence in the photo, the reflection in the water is of a very distinctive building: the National Building Museum. The iconic structure stands directly across from the eastern entrance to Judiciary Square, which has an uncovered escalator shaft.

40 guessed Judiciary Square.

Image 4: Rhode Island Avenue

Rhode Island Avenue station featured in our fourth picture. The station is visible at left, viewed here from the new pedestrian bridge linking the station to the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The fencing on either side of the bridge is fairly distinctive, and that was the main clue.

The radio tower and the distant Capitol dome may have helped you narrow down the possibilities. 40 sussed out the right answer.

Image 5: Tenleytown

The last picture comes from Tenleytown. We featured a very similar photo in week 57, as it happens.

Tenleytown is the only Arch I or Arch II station where the elevator bypasses the mezzanine and goes straight to the platform. Because of this, there's a solitary faregate, TVM and exitfare machine at the south end of the platform.

29 came to the correct conclusion.

Thanks for playing. Great work! We'll be back in two weeks with another quiz.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at


Use this tool to see how often Metrobuses come to a particular stop, and where they go from there

Metrobus is a great way to get around, but some people avoid it because it's not easy to remember where, exactly, buses run, or when they come to your stop. A new tool from Metro hopes to make finding that information a lot easier.

Image from WMATA.

With Metrorail, maps, charts showing the next stop, and PIDs all make it clear where train lines go, when they come, and where they stop. With the bus network, it can be hard to provide such detailed information at each stop because it's far larger and more complicated.

WMATA has made big strides by adding real-time arrival boards to some bus stations, and in 2012 the agency introduced a new bus map that makes it clearer where each line runs. But that map still has quite a bit going on, especially if you're trying to use an online version by loading it on a small screen or picking between multiple route options.

To address this issue, planners at WMATA have developed Metrobus Explorer, an online tool that gives users real-time arrival displays and a personalized spider map showing where bus lines from a given stop run to. Spider maps clear the clutter of information a typical bus map gives riders, allowing them to see only the routes and stops relevant to them.

Here, we've selected three bus stops that run along Michigan Avenue, just north of the McMillan Reservoir and south of Washington Hospital Center. When you hover your mouse over the stops in the app, you see how many buses run there per hour.

Metrobus Explorer shows you a map of all the region's Metrobus stops, marked with larger dots for locations with more frequent service. It then allows you to select one or more stops. After selecting the stop (or stops) you want information for, a second map showing the routes available from those stops and their destinations is displayed.

The tool shows us which bus lines run from these stops and where they go.

The information is available for each hour of the day, reflecting the changes in frequency throughout the day. For a route view in both directions of a bus line, you need to select the stop on both sides of the street.

Metrobus Explorer is a great tool for riders; something that provides accurate, easy-to-understand information should help increase bus ridership. That said, the current version of Metrobus Explorer is a bit clunky and in order to create a full working version to be incorporate into, WMATA would like hear your feedback.

WMATA is hoping to hear from users on the following:

  1. Would the tool be useful?
  2. What features are important? Would you like to be able to print your personalized spider map?
  3. What is missing? Should the route lines' thickness vary depending on headway?
  4. Should this be available on mobile? Would that be more or less useful than BusETA or other transit planning apps?
You can comment directly on the Metro planning page or leave a comment with your thoughts below.


On Thursday, the WMATA board heard about why Metro keeps catching on fire. Then on Friday, Metro caught on fire.

At the height of Friday afternoon rush, an insulator caught fire at Metro Center, kicking off a meltdown on the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines. A smaller but similar incident hit the Red Line Sunday evening as well. The day before, the WMATA board received a briefing on the power system that both issues were related to and how problems with it continue to plague the system.

Photo by John Grant.

Friday's fire right around 5 pm at Metro Center on the Orange/Silver/Blue lines caused trains to halt service for around 40 minutes and then single-track until the system closed, delaying thousands and adding an hour or more to some commutes. Sunday's issue happened at a time where delays were an inconvenience for fewer people, but it was certainly a problem nonetheless.

Issues can crop up at various points in any power system, which makes routine maintenance so important. Substations that receive power from the supplier (Dominion and PEPCO, primarily) have cables that run to the third rail, which runs alongside the tracks that trains run on and which supplies power to the trains. Trains use this power, which is then fed back through the rails through the "negative return" back to the substation.

The likely culprit in both incidents is what's called stray electrical current, which can happen when a power circuit is created through a path that isn't the one intended. Instead of making a circuit from the power substation through cabling to the train then back out through the rails, an alternate circuit path could be created across insulators or through the stud bolts that help secure the tracks.

This unexpected path can create arcing, smoke, and fires, which cause harm to the equipment and are dangerous for passengers. Dirt, dust, and other contaminants, all of which aren't exactly uncommon in Metro tunnels, can increase the severity of stray currents.

When these mixtures stick to the third rail insulators, the insulator's function starts to break down. Instead of preventing the current from "escaping" the third rail through the trackbed, the debris lets the current travel to unintended portions of the system not meant for it. These stray paths can case bolts to heat up and glow, smoke, or spark, or cause the insulators to arc or even catch fire if they've broken down far enough. These side-effects are just a few reasons why proper maintenance of a power system and making sure insulators, supply and return cables, transformers and other components is important.

The stray current and other power issues aren't new to Metro; a current issue across an insulator led to an explosion at Federal Center in May, and arcing insulators are almost a common occurrence, especially on the Red Line.

Metro's General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, requested an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) peer-review of portions of its third-rail power system back in June, and the report was made available after WMATA's September 22nd board meetings. The peer review request was part of Metro's safety department's larger holistic review of the power system to try and help pinpoint and solve its various power issues once and for all.

The APTA review provided a list of observations about Metro's third rail system that could potentially cause issues. One of the primary ones (which isn't a new idea, or even new to Metro) is that the reviewers found "insulators seemed to be excessively contaminated" both in the rail yard they visited as well as on open track. This contamination, a combination including brake dust from train brake pads, oils, and various other types of dust and debris, can stick to the insulators that hold up the third rail which provides power to the trains.

A cracked insulator, which the APTA peer review noted. Image from WMATA.

APTA gave Metro two recommendations for the contamination. One, Metro should analyze what the deposits on the third rail insulators are to figure out where they come from, and determine how to cut down on how much is generated. Second, they suggest Metro develop and maintain an insulator cleaning program. A tunnel cleaning program did exist at Metro up through the early 90's, but was terminated.

APTA reviewers also found that Metro staff are "constantly in a catch-up mode" when it comes to the power system, so they don't have much time for preventative maintenance that might also help cut down on smoke/fire incidents.

Metro's Board of Directors has heard about many of these issues before

The lack of an active cleaning program was one issue the NTSB found that contributed to the January 2015 smoke incident that killed one passenger and injured dozens others. Metro's deputy general manager in May of 2015 told the Board that the agency was to reinstate this program, and wanted to become "so proactive that these incidents don't happen."

Smoke and fire incidents, many caused by stray or imbalanced current, continue to occur in the system—more have happened in 2016 than had up to this point and last year.

Metro is certainly more active now than it has been in the past regarding tunnel cleaning (said to be part of SafeTrack and partially restarted after the L'Enfant incident) and insulator replacement from ceramic to fiberglass within underground station limits is complete (but still needs to be done for above-ground stations and in tunnels), and many power cables and equipment have been replaced in the meantime as well.

But becoming a proactive organization requires hard analysis to detect issues and get to the root causes before they become larger problems, not simply when an outside organization finds them or when somebody gets hurt. It's a long road to walk down, but with the proper management it's an achievable goal and results in a safer and more reliable transit system for riders to use.


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 91

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

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun.

Please have your answers submitted by noon on Thursday. Good luck!

UPDATE: The answers are here.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at


Watch live as Paul Wiedefeld and other experts answer questions about WMATA tonight at 6 pm

During his tenure at WMATA, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has opened more dialog with advocates and the public than many past General Managers. Tonight at 6 pm, he'll join a panel discussion and answer questions from the public at a livestreamed forum.

Once the event starts, the player above will livestream the event. After the event, we'll swap out the livestream player for a recording once it's available. (Update: the totally unedited recording is now available above; the program starts at 16:15.)

40 minutes will go toward audience questions, meaning attendees will have a chance to ask about pressing issues like late night service, rider safety, and anything else they want to know about.

The two-hour discussion will include a public update from Wiedefeld, a moderated panel discussion, and audience Q&A. The panel will also include WAMU's Martin Di Caro, DowntownDC BID's Neil Albert, Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and ATU Local 689 President Jackie Jeter.

The forum is taking place at Georgetown University's Urban and Regional Planning program, hosted by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and several partner groups. Uwe Brandes, Executive Director of Georgetown's planning program will moderate.

If you have questions during or before the event, you can tweet them to @betterDCregion using the hashtag #WMATAchat. During the Q&A portion of the program, organizers will pose as many of them as possible.

On October 26, a livestreamed followup forum will tackle Metro funding specifically. RSVP is now open, with more program details coming soon.


Why can't Metro label escalators "walk left, stand right" or label where doors will stop on the platform?

Over 1,000 Metro riders submitted ideas for our recent MetroGreater contest. Two came up most often, but are sadly not possible: Signs or markings to encourage people to stand to the right on the escalators, and decals to show where the doors will stop on the platforms. Here's why they couldn't be winners.

Photo by Benjamin KRAFT on Flickr.

In New York, for instance, markings like the ones above show where the doors will stop and urge riders not to stand right in front of the doors.

The obstacle is simple: On the new 7000 Series trains, the doors are not in the same place as on the older trains. Metro plans to run 7000s on all lines and gradually replace all trains with them, but it will be a long time before any line has no older cars. Therefore, markers wouldn't be in the right spot for all trains.

Here's a comparison between the 7000 series (top) and older cars (bottom) by Sand Box John:

Image by Sand Box John. Note that the exterior design of the 7000 ended up somewhat different than in this sketch made from early plans.

It's too bad the markings aren't possible, but moving the doors closer to the center on the 7000 series does make some sense, as they could better distribute crowding between the middles and ends of the cars. It would have been even better to build them with four doors per side, but perhaps in the future. (If so, however, that will push off the day even further when these markings might be an option.)

Walk left, stand right?

Most of us stand on the right side of an escalator, if we're not walking up or down it, and walk on the left side. Thirty-three separate people submitted variations on the idea of educating people about this custom. It could be a sign, like this one that entrant Kristoffer Wright mocked up:

Image by Kristoffer Wright.

Or, what about footprints, as in this idea by London designer Yoni Alter:

Photo by Yoni Alter.

There's one straightforward problem with the footprints in DC: Many Metro escalators sometimes run up and sometimes down (though many do not). On those, at least, the footprints would make no sense with the escalator reversed. Not only would the feet be facing the wrong way, but the "walk" footprints would then be on the right side, giving people the wrong suggestions. ("You should walk backwards down the wrong side of this escalator"?)

As for signs, reversibility isn't the issue, but safety is. According to WMATA Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox, people walking on escalators "is the single biggest point of customer injury, and Metro does not want to endorse that." They know people walk on the escalator as an "informal commuter practice, but it is a safety concern and we do not want to encourage walking or running on moving conveyances."

Transit agencies around the globe have a wide range of views on whether this is a safety issue. Ryan Young, one of the people who submitted the idea, pointed out a few worldwide examples. Chicago, for instance, officially recommends "walk left, stand right":

Image from Chicago CTA.

Toronto, on the other hand, ended the practice in 2007 for safety reasons. Young also found this Polish article showing a "walk left, stand right" sign in a Warsaw department store and advocating for similar ones in the subway.

We could quibble with Metro's decision, but the fact (right or wrong) right now is that Metro's safety is under a microscope. We have people like US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx insisting that safety is the only priority and that he'd sooner shut down the Metro than have any safety problem whatever. In that climate, doing something on escalators that could be a little less safe, even if the change is slight, is probably not wise.

Personally, I still will be walking on the escalator and politely saying "excuse me" to people who stand on the left.


AskGGWash: Why are Yellow Line trains terminating at U Street?

During rush hour, Yellow Line trains usually run between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square. But beginning in August, I noticed that many went all the way to U Street, two stops north of their usual ending point. The reason is a mechanical malfunction with a track at Mount Vernon Square that lets trains change direction, and the issue highlights just how important that track is to the entire system.

Photo by the author.

In technical lingo, the problem is called a "bobbing track circuit." The issue is typically considered more of a nuisance than an actual danger, but it's been preventing rush hour Yellow Line trains from accessing their usual turnaround point (the Mount Vernon pocket) for several weeks.

According to WMATA operations guru Stephen Repetski, a track circuit is described as "bobbing" when it erroneously flips back and forth between registering that a train is occupying its block when it might not actually be. This may occur because the circuit is too sensitive, or it may be due to old equipment that needs to be replaced.

A bobbing track circuit can cause trains to lose their speed commands. This forces the operator to stop and wait for permission from the Rail Operations Control Center to proceed to the next signal block, which they must do at a reduced speed. This significantly delays train operations.

WMATA signaling infrastructure. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Usually, rush hour Yellow Line trains reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there's a pocket track there-- a short third track located between the two main tracks, which allows trains to reverse direction without blocking trains on the mainline. In normal rush hour operation, Yellow Line trains use this pocket track to short turn, e.g. to turn around without running all the way to the end of the line at Greenbelt.

Since Yellow Line trains currently have to turn around using the crossover at U Street* (or run all the way out to Greenbelt), fewer trains are operating on the Green/Yellow Lines every rush hour. This is due to the fact that when trains have to short turn without the use of a pocket track, they cause delays by blocking trains in both directions, as Matt Johnson detailed in a 2010 post on the issue.

*There are crossovers that allow trains to turn around between every station from Gallery Place to Fort Totten, but Metro seems to have chosen U Street as the temporary turnaround point.

Trains that have to short turn without the use of a pocket impede through trains in both directions. Graphic by the author.

However, a pocket between the mainline tracks allows short-turning trains to be taken off the mainline while reversing direction, thus allowing through trains to proceed unobstructed. Thus, when rush hour Yellow Line trains turn back toward Huntington using the pocket track at Mount Vernon Square, they are allowing through trains (e.g. Green Line trains) to pass unimpeded on the mainline while the reversal procedure is carried out.

A pocket allows trains to reverse direction without blocking the mainline tracks. Graphic by the author.

This temporary "extension" of Yellow Line service did get a few Greater Greater Washington contributors thinking: could Metro ever permanently extend the Yellow Line past Mount Vernon Square during rush hour? Doing so would provide booming stations like Shaw, U Street, and Columbia Heights with increased service and a direct connection to Virginia at all hours.

There are, however, several financial and logistical problems standing in the way.

The obstacles: lack of a pocket track, railcars, and funding

After 15 years of short-turning Yellow Line trains at Mount Vernon Square at all hours, Metro began running off-peak Yellow Line trains all the way to Fort Totten in December 2006. The service started as a pilot program, but was quickly made permanent due to high demand.

However, there are three major obstacles preventing Yellow Line trains from running to Fort Totten during peak hours: there's no a pocket track at Fort Totten, Metro only has so many trains, and Metro doesn't have the money (Matt explored these factors in depth in his 2010 post).

An above-ground pocket track north of Silver Spring. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Turning some trains around at pocket tracks (like the one at Mount Vernon Square) rather than running them all the way to the end of the line allows more trains to run on the given section of the Metro system because it keeps terminal stations like Greenbelt from getting overwhelmed.

For example, 50% of rush hour Red Line trains only run between Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring (rather than all the way from Shady Grove to Glenmont), using the pocket tracks at these stations to reverse and head back in the other direction. This means that Shady Grove and Glenmont only have to handle turning around 13 trains per hour, rather than the maximum of 26.

There is excess rush hour capacity on the Green/Yellow Line tracks north of Mount Vernon Square, as you can see in Matt Johnson's graphic below, and extending the Yellow Line to Fort Totten would take advantage of it (as the four hourly Rush+ Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt already do).

Metro service vs. capacity. Graphic by Matt Johnson.

But without building a pocket track somewhere between Mount Vernon Square and Greenbelt (such as at Fort Totten), it is impossible to take full advantage of this capacity without overwhelming operations at the busy Green Line terminal. Unfortunately, there are significant obstacles standing in the way of this.

In addition to the cost of the pocket track itself, Metro would have to pay for additional rolling stock in order to operate the extended Yellow Line service full time. As Matt explains, the increased service would require 30 additional railcars at a cost of approximately $100 million, plus $3 million per year in operating costs. The new railcars would have to come from Metro's order for the 8000 series, which aren't expected to begin delivery until at least 2023.

Is it possible to build an extra pocket track between Mount Vernon Square and Greenbelt? And how come one didn't go in in the first place? I'll take a look at that in a post next week.

Correction: This post initially said there are crossovers at every station between Gallery Place and Fort Totten. That isn't the case, and given where the crossovers are, U Street makes sense for the current Yellow Line issue.

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