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

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

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

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

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


Graphic by the author.


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

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

The change

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

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

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

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


Graphic by the author.


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

Mapping Yellow

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.