“Yet from the start, Metro was saddled with two structural flaws. First, each line runs on just two tracks—New York City’s subway generally has four—which makes it difficult to perform maintenance while still shuttling commuters.”

 

Photo by Andrew d’Entremont on Flickr.

That’s part of a detailed profile of Paul Wiedefeld and Metro’s current struggles in TIME Magazine, the rest of which is excellent but unfortunately behind a paywall. But in the above excerpt, reporter Alex Altman repeats a very common canard about Metro, that having two tracks instead of the four of many New York subway lines is a major flaw.

This pops up in article after article about Metro, though rarely if ever sourced to a specific transportation expert. Instead, it’s just something that every reporter “knows”— even though it’s largely false.

Frederick Kunkle said something similar in a May 13 blog post:

 

Metro riders will probably have to pay for Metro’s past sins, including the original sin of designing an ambitious regional subway with only two tracks.

False.

We heard the same from unnamed reporters at Agence France-Presse:

 

But the system was created with two chinks that have proven costly as the subway expanded to keep pace with the metropolitan area’s population growth, and money for repairs and upkeep became increasingly scarce.

First, while other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks, Washington’s has just two. This was done to save money.

Incorrect.

Other articles, like in the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and ABC7 also mention the 4-track issue and often compare DC to New York, though they don’t make the outright incorrect statements of the others.

What is true

1. Metro does have only two tracks on all its lines.

2. This was a deliberate decision, partly because more tracks would have cost more. George Mason history professor Zachary Schrag, the guy who literally wrote the book on Metro, explains that planners thought about making more tracks, but chose not to because it would have been too expensive, and given limited resources, they wanted to build more lines instead.

3. Having more tracks would make maintenance less painful. On New York’s four-track lines, the subway system is able to shut down one or two tracks for a weekend and keep two-way service running, though people at some stations may not get trains or might only get them in one direction.

What is false

"Other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks” (from the AFP article). This is almost entirely false. As Matt Johnson explained back in 2009 (the first time we discussed this), there are only three US subway systems with express tracks: New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

New York has a lot of express tracks, and since so many people are familiar with the New York subway, it’s likely why people keep asking about the issue. Otherwise, Matt wrote, “In Philadelphia, the Broad Street Subway includes express trackage for most of its length. The Chicago L offers express service on the Purple Line during rush periods (and a short stretch of the Red south of Belmont).” That’s it.

There are a few places where other systems have multiple lines that converge for a transfer, like around BART’s MacArthur station in Oakland, but that’s just a short bit.

 

Two track line in Chicago. Photo by Jason Mrachina on Flickr.

Worldwide, even, four-track subways are the exception rather than the rule. A few pieces of lines in London have four tracks, but other cities do not. Paris’s extensive Métro is all two-track lines. Two lines, the #8 and #9, run together in a 4-track subway for four stations, and the RER regional rail has some sections with more than two tracks, but Paris has more miles of 2-track lines than Washington, and most US and world cities are all 2-track lines.

Resilience isn’t why some systems have more tracks

Lines with more tracks aren’t that way for redundancy, but rather capacity: they make it possible to fit twice the trains along the same avenue. In only the densest places in the world, like New York, is that sensible, and even so, most cities don’t do it.

Instead of making 4-track lines, what world cities with better transit systems than Washington enjoy is just more lines, period. You can shut down a line much more easily when there’s another one nearby. Back to New York, for instance, the tunnels between Manhattan and other boroughs are 2-track, but there are many parallel ones.

If the A train is under repair, the trains could travel on the F line instead. When the L tunnel has to be shut down for Sandy-related repairs, it’ll be horrible for residents of Williamsburg and Bushwick, but at least they can transfer to the G train to go around to another East River crossing.

When Chicago shut down its Red Line for months, it was able to set up bus service to get people to the parallel Green. Fewer parts of the DC Metro have alternate lines nearby.

More tracks? How about more lines

If the builders of the Washington Metro had had more money, they should have done just what Schrag said they already wanted to do: build more lines, not more tracks. More lines would make transit closer to more people but could also offer redundancy.

In the core, it would have been better to separate the Blue and Orange, or Yellow and Green, into separate, nearby subways. Metro has, at various times, suggested plans to do that. Such a layout would allow rerouting those trains onto the other line in the event of night or weekend shutdowns (and make room for more trains during rush).

While the articles above didn’t talk about express service, a related complaint about Metro is that it doesn’t have express trains. Actually, the truth is more that it has nothing but expresses. Schrag writes, “The wide spacing of stations in the suburbs make them the equivalent of express lines elsewhere. Rather, Metro lacks the slow, hyper-local routes like the Broadway Local in New York City, which stops every few blocks to serve the tens of thousands people in apartment buildings.”

There’s no doubt Metro has maintenance problems. But we can’t blame them on the system having only two tracks. Other systems keep up maintenance with only two tracks. It’s simply not true that building two tracks is “the original sin of Metro”  or one of “two structural flaws.”

Rather than bringing up the issue about two tracks over and over, news articles would do better to talk about ways Metro is falling short of all the world’s 2-track train systems which operate and maintain themselves better.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.