Metro plans a relatively minor service change that will significantly increase overall system capacity. The way it’s framed will either help the change see widespread adoption or else derail the idea, cause enormous customer confusion, or force changes to the Metro map that cause other confusion.

Metro has often called this the “Blue Line Split” or “Blue Line Realignment.” It would be better to call it the “Yellow Line Split” or, better yet, the “Yellow and Orange Line Service Increase.”

Left: What the Metro map could turn into without restraint.

Right: How Metro could communicate planned changes.

What Metro actually wants to do is to add a few rush hour Yellow and Orange Line trains and remove some Blue Line trains. Riders at Van Dorn Street, Franconia-Springfield, and Benning Road through Largo won’t have fewer trains; the new Yellow Line trains will go to Franconia-Springfield (and Greenbelt, actually adding service north of Mt. Vernon Square rush hours), and the new Orange Line trains will go to Largo.

Riders from Franconia and Van Dorn who go to Rosslyn, Foggy Bottom, and Farragut West, or transfer to the Orange Line, might have to wait longer for a train. However, it will give Franconia and Van Dorn riders a one-seat ride to Yellow Line stations, and provide more trains overall for everyone on the Orange Line in Virginia and the Yellow Line in DC and Maryland. Once the Silver Line opens, some of the Orange trains, including the new ones, will become Silver Line trains.

If approved, the change will go into effect next summer. Feel free to debate the merits. But Metro has decided this makes sense overall, and I agree. The bigger issue is communication.

When staff presented this to the WMATA Board on Thursday, members rightly focused on communication. They asked Jim Hughes, Director of Operations Planning and Scheduling, if Metro had a communications plan for this change? Hughes said no. The Board urged staff to develop one right away.

Peter Benjamin pointed out that a service change years ago had been scrapped simply because riders were confused. Anyone know the details? It seems hard to believe it could have been more confusing than this wacky map from 1980-1983, but maybe the sensitivity level changed.

As with the earlier change, the way Metro talks about the change will be critical. In particular, the issue is what color the trains will be. Right now, all presentations talk about “rerouting Blue Line trains.” Operationally, this fits how Metro thinks about it, because the trains are leaving Franconia-Springfield, and right now trains leaving Franconia-Springfield are Blue.

Therefore, tables in the presentation to the Board list numbers of “Blue Line to Greenbelt” and “Blue/Yellow to DC through L’Enfant.” Having a Blue Line train go over the bridge and up 7th Street would create massive confusion.

I’m almost certain Metro doesn’t really expect to call these trains Blue Line trains, but by referring to them in that way in presentations, it confuses observers and journalists, leading to maps like this:

Image by the Washington Post.

Compared to this, a separate color seems to make a lot of sense. That’s the reaction some riders gave in a focus group, and it was the reaction from Jim Graham at the Board meeting. “There are lots of colors left in the rainbow,” he said, and suggested pink. And the presentations have encouraged this view by including maps showing the new service as a separate line:

Image from WMATA.

However, creating a new color would be a bad idea. I listed a large number of reasons almost two years ago. Among them is that this new color would only run rush hours, and then only three trains per hour. That would likely lead some riders to wait around for a certain line which isn’t coming for hours or until the next day.

It would also make the Metro map much more complex for a service that’s only different from the Yellow Line for riders at four stations, which represent only 3% of total riders. Those stations also get few tourists, and tourists are most likely to become confused while regular riders will quickly get used to any change.

Plus, as Peter Benjamin noted, it’s not quite right to create a new color for one split service pattern, Yellow Line trains that go to Franconia instead of Huntington, but not for the other one, Orange Line trains that go to Largo. Should that get its own color, too? How about ... burgundy?

And some Red Line trains only go from Grosvenor to Silver Spring. Should they be another color? Couple that with the future Silver Line, and the Metro map might end up looking like this insanity:

There’s a much easier way. Just call the trains Yellow Line trains. For almost all their length, they match the Yellow Line. Almost everyone riding them will see no difference. In fact, since the occasional Yellow Line train already goes to Greenbelt, showing the Yellow Line there will clarify these trains as well.

New York used to have a different color for each route, and the ensuing spaghetti map looks not that unlike the crazy rainbow map above. Their biggest innovation was to combine routes that share the same path through the central business district.

DC could easily do the same. A train on the 7th Street subway is either Green or Yellow depending on whether it goes over the Potomac or under the Anacostia. A train on the Foggy Bottom-Capitol Hill line is Orange if it goes to northern Arlington and Fairfax and Blue if it hooks around to the south. That’s a straightforward scheme that has the advantage of being the way things already work.

I think the riders south of King Street and east of Stadium-Armory will have little trouble with this scheme. But if Metro thinks it’ll be confusing, they could introduce route numbers or letters. That could also encompass the way half the Red Line trains don’t run the full length.

Board members criticized the framing of this issue as a “reroute” or “realignment.” The latter, in particular, makes it sound like the tracks are moving.

This is an improvement in service. It’s going to mean more trains across the Potomac to carry more people. A few people lose out, but there’s more capacity. This is a good thing. Metro should talk about this as the service improvement it is.

Since Metro has no communications plan yet, I’ve created one for them. Here’s the flyer I’d recommend posting:

Update: Added a note that this change is planned for summer 2011.

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.