The six Yellow and Blue Line stations south of National Airport were closed last weekend from May 4 to 5, as Metro, Alexandria’s DASH, and Metro’s contractors geared up for the 107-day-long shutdown set to begin May 25. While the bus services ran fairly smoothly on a weekend, signage needs to be fixed. The dry-run may allow Metro to find and correct missing or inaccurate signs and fine-tune other tools to help riders through the ordeal.
Two of the five summer shutdown shuttle bus routes ran during the May 4 and 5 shutdown. Metro buses operated the Yellow Line shuttle down to Huntington, and DASH buses operated the longer shuttle route out to Franconia-Springfield. Three other shuttle routes are expected to run during the long summer shutdown, including two express shuttles from Franconia-Springfield and Huntington.
In addition, on Saturday, Metro unexpectedly operated a weekday schedule on the Orange, Silver, Blue, Yellow, and Green lines, with normal eight-minute headways on them all (but not the Red, since there was single-tracking). This was a chance for Metro to re-familiarize itself with how to use National Airport as a terminal station and to ensure smooth operations to get trains in and out as quickly as possible.
I set out Saturday to ride the Yellow Line bus shuttles down to Huntington. I took the train down to National Airport as a regular rider might, expecting to hop off and take a bus shuttle further south. I ran into the first signage issue of my day trip here. The sign on the platform at National Airport points you towards where shuttle buses should be, but makes no mention that only Blue Line shuttle buses pick up at the airport.
National Airport acts as a terminal station once again
Metro’s Blue Line operated only down to National Airport when it opened in 1977, and it wasn’t until 1983 that any service extended south of the station on the Yellow Line. Similar to the old days, trains entered and exited the station from the north this past weekend.
The Rail Operations Control Center tried a few different methods of dealing with trains at the station, and settled on one that worked reasonably well with trains coming every four minutes when both Yellow and Blue Line trains ran every eight minutes during simulated rush service. All trains entered the airport, offloaded passengers from the center track, and then turned around to pick up passengers heading north on the inbound track.
On Sunday, with less frequent trains, operators used a variant of the Spanish solution. Trains entered the center pocket track at National, let passengers off on the south/west platform side, closed the train doors, and then let passengers on from the east/north platform.
Buses seemed to run well, but bad signage is a risk
Bus operations overall seemed to operate fairly well. There were quite a number of buses available for both shuttles and they seemed to be running often. The shuttles towards Huntington also made reasonable time, although there was only weekend traffic.
However at National Airport, additional signs lower in the station were even more misleading than the one on the platform. Two signs on the doors as you walk into the airport spoke of free shuttle buses between National and both Huntington and Franconia-Springfield, even though only one of those routes operated from the station.
In reality, for the shutdown, riders taking the Yellow Line shuttles will need to get off at Crystal City if they want to continue to Braddock Road or beyond. If you get on the wrong shuttle, you’ll be able to transfer at King Street where both local shuttle bus routes operate.
During the shutdown, riders should assume that the six stations will be completely closed unless Metro says otherwise. That means riders won’t be able to walk through them to get to the other side. At King Street, for example, you won’t be able to walk in or near the station if you’re heading east from the VRE station, and at Huntington you won’t be able to head inside the station to get from the lower to the upper side or vice versa.
King Street is the only station of the six closed at which both local shuttles will stop. The two will pick up and drop off at the same spot on Diagonal Road and as such both Shuttle Bus Stop signs are in the same spot.
Presumably for the 107-day shutdown the shuttles will be designated by the colors Metro has listed online—teal for the Blue Line shuttle, magenta for the Yellow Line shuttle—but the rail line colors themselves were used for the dry-run weekend. The colors conflicted with the two lines at the top and bottom of the signs which Metro uses to brand the Platform Improvement Project, and ended up being more confusing than helpful.
The summer shutdown at King Street coincides with the project already underway to increase the number of bus bays, remove short-term parking, and separate taxis and Kiss & Ride spots.
Signage at the station was confusing and the posted signs conflicted with each other. One sign with an arrow pointing towards the station tells riders they can head that way towards the station, Amtrak, VRE, and taxis, while the shutdown signage below forbid access to the area. Walking to the VRE station required walking up Diagonal Road to King Street, which added time to the trip.
Without bus-only lanes, trip times will vary
The shutdown dry-run occurred on a weekend with limited vehicle traffic, which won’t be the case during morning and evening weekday commutes. Blue Line shuttles heading south from National Airport took George Washington Parkway into Alexandria and turned onto King Street to head over to the station.
On the other hand, Yellow Line shuttles heading south from Crystal City took Route 1 all the way down to Braddock Road in the regular travel lanes. The regular buses aren’t equipped with the transponders needed to use the MetroWay dedicated bus lanes.
Buses seemed to run smoothly on the weekend, but that won’t necessarily be the case during the work week. With over 17,000 daily Metro riders impacted by the shutdown, those who drive to work instead or want to catch an Uber or Lyft will add extra vehicles to the same roads the buses are traveling on, which will slow down everyone on the road.
Metro and its construction crew still have several weeks until the long shutdown begins. That's enough time to fix issues that popped up during the dry-run for May 25.
Most signs seem to have been purely text with no images, and the one with a map of the shutdown didn’t show where the shuttle buses were running. The confusing and complicated signage is definitely something that needs to be—and can be—fixed before the shutdown begins for both daily commuters, as well as visitors and other infrequent Metro users.
The agency can’t afford to lose riders from blunders that make bus and rail harder to use. A mishandled shutdown could result in more people leaving the system, possibly for good.
Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.