Taken during the May 4/5 shutdown. Image by the author.

The first week of the Yellow and Blue Line shutdown got off to a rough start, but ended more smoothly on Friday after Metro, its contractors, and riders began to settle into the interim travel patterns. With more than 90 days still left in the shutdown, there is plenty of time for more things to go wrong, but also room for improvements like faster trips and real-time bus tracking.

The start to the 107-day shutdown of the Braddock Road, King Street, Eisenhower Avenue, Huntington, Van Dorn, and Franconia-Springfield stations was a bit rocky. Riders initially reported a handful of buses getting lost (one ended up at the Anacostia Metro station), and some drivers had to ask riders for directions. Other reports indicated some shuttle operators weren’t taking the I-395 HOV lanes to and from the Pentagon and were getting stuck in traffic. Lines at some of the rail stations were reported to be…quite long.

By Friday, it seems things settled down. Metro says it anticipated some “operational issues” early on in the shutdown that would “generally be smoothed out during the first week” as the agency addressed issues turning trains around at National Airport more efficiently. There had been significant delays there earlier in the week. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld told WTOP he expected things to get better as the shutdown continues.

Metro staff are “doing everything they can” to smooth out operations

Vice Chair of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council (RAC) Andrew Kierig had both criticism and praise to offer Metro staff early in the shutdown. In RAC’s conversations with Metro employees, Kierig says Metro staff are “banging their heads against the wall, doing everything they can to get this right.”

Academy, the charter bus shuttle operator, was “supposed to go through the route [training] again,” Kierig noted on Wednesday, May 29 after Metro performed “troubleshooting” to learn from the first two weekdays of the shutdown. However, despite Metro’s efforts, riders ran into some of the same issues on Thursday.

“Shuttle service over the week improved considerably,” said Kierig, but RAC members wished more had been done to prep for the shutdown ahead of time. “WMATA should have started the shuttle services a week before…to work the kinks out” they said, and drivers should have been trained well enough to know their routes by heart.

Image by the author.

There will be bus shuttle changes beginning at Huntington

Metro announced Sunday, June 2 that the express bus shuttles from Huntington station would no longer stop at both northern and southern entrances during rush hour. Instead, separate express routes to the Pentagon will run to either the north or the south side of the station.

“Customers on the north (lower) side will benefit from reduced crowding on buses and customers on the south (upper) side will experience shorter travel times,” reads the press release.

Shuttle buses, as well as some regularly-scheduled routes, will also stop in new locations in the northern and southern bus loops. Metro “expects improved traffic flow in the bus loop and faster service for the Express shuttle [to Pentagon Metro].”

Delays outside of the shutdown area contrasted with Metro’s claim

Metro pamphlets and news releases prior to the shutdown said that impacts would be limited outside of the shutdown location: “Trains will operate at near-normal service across the rest of the system.” But riders taking the train towards National Airport saw different results during the first few weekdays of the shutdown.

Trains arriving at National Airport were averaging accumulated delays of almost 20 minutes during evening rush on Tuesday, May 28, and over 10 minutes in the morning.

Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority officials issued guidance to travelers to and from National Airport assuming normal train conditions north of the airport. “It’s very key to our success that folks continue using public transit,” said MWAA spokesperson Brian Kalish in a statement to WTOP.

Delays to trains heading towards the station could be detrimental to the already-congested airport’s roads if they cause more people to take cars instead. Traffic in and around the airport has been worse this year than usual. Some lanes are blocked due to construction of a new terminal and security facility.

“One of our key strategies is to promote use of public transit, and to make sure that we are communicating to folks that you can go north,” noted Kalish.

Turning trains around differently at National Airport reduced delays

Metro began the shutdown attempting to use something called the “Spanish Solution,” where trains would enter the center pocket track at National Airport, open doors and discharge passengers on the southbound platform, open doors and load passengers from the northbound platform, and then leave out of the station to the north.

Using this single-track method resulted in backups and led the Rail Operations Control Center to instruct a handful of trains to offload and reverse back at Pentagon City. Blue and Yellow trains each arrive at National Airport every eight minutes, resulting in a combined four-minute headway. If one train ended up taking too long to turn around at National, it could cause a ripple effect and delay others behind it.

Metro began switching up procedures on Wednesday and solidified new ways to turn trains around at National on Thursday and Friday, which resulted in far fewer delays. Operators were allowed to use both the southbound and the center platforms to offload passengers. Most trains would continue south past the station in order to turn around before heading back north to pick riders up.

By Friday morning, Yellow and Blue Line trains arriving at National were delayed less than five minutes each on average during rush hour.

Ridership seems ok so far, but time will tell

Overall, Metrorail ridership last week through Thursday, May 30 hovered around what it was a year before. Past experience, however, suggests that ridership could drop at the closed stations as the surge continues.

Rush hour ridership at closed stations fell as much as 70% during SafeTrack Surges 3 and 4, which closed National Airport to Braddock Road and then Pentagon City to National Airport for 14 days total. Ridership on parallel alternate bus routes doubled during both surges, and Metroway bus ridership “nearly tripled.”

“The sheer volume of ridership on the shuttle buses made the shuttle operation Metro’s busiest bus line,” reported Alexandria after Surges 3 and 4. Bus shuttles carried 17,000 trips per day during Surge 3, and 25,000 per day during Surge 4.

A Northern Virginia Transportation Commission spreadsheet from 2018 used to coordinate questions and tasks prior to the shutdown noted that there were no permanent or temporary bus lanes set up in the affected area to allow the shuttles carrying riders to move freely between stations. “WMATA brought the issue up to VDOT and they have stated that due to roadway constraints and ongoing construction projects, they will be unable to accommodate dedicated lanes on the VA side of the 14th street bridge,” the spreadsheet reads.

A 0.9-mile portion of the shoulder on the 495 Outer Loop was eventually set up to serve as a travel lane for shuttle buses traveling between Eisenhower Avenue and Telegraph Road during afternoon rush.

No real-time tracking is available for bus shuttles

There is no real-time location data available for the contracted shuttle buses running most of the routes in the shutdown area, and Metro hasn’t integrated location data from the DASH buses running the local Blue Line route yet. The agency said some location tracking would be available on weekends on the Yellow Line when Metro’s own buses run that route, however that appears not to be the case.

When asked what went into trying to equip the contracted shuttle buses with real-time location tracking, Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly said only that the shuttles “are not equipped to provide real-time arrival information directly to customers.” Ly said riders could use Metro’s trip planner and third-party apps which “are providing scheduled [arrival time] information for all shuttle buses.”

Ly added that “Metro’s real-time bus predictions, BusETA, is available for all regular Metrobus routes (including enhanced service) and the Yellow Line shuttle bus on weekends.”

Agency staff “continue to work with DASH to integrate its real-time data with Metro’s BusETA real-time bus predictions,” according to Ly, but Metro was unable to provide a date when that might be available.

Impacts will continue after September 8

Senior Metro management and General Manager Paul Widefeld hope the shutdown will be over on September 8, and all six shuttered stations will reopen for riders on September 9. But even if that happens, major construction, including single-tracking, will continue at at least three of the six stations and “residual construction activities” will “likely continue at all six.”

Metro and Kiewit, the general contractor for the project, are focusing their efforts on rebuilding the platforms at Braddock Road, King Street, and Eisenhower Avenue during the shutdown. Work to replace the platforms at Huntington, Van Dorn, and Franconia is expected to continue past the end of the shutdown for potentially another three months, although the stations will be open while that occurs.

While all six Yellow and Blue Line stations are expected to reopen on September 9, trains will single-track around crews performing the continuing platform replacement work, which may result in fewer trains arriving than normal. Metro has yet to release specific details about that portion of the work.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

Adopt-A-Tag

Allison Davis is this month’s sponsor for posts about Transit. Learn more »

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.