Message board at Metro Center by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Metro has launched a two-year study to look at overcrowding on its Blue, Orange, and Silver lines, which is causing delays to riders as crowded trains fall farther and farther behind.

The fundamental constraint Metro has to contend with is that these three lines all have to funnel down into one set of tracks at Rosslyn. Metro can only run 26 trains per hour on one set of tracks, and has to divvy up “slots” between three lines. Already, these lines have worse on-time performance than the rest of the system, because of this, and planned new growth will make crowding worse.

Image by WMATA.

Metro claims that the “Back2Good” initiative has reduced days with some significant delay on those lines from 100% of days in 2016 to 40% in 2019, but the lines are still a challenge. Because they all interlink, “A delay on one line can create a domino effect, impacting all three lines and, in severe cases, impacting Yellow and Green line service.”

Earlier studies considered a new Blue Line end station at Rosslyn, a fully separate Blue Line through DC, and a “loop” through Georgetown, Union Station, Navy Yard, and Southwest. We’ve looked at those options in detail.

Another study, from 2016, looked at cheaper possibilites for turnaround tracks in the Falls Church area and near Stadium-Armory that could let Metro better manage its trains. Here’s what that study considered.

Turn around Silver trains at East or West Falls Church?

The Silver Line isn’t just, or even mostly, a train from DC to Dulles Airport. It’s a train through Northern Virginia’s downtown, the country’s largest “edge city,” and a business district the size of that of Cleveland or Minneapolis. Tysons’ train could well warrant more than a measly third of the trains that can fit on one track. Maybe it should have some trains that don’t go to DC but move people between its “suburbs” in Loudoun and Fairfax and downtown Tysons.

That could be possible if Metro adds a turnback at either West Falls Church or East Falls Church allowing Silver Line trains to turn around without interfering with Orange ones. That could mean a very short backtrack for the Silver tracks to each West Falls Church, which is right next to the spot the Silver tracks split off from Orange. Or, it could mean a second pair of tracks as far as East Falls Church. where people could transfer.

Potential West Falls Church turnaround by WMATA.

One potential East Falls Church turnaround. The other options involve a separate platform above or below the existing station. Image by WMATA.

The main purpose from the 2016 study wasn’t really to allow more trains, but to allow somewhat fewer. 16,793 hours fewer per year, to be exact, and reducing the trains between East Falls Church and Rosslyn by 8 an hour during the peak. In essence, it would be combining some not-full Silver trains and some not-full Orange into the same train, and mean less frequent trains through north Arlington.

However, this would also allow for more Blue Line trains without forcing riders on the Silver or Orange branches to suffer even fewer, and more crowded, trains. The better options allow for a cross-platform transfer, and we could hope Metro could set up “timed transfers” where your train pulls in and the one you need to switch to is right there across a platform. Other options involve building a new platform above or below the existing one at East Falls Church, which would mean extra time on escalators.

These options were estimated to cost $300-350 million in 2016, far less than a new Rosslyn station (about $1 billion), the cheapest of the “core capacity” options.

Turn around Blue trains at Stadium-Armory?

The original plans for the Silver Line didn’t include more trains east of the Anacostia and in Prince George’s County. The existing trains weren’t crowded. But the existing pocket track near where the Orange and Blue lines split up turned out to be too small to quickly turn trains, because to not overshoot, trains have to pull in fairly slowly. A structural analysis also revealed it wasn’t strong enough either for constant use as opposed to just the occasional use it had gotten before.

The 2016 study looked at two options. One was to lengthen that existing pocket track. The other would add a tunnel under the RFK Stadium north parking lots, where the tracks currently emerge from the ground, and a new station just for turning trains. The study suggests turning the 5 Blue Line trains an hour there, saving 13,034 train-hours a year.

“D&G Junction” pocket track location by WMATA.

Potential Stadium-Armory turnaround by WMATA.

The pocket track was estimated to cost $13 million in 2016 and the new station, $375 million.

It’s worth noting that this would mean less service in areas which see low ridership now, but also are lower-income and historically disadvantaged by transportation decisions. It may pose an equity problem for Metro to “optimize” its service toward areas with higher ridership but also higher incomes. At peak times, though, there are a lot of trains; the bigger equity issue is proposals like this 2016 trial balloon about closing low-ridership stations at off times entirely.

Better transit-oriented development in the DC and Prince George’s County Orange and Blue stations would build more of a case for keeping service here. Right now, Metro runs as many trains on the east end of the Blue/Orange/Silver lines as the west, but has much more ridership in the west. That means the east can add riders without more crowding, building up fare revenue without added costs.

Metro has to plan around a 3% cap

When area jurisdictions agreed to dedicated capital funding for Metro, they also insisted that the agency keep its operating costs increasing no more than 3% a year. This 3% cap is forcing Metro to be frugal, which can be good, but also may really constrain its ability to serve more people.

The current study will be considering ways to boost service while staying under the cap. That will have to mean less in some areas alongside more in others, though adding more in the crowded spots has a wisdom to it. Metro ridership has been declining, recently reaching a 20-year low. Recommendations to rebuild ridership include more frequent service as a top strategy, but Metro can’t just add train frequency without busting its cap — unless it takes it from somewhere else with lower ridership.

Metro has to do another study, when these and other options were already studied, for a few reasons. The 2016 analysis didn’t recommend a particular option, and some circumstances have changed, including with the 3% cap. This study will also serve as a federally-required Alternatives Analysis to qualify for federal funding; Metro has to go through that process sooner or later.

The study is engaging the public this summer in advance of developing specific alternatives. The whole study will continue through fall of 2020.