Silver Line opening presents unique challenges


Many travelers think of the Silver Line as five new stations in Fairfax, but the route continues to Largo Town Center. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A traveler’s comment submitted for Monday’s online chat got me thinking about the challenges the Silver Line opening represents for both Metro and commuters.

This is the comment.

Lessons Learned: It’s been a long time since a completely new Metro line has opened. Do you recall if there were any lessons learned from the opening of the Green or Yellow lines that should be applied to the opening of the Silver Line? Do we assume that everyone knows how to use a [SmarTrip card]? New riders will be mixing with experienced riders. What does this mean at the gates? Bonus question: Will there be heavy advertising regarding traffic flow at the new stations? I haven’t seen a lot of signage yet to indicate where people can be dropped off.

I don’t see anything in Metro’s recent history quite like opening the Silver Line. The most recent opening wasn’t the Green or Yellow lines. It was the three-mile extension of the Blue Line to Largo Town Center in 2004. That opening went rather smoothly, compared to the previous big opening in 2001, which added five stations to complete the Green Line along the 6-1/2 miles between Anacostia and Branch Avenue.

When the final segment opened in January 2001, The Post’s Lyndsey Layton wrote that Metro expected the new stations would draw thousands of new riders from Prince George’s County and Southern Maryland. “New trains ordered to serve those riders are not ready for service, but Metro officials say they have enough cars to handle the extra riders until the new trains start rolling in late winter. For commuters who drive north from Southern Maryland, the new Green Line stations offer a chance to pull off clogged Routes 5, 4 and 210 and board a train.”

Commuters took immediate advantage of that opportunity. A few days later, Layton wrote: “The opening of five Metro stations has poured nearly 20,000 new daily riders onto the Green Line, overwhelming platforms and packing trains so early that passengers down the line have to elbow their way on board or watch the stuffed trains roll by.”

Metro quickly had to add rail cars to the line to address riders’ complaints, drawing those extra cars from the rest of the rail system.

That sort of history will get the attention of today’s transit riders. At the time the Green Line stations opened, Metro was awaiting the arrival of new rail cars. On the eve of the Silver Line’s opening, Metro is awaiting the arrival of new rail cars, but knows they won’t be available for months after opening day.

And the Silver Line?
I’ve got some reasons to say, “That was then, and this is now.”

  • In those days, Metro had many fewer rail cars. And on the Green Line, the transit authority was running four-car trains, easily overwhelmed when the initial ridership exceeded planners’ expectations. The Metro fleet has grown considerably since 2001, and now consists of six-car and eight-car trains.
  • The new Branch Avenue, Suitland, Naylor Road and Southern Avenue stations on the Green Line all offered parking to meet the pent-up demand from Prince George’s County and Southern Maryland commuters. Only one of the five new Silver Line stations, the one on the west end of the line at Wiehle Avenue, has a parking garage.
  • The initial success of the Silver Line depends in large part on complicated plans to get thousands of Orange Line riders to switch over to the Silver Line, using buses to get them there. This effort has involved a lengthy publicity campaign, but it’s difficult to tell how many commuters will change their habits until the new stations open. Commuters have many reasons for clinging to their old ways, and it’s not just stubbornness. We saw that with Metro’s effort to get Blue Line riders to switch to the Yellow Line into the District. “We learned in Rush Plus that commuter habits are very deeply held,” Metro Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox said Monday.

Saying that the problems with the Silver Line opening won’t be the same as with Green Line isn’t to say there won’t be problems.

In advance of the opening, Metro is conducting an education and marketing campaign the likes of which I did not see for the previous station openings. But on day one of any traffic or transit project, there always are plenty of people who clearly don’t know everything they need to know about the new commuting strategies. Veteran commuters, think of how much of your trip to work is done on autopilot. You know the garage level where you’re most likely to find the first available parking space; you know where the bus will let you off and how different the actual trip time will be from the scheduled time; you know where to stand on the train platform so that you’ll be able to exit close to the escalator at your destination station.

Comments from some Orange Line riders who board at the stations from East Falls Church through Rosslyn lead me to fear some may — at least initially — be reluctant to step aboard the Silver Line trains, even though the new trains will mimic the Orange Line route between Foggy Bottom and Stadium-Armory.

Right now, Metro’s campaign is focused on making travelers aware of the Silver Line exists and where it can take them. But plans also include familiarizing riders with the basic details of how to use the stations. And when the line opens, Metro plans to have extra staff on the platforms — the old platforms along the route, as well as the new platforms — to answer questions.

The biggest lesson history offers isn’t that a past problem will repeat itself. It’s that something new will surprise us.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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