What’s so ‘new’ about the Silver Line?


New station, same old trains at Wiehle-Reston East station, the west end of the Silver Line’s first phase. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Metro riders who have grown tired of delays, train breakdowns and escalator outages have been using various forums to invite bets on the first time one of those things will affect Silver Line commuters.

Take the commute of Monday, July 28, and you almost certainly will win. Anything else is a sucker bet.

How can that be, given that that the line is brand new, opening just this Saturday?

It’s not that new. If you commute from the west end of the line at Wiehle-Reston East to Metro Center, in the middle of downtown Washington, your trip will take you through five new stations and 10 old stations. If you start your Silver Line station from the east end, at Largo Town Center, the entire trip takes you through well-used stations.

And no matter where you start, the trip will be made on well-used equipment. Travelers sometimes refer to the next generation of Metrorail cars as “the Silver Line cars.” A bunch of those nice-looking 7000 series railcars are being bought to accommodate the addition of the Silver Line, but they’re not meant to be used exclusively on the Silver Line. Also, they’re not here. And they won’t be in service for many months after the Silver Line opening.

Halfway through Metro’s rebuilding program, the transit authority has made more progress fixing the tracks than fixing the railcars. On Metro’s service report for Wednesday, I count 13 delays attributable to train problems. Where a specific cause is specified, it’s the typical mix of door and brake issues.

If you commute on the Silver Line, that’s the same equipment you will be traveling aboard. But your Silver Line train doesn’t have to be the cause of a delay for you to experience a delay. The new line will share 23 stations with other lines. So a breakdown on the Blue or Orange lines will delay trains not only on those lines but also on the Silver Line.

Delays at rush hour tend to ripple all the way along a line, in both directions. So even if you were commuting only on the new part of the Silver Line, between a bus stop at Wiehle-Reston East and a job in Tysons Corner, you could get caught up in a delay stemming from a train problem at Metro Center.

Would a Silver Line rider at least be safe from disruptions because of weekend track work? No. While the track through the five Silver Line stations opening in Fairfax County is new, most of the Silver Line is part of Metro’s long-term rebuilding program. So if Metro should set up a work zone between, let’s say, Eastern Market and Stadium-Armory, that could lead to a scheduled change on the Silver Line, as well as on the Blue and Orange lines. (In case you’re planning an opening day ride, the only line with work this weekend is the Red Line.)

And about those elevators and escalators: If the Silver Line were operating today, it would pass through 20 stations where elevators or escalators are out of service for various reasons.

So even if you plan to travel exclusively on the Silver Line, and even if it’s just on the new tracks between Wiehle Avenue and Tysons Corner, sign up for Metro’s text and e-mail alerts about disruptions. That, at least, is a good bet.

See related: Interactive Silver Line map

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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