Metro Rush Plus rides: Your experience may vary with Blue, Yellow lines

John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST - Passengers arrive and depart from a yellow line Metro train at Reagan National Airport just after the system re-opened after Hurricane Sandy in Arlington, Va. on Oct. 30, 2012

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In theory, the sequence of trains during Metro’s Rush Plus hours should be easy to learn, and with a little practice, a rider should be able to figure out which train is best to take, even if it involves a transfer.

In practice, it’s not quite so easy. Late last month, we repeated a Rush Plus test we first did June 20. That was shortly after the new rush-hour service added trains to the Yellow and Orange lines while taking them away from the Blue Line. This time, we added an afternoon version.

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We did the new test to follow up on complaints from Blue Line riders that the new pattern, which removed three Blue Line trains per hour at the peak period, put them at a disadvantage without offering a clear alternative.

Recapping the June 20 test: The two of us traveled from King Street to Farragut West. One took the Blue Line, the other boarded a Yellow Line train to L’Enfant Plaza and transferred to reach the same destination. We wanted to see how crowded the trains and platforms were, while also testing whether some Blue Line riders might be better off taking the Yellow Line, as Metro suggested.

In June, Robert Thomson, who took the Yellow Line and transferred trains at L’Enfant, had seats available on both trains, and arrived at Farragut West after 24 minutes. Mark Berman’s 27-minute trip on a very crowded Blue Line train got him to Farragut West eight minutes after Thomson despite a 10 minute later departure from the King Street station.

Here’s what happened on Thursday, Oct. 18, when we took the same rides.

Thomson’s transfer trip

7:22 a.m. Since the boards can display only three upcoming trains, it’s difficult to spot that big scheduled gap between the Blue Line trains.

And it strikes me that a new rider — someone who wasn’t around for all the springtime publicity about Rush Plus — might not know about the train pattern, and the option of taking different routes. The rider would not have discovered it by using Metro’s online Trip Planner, which showed only the Blue Line options.

8:17 a.m. We could have left much earlier, but I’ve been studying the next-train board waiting for an appropriate gap to duplicate the June test. Now, the board shows these three upcoming trains: A Yellow Line in one minute, another in two minutes and a Blue Line in nine minutes.

8:18 a.m. I take that next Yellow Line train, a six-car, non-Rush Plus one to Mount Vernon Square. Many seats are open.

8:35 a.m. I get off at L’Enfant Plaza and head for the lower level, waiting about a minute for an Orange Line train toward Vienna. It’s crowded, but not packed.

8:49 a.m. At Federal Triangle, the train holds for the fourth time. A train ahead of us has a door problem, the operator says.

8:58 a.m. We reach Farragut West aboard the now-packed train. Trip time: 40 minutes.

Berman’s direct route

8:27 a.m. I board an eight-car Blue Line train heading to Largo. Plenty of people get on with me, but some still wait for another Yellow Line train coming in two minutes, which would mean four such trains in 11 minutes. On my train, a few seats are open, and there’s plenty of standing room.

8:35 a.m. At Crystal City, we get our biggest infusion of new riders since King Street, and the train is now fairly crowded.

8:39 a.m. At Pentagon, even more people board and only a few get off. Crowds surge into the train despite the chimes warning about doors closing. With no room to move, we chug off.

8:44 a.m. At Rosslyn, a very large crowd leaves, giving everyone a moment to stretch before nearly as many riders board.

8:47 a.m. After a bumpy trip under the Potomac River, more than half the riders on my car leave at Foggy Bottom. Most seats are filled, but the aisles clear out.

8:49 a.m. Arrive at Farragut West. Trip time: 22 minutes.

Reversing direction

On Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 23, we did the trip in reverse. For a rider trying to decide whether to take the direct route or the transfer route, starting from Farragut West is a bit tricky because the station has platforms on either side of the tunnel. So a rider concerned about the timing probably would make the choice by looking at the next-train board outside of the fare gates.

Thomson’s transfer trip

4:31 p.m. I’m committed to the eastbound platform now, so I board an Orange Line train toward Largo. About half the seats are occupied. This is one of the extra Rush Plus trains. Largo is normally the destination for Blue Line trains.

4:39 p.m. We arrive at L’Enfant Plaza, and I go upstairs to a very crowded Yellow/Green Line platform. Many people will board a Green Line train at 4:44 p.m., but the platform will remain crowded.

4:47 p.m. A big crowd boards the Yellow Line train to Huntington, the normal destination for Yellow Line trains. It’s standing room only.

4:56 p.m. At Crystal City, there’s more breathing room, but the car remains crowded.

5:04 p.m. We arrive at King Street. The operator announces that this is a transfer point, so riders trying to reach Franconia-Springfield can switch trains. Trip time: 33 minutes.

Berman’s direct route

4:37 p.m. I board a six-car Blue Line heading to Franconia-Springfield. There are a few seats open, but this train has already picked up quite a few riders.

4:39 p.m. Riders pile on and bunch around the doors at Foggy Bottom, leaving quite a bit of space in the aisles between the doors.

4:42 p.m. At Rosslyn, more people board than get off. My car and the next one are very crowded, with people lining the aisles.

4:51 p.m. At Crystal City, I see the same thing I saw at the Pentagon and Pentagon City stops: A big crowd gets off, a nearly equal crowd replaces them. The crowds largely pack around doors, still leaving pockets of space in the aisles.

4:59 p.m. Some riders head off at Braddock Road, giving the standing passengers a little more breathing room.

5 p.m. Many riders get off along with me at King Street, clearing most of the aisles and some of the seats on several cars. Trip time: 23 minutes.

Dr. Gridlock’s observations

The first leg of the transfer trips provided the most comfortable ride, but required a walk from platform to platform that led to a more crowded second leg. It also took more time than the direct route, although the direct route’s trains were jammed. More eight-car trains would help the Blue Line riders.

Using the next-train boards to make an instant pick each day is difficult. So unless there’s some obvious problem on a line, riders are likely to fall into a habit based on what feels right. But it would be best to base that habit on repeated experiences with both routes.

Meanwhile, Metro should be pushing Rush Plus information at riders, using platform personnel, station and train announcements and Trip Planner.

 
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