Metro Silver Line is a breakthrough in D.C. area travel, but not for all

Columnist August 2, 2014

Riding the Silver Line during its first few days, I was focused on finding things that needed fixing or tips that could help riders. Were the platform signs confusing? Did train schedules match reality?

The problems were smaller than I had feared. But the biggest lesson that seeped through was: This new train thing is going to be big. No planner’s document, no artist’s rendering matches the understanding conveyed by taking transit through Tysons Corner, out to the western suburbs and back to the middle of the D.C. region.

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. View Archive

Creating train access for shoppers to gigantic malls at Tysons is like telling 16th century European merchants that they have a sea route to the spice islands. They’ll figure out the rest.

For commuters, there’s new, car-free access to job centers previously reachable only by braving some of America’s most soul-sapping drives. Kiss the Beltway goodbye.

I wish every traveler could experience only the upside. What’s the opposite of a silver lining?

One traveler’s letter does much to sum up comments I received from those who tested the new line.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

As a longtime, car-free Fairfax Connector/Metro commuter to McPherson Square, here are my initial impressions after Week 1:

The good: Shiny new Wiehle station, safer walking surfaces than with the old smooth tile, seats on the train always available.

The bad: 40 percent overall fare increase, five-minute to 10-minute door-to-door elapsed time increase because of a longer walk from bus to train vs. West Falls Church station and the four intermediate Tysons stops.

The ugly: Wasted recent landscaping and canopy improvements to the now-mostly abandoned bus facility at West Falls Church.

Overall, the Silver Line will be good for the region’s economic development, and I might even go to Tysons more than once a year, but it’s a net negative for my commute. At least I’ll have a seat, until Phase 2 is completed.

— Robert Cupina, Reston

Many commuters from the Herndon-Reston area felt they’d been hijacked. They were okay with a transit system in which Fairfax Connector buses took them to the Orange Line station at West Falls Church. Fairfax County wants to make the most of the Silver Line, so many of its bus routes now take a shorter trip to the Silver Line’s Wiehle-Reston East station, in exchange for a longer and more expensive ride for those going downtown.

The Silver Line, which will be at least a $5.6 billion investment by the time Phase 2 is finished to Loudoun County, is a radical change in our local travel network. And it’s out in front of other needed improvements.

This affects commuters like Cupina, and it affects the shoppers. Once they leave the Tysons station, they’re in for rude surprises about pedestrian pathways. The upside here: A shiny new Silver Line illuminates what still needs fixing.

Weekend woes

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I wanted to make you aware of an issue with inaccurate weekend alerts for the Red Line.

My husband and I were fortunate to have tickets to the Saturday (July 26) Billy Joel concert at Nationals Park. We checked Metro’s alerts and weekend timetable to plan the best route to the stadium. The alert on the Red Line said to expect a train every 20 minutes from Glenmont, our closest station. Given this information, we saw no reason to drive to Greenbelt or Grosvenor to avoid track work.

Despite using the weekend train calculator to time our arrival at Glenmont, we had to wait 25 minutes for the train to leave. It then took nearly 30 minutes to go four stops because of an unannounced single-tracking area between Forest Glen and Takoma.

We wound up having to text a friend to cancel dinner plans because our trip from Glenmont to Navy Yard took about 90 minutes.

I understand the importance of the rebuilding work. However, Metro’s poor service and communication give area residents absolutely no incentive to get out of their cars.

— Jenni Glenn Gingery, Aspen Hill

Metro mistakenly left that portion of the Red Line track work zone off its weekend schedule. If the train schedule worked the way Metro officials would like it to, the omission shouldn’t have mattered. Theoretically, scheduling trains every 20 minutes in outer zones of the line should create enough spacing to avoid delays at single-tracking zones.

That’s not what’s happening. On the weekend of July 26, trains got backed up entering and exiting the single-tracking zone north of Fort Totten. Arrivals at platforms were not evenly spaced. Riders could not rely on Metro’s online Trip Planner for accurate times.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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