Metro Silver Line will add service for some transit riders, but subtract from others

Columnist

As we await the opening of Metro’s Silver Line, I’ve been hearing from travelers who want to know how it’s going to help them — or hurt them.

In the former category, a transit user commenting on the Dr. Gridlock blog asked me to clarify where the Fairfax Connector 585 bus would drop off passengers at the new Wiehle-Reston East station, at the west end of the Silver Line’s first phase.

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

This is the sort of traveler whom local transportation officials consider a model citizen, because the question indicates the traveler is doing some homework about the new options opening up with the Silver Line. The problem was that in checking various sources, the would-be bus rider discovered some apparently conflicting information about the connector’s drop-off point.

On Metro’s Silver Line Web site, www.silverlinemetro.com, a map indicated that the drop-off point will be on the south side of the Dulles Toll Road. But a map on the Fairfax Connector Web site, at www.fairfaxconnector.com, suggested that the drop-off would occur at the big garage for the station on the north side of the toll road.

Nick Perfili, Fairfax County’s Silver Line project planner, clarified that for me. He said that both the 585 and 985 will stop at the south side bus bays, the ones on the ramp to Wiehle Avenue coming off the eastbound toll road.

Most of the other Fairfax Connector buses serving the station will stop on the north side.

Some travelers have wondered whether the garage will be available on the Silver Line’s opening day. I think they might be looking at the big development around the garage, rather than at the garage itself. Fairfax County officials say it will be available for parking when the trains start running.

Will it hurt?

While travelers are writing more often now to find out how they can take advantage of the Silver Line, many more ask how it’s going to take advantage of them.

They’re not being paranoid — especially if they ride the Orange or Blue lines.

The Blue Line riders have seen that coming for a while. When the Silver Line starts, they lose two trains per hour during the rush, bringing them down to one train every 12 minutes.

Because that’s the most dramatic effect of adding the Silver Line, another form of subtraction has remained in the shadows. That’s the end of Rush Plus service on the Orange Line.

Those trains will go away to accommodate trains running every six minutes along the Silver Line. So in the morning rush, riders at the stations from Vienna to West Falls Church will have fewer trains.

Metro and Fairfax County planners are working to get some riders — particularly those who reach stations by bus — to shift over to the five new Silver Line stations, reducing the potential for extra crowding on those west side Orange Line platforms.

Orange Line riders who board at the stations in Arlington County have been asking whether the Silver Line start-up will increase crowding on their platforms. That I don’t see, because if you total up the number of Orange and Silver line trains, you have the same service at those Arlington County stations you have today.

But I’m wondering whether the Silver Line’s effect might be greater in the afternoon rush, when people are leaving downtown Washington and heading home to Virginia and Maryland — especially during a service disruption, such as the one riders experienced on the afternoon of June 13.

A problem with the third rail near the Rosslyn station forced Metro to put all the Blue and Orange line trains onto one track through that area. The resulting backup of trains at the height of the afternoon rush jammed both the trains and the platforms.

What happens when the Silver Line trains are added to that mix? Riders going a short distance — for example, Capitol South to Foggy Bottom — just get on the next train they can cram aboard. But the other riders are going to wait to see a color they like before boarding.

This is most complicated for westbound riders. Instead of having two terminal destinations — Vienna and Franconia-Springfield — they will be heading for three, when the Silver Line adds the trains to Tysons Corner and the Reston area.

That might cause riders to linger longer on the downtown platforms as they await their own line, which could make the difficult scene in a disruption even more difficult.

This is your silver lining: The new rail cars on order should start entering service late this year. They will create more eight-car trains, and the new cars should have fewer of the door and brake problems that knock trains out of service at the height of rush hour.

Still, as long as trains have moving parts and roll over tracks, there will be breakdowns, and riders will endure experiences similar to the afternoon of June 13. We’ll discover quickly enough in the coming months whether those experiences will be worse or better than before the Silver Line.

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