New Metro Silver Line, like other Metrorail lines, won’t run express trains

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 15

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Has Metro considered an express option for the Silver Line, or any other line where service duplicates that of another line?

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

For example, could the Silver Line (when it finally opens) offer local service through the Tysons Corner stops to where it merges with the Orange Line, and then go to express mode until, say, Foggy Bottom?

Silver Line riders needing stops in Virginia could switch at the merge, but those bound for the District could — in theory — save substantial amounts of time. As the Silver Line extends farther into western Fairfax and Loudoun counties — and even for those boarding in Reston — this could provide a needed incentive for single-occupant vehicles to park and ride.

— Jeff Wiese, Reston

No express service for the Silver Line or any other line. Neither the original system nor the new 11-mile extension to the Reston area was built with an extra track, which would allow trains to skip stations and bypass local trains.

This is not an unusual design for a U.S. subway system. These things aren’t cheap or easy to build.

Metrorail’s original construction costs and the disruptions of neighborhoods often threatened its completion. With the Silver Line, cost was a constant concern. In 2008, the Federal Transit Administration threatened to withhold funds because of the Silver Line’s cost.

A third track for the Silver Line would be real nice. So would a tunnel through McLean and Tysons Corner. So would an underground station near where the airplanes are at Dulles International Airport. None of those things are happening, because the cost was deemed too high.

Still, it’s easy to see Wiese’s point about the benefits of express trains. Wiese, who lives a long walk from the temporary end of the Silver Line at the Wiehle-Reston East station, expects to find many people coming in from western Fairfax and Loudoun counties as they transfer to rail for the last part of their D.C.-bound commute.

Metro and Fairfax planners also expect to see that. The garage at the Wiehle Avenue station, which can accommodate 2,300 cars and 150 bicycles, is the only one built for the five new stations.

Many bus routes will be adjusted to funnel travelers into the Wiehle Avenue station. Metro will halt its Rush Plus service on the Orange Line and shift those peak-period trains to the Silver Line so that the Silver Line can operate every six minutes during rush hours.

But Metro calculates the normal travel time between Wiehle Avenue and Metro Center at 41 minutes. That’s a fairly long time on a train. Shady Grove to Metro Center is 36 minutes. Vienna to Metro Center is 29 minutes.

The Silver Line travel times reflect the varied missions of this project. Among them: Move commuters, offer a one-seat transit link between the region’s center and the airport and provide focal points for transit-oriented development. They’re all important, but they don’t always mesh smoothly.

An air traveler bound for the District would prefer an express from Dulles to the District. A commuter who boards at Wiehle Avenue and works at the Pentagon or Crystal City wants a stop at Rosslyn for a switch to the Blue Line.

Neither of those riders will be interested in the four stops in Tysons Corner, each stop two minutes apart.

The service plan that Metro developed over the past several years is consistent with the Silver Line’s environmental impact statement, which dates to 2002. That document previews the shifting of Orange Line trains to the Silver Line, with the resulting decline in rush-hour service between Vienna and West Falls Church.

It does not make a case for express trains. Even if that could be done within Metro’s existing structure, it would require a significant cut in service for commuters waiting at stations from Ballston through the District.

As Metro’s planners look ahead to 2025 and beyond, they’re still not thinking of express tracks along existing lines, as travelers find on the New York subway. But they are looking at several other possibilities that would help move people across Northern Virginia and into the District.

A key element in the 2025 plan is a proposal to either add a track at Rosslyn to create a new link between the Blue Line and the Orange and Silver lines or open a second Rosslyn station for the Blue Line. In either case, transit staffers say, it would allow Metro to push more trains through Rosslyn and cut waiting times.

Either one would cost about $1 billion.

Beyond that, the planners are talking about the possibility of creating an inner loop of stations to add capacity in the region’s core by 2040. That would include another Potomac River crossing for trains at Rosslyn.

Add many billions more for that plan, if it someday gets approved by the region’s governments.

This is why our big plans progress like our train rides: one stop at a time.

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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