It's rush hour, and the signs of crowding on Metro's Orange Line in Northern Virginia are unmistakable.
First comes the dash for a parking spot at the station. Then the passengers jostle for an empty seat. And then the delay when trains stack up as they reach the system's choke point, the tunnel under the Potomac River between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom, which is big enough to accommodate only one track in each direction.
Passengers board trains at the West Falls Church station. Congestion has long afflicted Northern Virginia's highways, but delays are becoming more of an issue on the region's Metro lines as well.
(Larry Morris - The Washington Post)
"It's insane," said Anita Tawil, an airline sales executive waiting to board a train recently at the West Falls Church Station. "I've been taking this line for a good 15 years, and there are more and more delays, especially in the last year. Being in transportation myself -- well, when we have a delay, we apologize."
Crowding and delays have long been an affliction of Northern Virginia's highways, but they increasingly are becoming a part of life for thousands of riders on the region's Metro lines as well.
If and when the proposed $4 billion Orange Line extension through Tysons Corner and Reston to Dulles International Airport is built, thousands of additional passengers could be packed onto trains heading into downtown Washington. A recent Metro study estimated 73,000 weekday passengers would ride the subway to and from stops on the extension to Reston.
The added burden raises questions about whether Metro can carry everyone on the Orange Line, especially because of the bottleneck at the Potomac River tunnel shared by Blue and Orange line trains from Virginia.
Transit officials such as Jim Hughes, Metro's planning director, said they are prepared.
By next year, he said, Metro will begin replacing six-car trains with eight-car trains, adding a third more space to each train.
Metro is also working on a plan to ease the crunch at the Potomac River tunnel by diverting every other rush-hour Blue Line train to the Potomac River bridge that carries the Yellow Line between Northern Virginia and the District. The rerouted trains would skip some Blue Line stations, inconveniencing passengers waiting at those stops while making the trip faster for others. Most significantly, however, the diversion would free up critical tunnel capacity for Orange Line demands.
"We're at the point where we are putting five pounds of cars through a four-pound tunnel," Hughes said. The tunnel opened in 1977 to Blue Line trains and two years later began serving trains from the first Orange Line stations in Northern Virginia.
The tunnel is best suited for about 26 trains an hour; at the peak of the rush most mornings, 29 trains an hour pass through, Hughes said.
The extra trains mean delays up and down the line, largely because when one train is held up, it means that several others are likely to be late as well.
"There's not adequate spacing," Hughes said. "If we got back to 26, we could cut back on the bumper effect, which is something like the rubbernecking effects on a highway."
Not surprisingly, money is crucial to the proposed solutions, and some question whether Metro, which is already facing a budget deficit, can keep up with growing ridership -- much of it from Fairfax County's three Orange Line stops -- along with the planned extension to Dulles. The first phase of the project, an extension between West Falls Church and Wiehle Avenue in Reston, is scheduled to open in 2011.