It is 8:25 a.m. at the Orange Line's Court House Station, a train headed for downtown Washington arrives, and waiting passengers surge to the doors.
As often happens, not everyone fits onboard what many riders call the "Orange crush."
Passengers squeeze into an Orange Line train at the Court House Station in Arlington during morning rush hour on Tuesday.
(Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
"It's very frustrating," said Ken Clendenin, a paralegal who is a regular rider, before backing away from another train packed shoulder to shoulder. "Sometimes I have to let two or three pass. But what are you going to do?"
The Orange Line crowding stems from what may be the most significant choke point in the region's Metrorail system: the narrow tunnel beneath the Potomac River. It serves Orange and Blue Line trains shuttling between Northern Virginia and Washington but is wide enough for just one track in each direction.
"We're at the point where we are putting five pounds of trains through a four-pound tunnel," said Jim Hughes, Metro's planning director.
Now, with ridership rising and planners moving forward with a proposal to build an 11-stop Orange Line branch through Tysons Corner, some riders worry that without costly projects such as a new tunnel or bridge, crowding will ruin train travel.
Planners have long aimed to allay road congestion by getting more people to take trains. There are dozens of places near transit stops, such as Shady Grove and Vienna, where major "smart growth" projects are planned or have been built to encourage rail travel. But the rail system, like the roadway system, has its limits.
Metro leaders say they are trying to raise money for expansions. And despite the crowding, most riders interviewed said that taking the train is a far more appealing option than driving downtown.
"Over the past few years, we've gone from having to defend continued funding for an under-capacity system to struggling for dollars to support an extremely popular and vital system," said T. Dana Kauffman, Metro's board chairman and a Fairfax County supervisor. "The bottom line is that we can and will make improvements to ensure the Orange Line remains a commuting option of choice over I-66 virtually any day of the week."
Without large infusions of money that have thus far been absent, the Orange Line crowding signals an uncertain future.
Four years ago, Metro planners said that the Orange Line near the tunnel would be at or over capacity by 2020 and proposed adding a $6.3 billion line with another river crossing. The segment of the line that would have included a crossing near the Key Bridge was to have cost $1.65 billion. The plan was rejected as premature and too costly.
Some opponents of smart-growth projects, as well as opponents of the Metrorail extension through Tysons Corner, warn that if the region is going to rely so much on the rail system, it must be prepared to pay much more for adequate service.
"Personally, I do think we have an issue with road congestion and that transit is a good alternative," said William Vincent, a former U.S. Department of Transportation official. But "one of the biggest problems with rail is that it is so incredibly expensive that you can't really put out enough of it to make a difference."
Vincent and others are pushing Metro to turn toward an advanced bus service, which they say can be as comfortable and convenient as the trains and much cheaper.