Dr. Gridlock

Dr. Gridlock: Metro's Original Builders Had to Work Without a Crystal Ball

By Robert Thomson
Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

All the furor about closing Metrorail's Reagan National Airport Station during Labor Day weekend reminded me of a question I've wanted to ask for a while. The station has two platforms and three sets of rails. This is unusual in our system. Do you know why the third set of rails is there?

It would cost billions to add a third (and maybe a fourth) set of rails to the center of the system at this point, but I wish the designers of the system had pushed it through when the system was built. Imagine a way to route working trains around disabled ones, the possibility of express trains, and no choke point for Blue and Orange lines at the convergence in Rosslyn. And track work could be done on one set of rails while leaving the other sets operational.

John C. Flack


Metrorail didn't open its 106 miles of track all at once. When the first part of the Blue Line began operating in 1977, Metro needed to turn back the trains at National Airport, which was then the southern end of the line. That's why we have the pocket track there, Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.

You'll find another pocket track in the West Falls Church Station on the Orange Line. Some other stations, including Farragut North, Grosvenor and Silver Spring on the Red Line, have pocket tracks just outside the stations.

Many urban transit systems have messy origins, and ours is no exception. The basic idea of building a subway for the nation's capital in an era when the car was king now looks brilliant. But some choices were made because they had to be.

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