Planners wanted to have 64 new Metrorail cars in service by the time the Silver Line opened last summer. But the only new rail cars available at Monday’s one-year anniversary celebration in Tysons Corner were the decorative ones on the birthday cake.
In many ways, the Silver Line is a big hit, and local leaders were right to celebrate. In other ways, the timing of the new line’s arrival in summer 2014 imposed a big hit on riders. Let’s review the history and look at the future of the line.
Some of the fears we shared have not materialized. My big concern was that the roads in Tysons Corner would be overwhelmed as commuters drove to the four new stations, which were not designed to handle that kind of traffic. Only the McLean station on the east side of Tysons Corner has a parking lot meant for Metrorail riders. The other stations are set up for bus traffic, pedestrians and bikers.
The traffic at the Tysons stations has not been a problem, as Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, pointed out to me recently.
The station on the west end of the line, Wiehle-Reston East, has proved very popular with commuters. The garage with 2,300 spaces is “very close to being full most days,” said Tom Biesiadny, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. That’s “much quicker than we expected,” he said. The bike storage areas also are heavily used. The station supplies much of the new ridership for the Silver Line. About 8,000 riders are entering the station on weekdays.
Some travelers feared the station would prove too popular, to the point of wondering whether the Wiehle Avenue bridge over the Dulles Toll Road could handle the weight of the commuter traffic. The main complaint I’ve heard recently about the garage is that there’s a long wait to get in and out of the Kiss & Ride area inside the garage.
The Fairfax Department of Transportation and Metrobus created one of the biggest behavior modification programs in local transportation by shifting dozens of bus routes and creating new ones to serve the Silver Line stations.
Still, with a weekday average of about 17,000 boardings, the overall ridership at the five new stations in Fairfax County has not matched early predictions of 25,000 after the first year. The second most popular station is Tysons Corner, which averages about 2,750 weekday boardings. This is the station nearest the big malls in the middle of Tysons. The least popular station during the first year was Greensboro, along Route 7, which averaged about 740 weekday boardings.
The new stations opened out ahead of the planned developments, and ahead of the biking and walking paths that eventually will boost ridership. This is most noticeable to a traveler along the Route 7 portion of the line in Tysons, where anyone but a driver still feels out of place.
But the real problem for Metro and its riders isn’t the slow start for the Tysons stations.
It turns out that operating the Silver Line leaves Metro with too few rail cars and too many trains.
When it became clear that the new 7000 series cars weren’t going to arrive in time for the Silver Line opening, Metro managers had to stretch out the existing fleet to handle the new demand. Silver Line trains were scheduled to operate every six minutes.
Older rail cars spent less time in the shop for preventive maintenance. That made them more vulnerable to breakdowns.
Meanwhile, Metro controllers found they were having trouble moving the number of trains they sent out each day. At the rail junctions — particularly Rosslyn, where the Silver, Orange and Blue lines come together — the merge was not smooth. They wound up with a congestion problem similar to what drivers experience at heavily used interchanges on the Capital Beltway.
Transit managers have developed two fixes, which haven’t proved very popular with riders. The first is to withdraw the worst-performing cars in the rail fleet for extended maintenance during the summer. This should help improve the performance of air-conditioning units, brakes and doors. But it means that the number of eight-car trains is reduced during the rush hours on Mondays and Fridays, when the cars are in the maintenance shops.
Dealing with the congestion problem at the rail junctions has resulted in a proposal that would have an even greater impact on rush hour travel.
The proposal would increase the gap between trains on the Orange, Silver, Yellow and Green lines from six minutes to eight. The Blue Line gap also would be set at eight minutes, but that would make service more frequent, since it’s now set at 12 minutes between trains to accommodate the Silver Line trains along their shared set of tracks.
For all five of those lines, including the Blue Line, Metro managers anticipate that the remaining trains would become more crowded. (The main reason for this on this on the Blue Line is that people now riding the Yellow Line Rush Plus trains would shift back to the Blue Line once their Rush Plus is canceled.)
While this change might give riders a better chance of knowing when the train trip will start and when it will end, the near certainty that the trains would be more crowded left many Metro board members unenthusiastic.
Last week, they postponed voting on a staff request to send the proposal out for a public hearing.
So far, there is no Plan B for making the train schedule more reliable. Better maintenance on the worst-performing rail cars is likely to help. But Metro managers clearly don’t see that as sufficient. If the schedule changed on the five lines, that wouldn’t me an experiment of a few months. The service reduction probably would stay in place for a few years.
The transit staff is hoping that the arrival of hundreds more new rail cars and the additional rebuilding of Metro’s infrastructure will eventually have a big impact on the train system’s reliability. But meanwhile, the riders will likely be spitting out the candles on any more Silver Line birthday cakes.