Trying to calculate what the new rush hour will look like for you when the first of Metrorail’s 15 maintenance projects begins?
Metro’s online Trip Planner has been updated with the new train schedules. And, wow.
Let’s just pretend for a moment that Metrorail trains stick to their rush-hour schedules. Knowing the official departure times will help commuters who use the Silver and Orange lines get a better idea of just how different travel will be. The first maintenance surge, which starts this weekend, involves continuous single-tracking between East Falls Church and Ballston till June 16.
So let’s say you’re looking at your Monday morning rush-hour commute from the Silver Line’s western terminal at Wiehle Avenue, and you consult Trip Planner for trains departing around 8 a.m. There’s a scheduled departure at 7:58 a.m., then the next is at 8:16, and then 8:34.
Say you have a 9 to 5 job at L’Enfant Plaza. Probably the latest train you will want to take is that one at 7:58 a.m., which would get you to L’Enfant Plaza at 8:45 a.m., according to the schedule. Of course, that’s after your train merges with the Orange Line and goes through the single-tracking zone that ends at Ballston.
Since the Silver Line opened in 2014, its rush-hour trains have been scheduled to operate every six minutes. The new scheduled gaps of 18 minutes are meant to ease the flow of trains through the single-tracking zone and make the Trip Planner schedule realistic. For several years, Metro has been making the same type of adjustment with the weekend trains that must go through single-tracking zones. Ask a weekend rider about the chances that the Trip Planner schedule will match actual experience on the platforms.
And while Metro now has plenty of experience with weekend single-tracking for maintenance projects, this continuous single-tracking through weekday rush hours is going to be a new experience for everyone. We have yet to see any official estimates on how much extra time individual commuters should allow for their trips through disrupted areas.
Orange Line riders who use Vienna, Dunn Loring, West Falls Church and East Falls Church are going to be in a similar situation to those riders traveling along the west side of the Silver Line.
This suggests that many people who normally ride Metrorail in that single-tracking area will want to consider alternatives through Thursday, June 16. But let’s stick with those who feel they need to ride the usual route.
They will want to add in buffer time, getting to the station earlier than normal to be sure they don’t miss one of those rarely departing trains. Farther down the line, heading toward the District, they will need to consider the chances that the first-arriving train at their platform will be very crowded. Riders at these inner stations have experience letting a train or trains pass by before finding one they can squeeze aboard. This could be more likely in the next two weeks unless many other riders show flexibility in their travel time, pick another way to get to work, or telecommute.
The transit authority is aware that those trains on the west side may be very crowded, to the point of suggesting that some may prefer to take advantage of the extra trains that will start from Ballston and head east. Even though you already are aboard a Silver or Orange train going through toward downtown, you may prefer to get off at Ballston and walk to the opposite platform to board one of those trains originating in Ballston, which presumably would be less crowded.
Metro and local transportation agencies are putting out a lot of information about travel during the first maintenance surge. But most of it is to warn commuters about the difficulties of using Metrorail in the maintenance surge zone and acquaint them with other travel options, or telecommuting options, that already exist. Metro and Fairfax County are doing the most to provide some bus alternatives, but we’re not talking about a lot of extra buses compared to the number of people who use Metrorail at rush hours.
Do not count on Metro and the transportation agencies to make your commute come out okay during the disruption. Even if your plan is to simply stick with Metro for at least the first day or two and see how it works out, you will want to recalculate your departure time and be prepared for the crowding aboard trains.
This also applies to Metrorail commuters who use the east side of the Silver and Blue lines, far away from the first single-tracking zone. At Benning Road, Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Morgan Boulevard and Largo Town Center, riders will see Blue Line trains on their regular schedule, but Trip Planner will show that their Silver Line trains are 18 minutes apart, rather than the scheduled six.