Alright, let’s start 2020 off with something fun. Back in mid-November, Amtrak had a 50% off deal, making it the perfect opportunity to accomplish two goals: finally complete the Northeast Corridor, and ride the entirety of WMATA Metrorail in a day. I started on Northeast Regional Train 151, which only runs on Mondays and Tuesdays for some reason, and took that down to New Carrollton, where our journey begins…
I had only been on the Metro once before, on a trip to DC as a kid that I don’t remember – thus, this was pretty much a fresh start. And my first interaction with this new system was with its imposing fare machines, which are the worst fare machines I’ve ever dealt with. Why are they so huge? Why are the screens so tiny? Why is the select payment type option hidden away on the screen where you select the ticket type? At least I was able to borrow a friend’s SmarTrip card, so I didn’t have to spend the $2 to get a new one. I bought a $13 unlimited day pass, meaning I wouldn’t have to worry about Metrorail’s ridiculous fare system.
My first trip was on a 7000-series car, the newest kind that Metrorail operates (and which don’t actually announce what kind of car they are anymore). The inside was great, with lots of screens providing information about upcoming stops, including LCD ones showing more detailed information. The robotic announcements were weird, but these cars offered a nice ride overall.
New Carrollton is the terminus of the Orange Line, and it runs above ground all the way until it merges with the Blue and Silver Lines. The first part of the trip is pretty boring, though – it just goes along the Northeast Corridor, and the first three stops are park-and-rides. Even when the Corridor turns away, you’re still running along freight tracks for a bit. There was a nice elevated section along Benning Road, over the Anacostia River, and through a stadium parking lot before heading underground, though.
I got off the train at Stadium-Armory, the first underground stop and the first stop that connects with the Blue and Silver Lines – I would be taking that combo back out of the city. Before doing that, I just had to take some time to admire the station: the cavernous design is just fantastic. My Blue Line train was another 7000-series, and it was the first of many that day that I would have to myself.
The Blue-Silver combo goes underground through some suburban areas for a few stops. It was along this section that I realized two things: 1) It takes forever to stop at each station because of a required wait time that the operator must adhere to before opening the doors; and 2) Every underground Metrorail station looks exactly the same, so the wonder and majesty of Stadium-Armory wore off pretty quickly (it’s still a great design, though). Both of these aspects of the system would prove to get pretty grating as the day went on.
The final three stops on the line are above ground, but there’s a lot of ducking in and out of tunnels along the tracks between them. Largo Town Center was the last stop, referring to a nearby fake suburban downtown, but I didn’t get out to explore it: I stayed on the train to return to Addison Road-Seat Pleasant. Coming into Largo Town Center, I appreciated the automatic announcement saying that the platforms at the terminal were occupied and we would move as soon as they were cleared.
Because it would be kinda boring to exclusively ride trains, I made sure I would get to do at least a few bus rides on my travels. At Addison Road, I could connect to the P12, which would take me down to Suitland Station on the Green Line. Don’t ask why there’s a P in there: Metrobus’s ridiculously confusing numbering system is explained here.
The P12 was a really suburban run, serving a lot of isolated apartment developments and shopping plazas in the middle of what would have otherwise been woods. The bus got pretty busy over the course of my 20-minute ride, though (it’s actually a much longer route), and I was really impressed with the number of shelters, especially given the low density of the surroundings. A lot of them even had real-time information!
Suitland is the second-to-last stop on the Green Line, so I hopped on my next train, another empty 7000-series car, to make the one-stop trip to Branch Avenue. This was a giant park-and-ride with some transit-oriented development nearby. From here, I turned around to do a full trip on the Green Line. The whole above ground section was mostly forest, and all four outdoor stations were park-and-rides with not much else around.
As I mentioned before, though, every subway station in DC has the exact same design. The Green Line is fully underground for twelve stops – and stops are spaced pretty far apart on Metrorail. As you can imagine, this was miserably boring, although we at least got to pay a visit to the most ridiculous station name on the system: U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo.
Fort Totten was the first above ground stop. We got some nice water views around Hyattsville Station, and eventually the line joined up with a MARC corridor (with a neat view of the College Park Aviation Museum). Greenbelt was the final stop, a park-and-ride with its own highway interchange.
I returned to Fort Totten on the same train to transfer to the Red Line. The Red Line is shaped like a giant U; Fort Totten is in the middle of its right leg. I headed north from here, and the line actually passed through some town centers for once, including the heavily built-up Silver Spring. It was underground past Silver Spring, alas, with the line running in tunnel all the way to the last stop, Glenmont.
I wasn’t interested in Glenmont, though – I was interested in the second-to-last stop, Wheaton. Wheaton is home to the longest escalators in the Western Hemisphere, and they are long. It’s also one of two subway stations on the Metro (the other being the next stop, Forest Glen) to feature single-bore platforms instead of the giant vault design seen everywhere else, so even that was a welcome change.
The Red Line is a giant U, as I mentioned before, so there are plenty of bus routes that connect between the two legs. The one from Wheaton is the C4, which is yet another bus that runs through suburbia, this time on giant roads that go by hundreds of single-family homes. We left Wheaton five minutes early (oof!) to travel down some of these giant roads past single-family homes, although they turned to office parks right around Twinbrook Station, the last stop.
Shady Grove is a giant park-and-ride, and the line runs alongside MARC from there until Twinbrook. Rockville comes between the two, and that stop serves a dense downtown, plus it gets MARC service. South of Twinbrook, we headed away from the MARC tracks, going in and out of tunnels before running underground through the denser surroundings of DC.
The line was fully underground until Union Station, shortly after which it rises up to run along the railroad tracks. This is the only part of Metrorail that goes outside through a properly dense part of the city, so there were some nice views of apartment buildings and new ones under construction. We soon ended up back at Fort Totten, where it was time to hop on the Yellow Line.
The Yellow Line runs underground with the Green Line until L’Enfant Plaza, where it splits off to cross the Potomac. It does so on a bridge, offering the absolute best view on the system, including the skyline of Rosslyn and some major DC landmarks. Coming off the bridge, we went back underground to join the Blue Line, stopping a few times before rising up again at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The distance from the airport to the next stop, Braddock Road, was a full five minutes, among the longer distances between two stops on the system. The next four stops on the Yellow Line, though, are among the closest: it takes just 6 minutes to go between them all, from Braddock Road to the last stop, Huntington. The last two are independent to the Yellow Line, with the Blue Line having split off after King Street Station.
Most stations on Metrorail are generic, but Huntington actually has something unique to offer. The station is built into a hill, so half of it is above ground level and half of it is below. Running along the escalator that goes up to ground level is the slow but very cool glass inclined elevator. Of course I had to take that for a ride!
I got another Yellow Line train back up to King Street to tackle the Blue Line’s branch, which is also two stops long. Those stops are much further apart, though: from King Street to the next stop, Van Dorn Street, you’re on the train for six minutes. Franconia-Springfield is another six minutes from there. It was above ground the whole time, but the views were just suburbia.
Once again, I doubled back, but before finishing the rest of the Blue Line after its northern split from the Yellow, I had a little oddity to ride first: the Metroway. This is Metro’s, er, “BRT” line that seems to be more of a real estate booster than anything. The fact that it’s a measly every 20 minutes on weekends should be an indication of the ridership this thing gets, although it does manage every 8-12 on weekdays. However, it ends at 10 PM every day except Friday and Saturday, which is hilariously early.
The route begins at Braddock Road Station and runs in mixed traffic for the first while. You pay on board, which would usually be a detriment to BRT service, but so few people use this thing that it probably doesn’t slow it down that much. My bus had a whole one person on it. After we crossed the Metro on a bridge, though, the road we were on got a center-running busway, complete with transit signals. That was pretty cool…until we just randomly turned off the road into mixed traffic again for the sole purpose of deviating to the back of a shopping mall. You know…BRT!
But then coming back from the deviation onto the main road, we actually got our own exclusive transitway! It even came with overbuilt stations similar to Box District – although I’ll bet even the SL3 gets more ridership than this, and certainly more on a stop-by-stop basis. The surroundings consisted almost entirely of new development.
And almost as quickly as it began, the transitway ended as we entered Crystal City. We looped around through the neighborhood in mixed traffic, which consisted of office towers with businesses on the ground floor, stopping at the Crystal City Metrorail station along the way. From there, it was a nonstop trip to the final stop on the line, the next Metrorail stop, Pentagon City. In total, we got 8 riders. Hopefully Amazon’s arrival in the area will help Metroway’s ridership – at the very least, they plan to add transit lanes and new stops between Crystal City and Pentagon City.
Conveniently, the Metroway begins and ends at Blue Line stations, so I just hopped back on the Blue Line from Pentagon City. We split off from the Yellow Line after the next stop, Pentagon, and briefly came above ground to serve the one independent station along this stretch, Arlington Cemetery. It was back under from there to join up with the Orange and Silver Lines at Rosslyn, where I got off to hop on the former.
This part of Arlington is really dense, so the line was underground for a few stops heading out from Rosslyn. We eventually surfaced in the median of a highway and stayed in it all the way to the last stop, Vienna/Fairfax-GMU. As you would expect for a highway median terminal station, it’s a huge park-and-ride and bus terminal.
I accidentally fell asleep on my ride back (highways are boring, and it was a long day!) and missed my stop, so I had to change to the Silver Line a few stations after it rejoins with the Orange. The Silver Line’s independent section has a lot of highway running too, but it’s got an extended (mostly elevated) “deviation” to better serve Tysons. This is a super dense suburban job center, so a lot of reverse commuters were waiting on the opposite platform to go back to DC, although many regular commuters got off along here too. The last stop, Reston, is really far out, but the line is actually planned to be extended further, to Dulles Airport and beyond.
It was time to do the final part of the system! All I had to do was take the Silver Line back to Stadium-Armory, hitting up the underground stops east of Rosslyn that I hadn’t covered yet. And from Stadium-Armory…well, there was one more transit thing I had to do here…
I had to ride the DC Streetcar! And conveniently, Stadium-Armory is the closest Metrorail station to the first stop on that! I could’ve walked there, but I figured I’d take a bus, since I hadn’t done any urban bus routes yet. The B2 was running every 20 minutes by this time of the evening, but that thing was busy as it made its way past tons of rowhouses. Far busier than Metroway, I’ll tell you that much…
It dropped me off at 15th and Benning Road; the streetcar runs on Benning, but it begins over at 26th. I could’ve taken the X2 if I had wanted to, which is pretty much the direct competitor to the streetcar (running further on both ends and just generally being faster and better). Nonetheless, I walked to the stop, just missing a streetcar and having to wait ten minutes for the next one.
Like most new streetcar constructions in the US, the DC Streetcar was terrible. As far as I can tell, people only use it because it’s free, with many riders going only a few blocks (not that it had many people to begin with). Ones going the other way were admittedly busy, but if the money spent on this mixed traffic streetcar had been used for bus lanes and increased frequencies on the X2, you’d be providing a much better service. Even as it stands, buses constantly pass streetcars.
Once Benning Road turned into H Street, the scenery was your typical “this area is gentrifying so let’s put a streetcar in it!” kind of neighborhood. Still, it seemed like a nice area to walk around in. The streetcar was brutally slow (it’s scheduled to take 20 minutes while the bus is scheduled for 10), but we eventually reached its weird stub of a terminus outside of the Union Station bus terminal. If the proposed extension plans happen, the streetcar could be useful, but it would have to come with dedicated lanes and increased speeds – as it stands, I’ll bet its ridership would be very low if it wasn’t free. And it’s already pretty low.
I got dinner within Union Station and still had two hours until my train, so I grabbed the Metro and headed to the National Mall to become a tourist for a bit. The huge monuments were made even better by the fact that it was a rainy Monday night, so not many people were around. I got a bit of a scare on the way back, though: the Red Line was running at 15-minute headways. Had I missed the train that was coming in two minutes, I would’ve missed my Amtrak from Union Station, which was the last one of the night!
Metrorail’s infrastructure is really impressive: it’s a big system that covers downtown and the surrounding suburbs pretty darn well. The stations are samey, but their designs are mostly fantastic, particularly the underground ones. However, dwell times at each station are long because of the wait to open the doors, and it seemed like there were signal problems or “track conditions” occurring all day – luckily never where I was at any given time. The system seems peaky, too, with a lot of quiet or empty trains outside of rush hour, and pretty bad headways during those times to match. Luckily, the system has good bones, so all it could take is continued maintenance and some operational changes to turn it into a world-class subway for the US capital. And for a ton more insight on the system, check out Metro-Venture, a now-defunct inspiration-of-an-inspiration for this blog!