WASHINGTON, D.C. – Years after Metro listed fixing the Rosslyn bottleneck as one of its seven most critical infrastructure projects, riders are still feeling the crunch in the tunnel.
In its 2013 strategic plan, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) included “New Blue Line Connections” among its goals to achieve by 2025. Specifically, the plan calls for adding either new track or a second station at Rosslyn, in Arlington, Va., to relieve crowding at the station, which is used by many Prince George’s and Montgomery County commuters with jobs in Virginia. According to that timeline, work on the planning was slated for years 2016 through 2019, with construction from 2021 through 2025. It even allocated $1 million for feasibility studies in its long-term capital improvements program for fiscal years 2014 – 2019. However, in 2017 – halfway through the proposed planning period – little progress has been seen, while the $1 billion price tag for the improvements looms as an ever-bigger hindrance as Metro’s financial woes grow.
Riders express continual frustration with the delays in the tunnel.
“Ever since SafeTrack started and ended, (a delay) has been a daily occurrence, it seems,” said rider Jess from Vienna, who travels on Metro every workday. “You get to the tunnel between Court House and Rosslyn where you always ‘hold momentarily.’ That is the most frustrating because you are in a tunnel and can’t communicate.”
Mid-September of 2017 saw two separate arcing insulator incidents outside Rosslyn station, on Sept. 13 and Sept. 15. The Arlington County Fire Department responded to both incidents, entering the tunnels with Metro personnel. The two incidents were caused by different insulators, a Metro spokesman said at that time. Trains were single-tracked through the area for several hours during each event.
One of the most high-profile problems in the Rosslyn tunnel occurred on April 14, 2016, when a train heading to Rosslyn from Court House lost power in the tunnel 100 feet from the platform. More than 100 passengers were trapped for an hour, and the train itself had to be towed away.
The incident occurred because the bottom of the train lost connection with the third rail in the tunnel. Metro pulled the 7000 series cars from the Orange, Silver and Blue lines for several months until it could raise the height of the third rail in the Rosslyn tunnel and adjust the “collector shoes” on the bottom of the cars.
Service has since returned to those lines, but delays continue.
“There was one day I remember being stuck in that tunnel for 15 to 20 minutes. We were waiting on a train on the platform, then there was an offload, then some other issue, in true WMATA fashion,” Jess said. “Waiting eight to 12 minutes for a train during rush hour, then having to hold for schedule adjustments, then waiting for trains on the platform is all very frustrating. It doesn’t seem like a lot of time for each of those instances, but those minutes add up and when your commute is already long it just makes it that much more unpleasant.”
Rosslyn is notorious for being one of the biggest choke points in the Metro system, because when heading east into Rosslyn, the Orange, Blue and Silver lines all come together and must travel in one tunnel. No more than 26 trains per hour can pass through the tunnel, which amounts to just one train every 2.3 minutes. Since the opening of the Silver Line, only five of those trains are Blue Line trains. According to the Nov. 11, 2015, “Metrorail Capacity White Paper,” compiled by LTK Engineering Services at Metro’s request, increasing train frequency would actually result in more delays.
“If trains are scheduled too close together, trains will wait at the junction until the route is established, prompting customer complaints about perceived delays. If one line feeding the junction experiences delays, trains will not arrive at the correct time to use their operating slot through the junction. This results in overall loss of system capacity as these empty slots carry through the system,” the report said.
Metro seldom meets that maximum train throughput, thanks to delays and track issues. The white paper found that “Metrorail failed to achieve the scheduled throughput of 26 trains per hour more than 60 percent of the sampled weekdays” between July 21 and Dec. 31, 2014.
Metro leaders are well aware of the issue.
“It’s a difficult part of the system. We’re moving a lot through there,” said Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld on July 27, adding that he “can’t point to just one” specific component of Metro infrastructure that causes most of the problems in that section. “It’s a very long stretch. It’s hard to get to if anything comes up there. We try to have people nearby to deal with issues.”
Wiedefeld’s predecessors at the agency also identified the bottleneck as a problem, including it in the 2013 “Momentum” strategic plan. WMATA subsequently did further studies and ruled out a “wye,” a section of track that would allow trains to move from Court House station to Arlington Cemetery directly, bypassing Rosslyn, as a viable option.
However, the second option – a second station at Rosslyn devoted solely to Blue Line trains, connected to the existing Orange and Silver station via walkway, escalator or elevator – was deemed feasible. It would be 55 feet deeper than the existing station, which is already the third deepest in the Metrorail system. The report found that adding a second station “offers Blue Line service improvements, albeit incremental ones. Alternative 2’s new Blue Line in Rosslyn yields only six trains per hour – an improvement over today’s service levels, but a low service level increase relative to the major capital investment.”
Although “the staff recommends further consideration of the Alternative 2” in the 2014 report, no real progress has been made since then.
When asked a series of questions about WMATA’s plans for Rosslyn and any updates on progress, spokesman Richard Jordan replied with a one-sentence statement that read, “Metro’s long-range planning efforts have considered the exploration of potential options to address capacity constraints in the Rosslyn tunnel so that we can accommodate future ridership growth.”
In the most recent Metro budget, WMATA included $15.2 million toward Development & Evaluation (D&E) initiatives, defined as “potential major capital investment needs that have not advanced to full projects.” Rosslyn station is included in the first round of D&E initiatives for study. Jordan’s response quoted above did not address questions about how much of the total investment is dedicated specifically to Rosslyn, nor any information about what the Development & Evaluation program – which is new to Metro – will involve, how decisions will be made through it, or a timeline for results.
Estimates have put the cost of the second station at $1 billion in 2012 dollars. Metro is currently facing an annual budget shortfall of $610 million, and this figure does not factor in the Rosslyn station proposal.
In addition, less-expensive fixes to the Rosslyn bottleneck may not be possible. The 2014 white paper also included a section comparing the track geometry at Rosslyn to similar chokepoints in other mass transit systems. It concluded, “The junction configuration comparison with peer systems found that there is very little opportunity to improve Metrorail core capacity through junction reconfiguration. Not only are the present Metrorail junctions consistent with the best junction configurations of peer transit systems, but any such reconfiguration would be costly and extraordinarily disruptive to operations for months or years.”
Track geometry is indicated by a number called a “frog angle,” which refers to the diverging speed of the area. In North America, frog numbers range from #4 to #20, with higher numbers indicating a gentler diverging speed and faster trains, according to the white paper. The Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system in San Francisco is often considered WMATA’s sister system, because it was constructed around the same time and serves a similar population. It includes a chokepoint known as the “Oakland Wye,” where a three-track line and a two-track line merge. That junction contains #15 frog angles (and one #10). Rosslyn also uses the #15 frog angle, the report states.
Additionally, Rosslyn station is already a “flying junction,” where trains heading in different directions are on separate tracks. This configuration results in fewer delays than other junction types, LTK concluded.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG)’s Transportation Planning Board (TPB) has recently taken up improving service at Rosslyn as one of its causes. It was included in the body’s list of 10 long-range transportation projects the TPB will be studying in greater depth beginning this year.
“We see the congestion this region is experiencing will not go away in spite of our efforts. In fact, it will get worse,” said Kanti Srikanth, the director of the Department of Transportation Planning at COG. “We think of the projects that currently we do not have planned for funding, but if we find the money, can it help aid congestion?”
The package of Metro improvements TPB is studying includes not only a second Rosslyn station, but also an entire new track running underground from Rosslyn to Thomas Circle, Georgetown and L’Enfant Plaza. Srikanth said the expansion will be needed as the region grows.
“In Metro 2040, Metro had said this second station at Rosslyn will only help you for a few years. As population in the region grows, most of the people want to go into the core. We have to do something to expand capacity,” Srikanth said.
“It can’t be conclusive,” Srikanth said. “It won’t tell you all the problems, how much money it will cost. It will just give orders of magnitude (of the impact on congestion).”
The results of this study aren’t expected until December, after which the TPB will determine which transportation projects to study in more detail.
In the meantime, Metro is pushing for a dedicated funding source from the region that it believes will provide enough funding to not only meet unfunded current capital needs, but also future projects like the new Rosslyn station. Wiedefeld also said that improved track maintenance will decrease the frequency of delays in the area.
“Preventative maintenance, I think, will start to solve some of that because we’ll be out there inspecting it more and get ahead of those things,” he said July 27.
Riders, however, don’t share that view.
“I honestly have no faith in Metro to fix this issue, or any of their issues,” Jess said.