Useful Notes: Washington Metro

*ding ding* Doors opening. Step back to allow customers to exit. When boarding, please move to the center of the car.... *ding-dong ding-dong* Step back, doors closing.

Six lines, 91 stations, 117 miles of track, 800,000 trips daily. Washington, DC's Metrorail might have only been established in 1976 and serve a metropolitan area half the size of the New York Subway, but it is already the second-busiest subway in the United States and the second most-extensive on the East Coast, and today the Metro is as much a part of the identity of the District as the Subway is in New York.

Unlike many of the older subway and mass-transit networks in the U.S., the Washington Metro was centrally planned and government-run from the very beginning, rather than developing out of a number of private lines (as did what became the NYC subway, the Chicago 'L', Boston MBTA, Philadelphia SEPTA, San Francisco Muni, and others). In The Sixties, the federal Department of Transportation was working on a plan for transportation in the nation's capital, and, in keeping with the concrete-slapping times, planned to build two rings of freeway, one mostly outside the district limits in Maryland and Virginia, and an "Inner Loop" running inside it. Although the Outer Loop was built without incident (as the notorious reality-distorting Capitol Beltway), the Inner Loop faced serious opposition from locals, and in the face of freeway revolt, the DOT and regional authorities opted for Plan B: a mass-transit system to draw people out of their cars in the city.

The result is that the Metro is supremely modern, efficient, and consistent. (Yes, you just read those words used to describe a project funded and managed by the federal bureaucracy.) This even shows up in the architecture, with sober, simple, and hauntingly beautiful Brutalist/Mid-century Modern coffered concrete arches defining all the stations (almost as a direct challenge to the palatial stations of the Moscow Metro). The trains were designed from the start for driver-assisted automatic operation (albeit this has been nixed since the Fort Totten disaster on the Red Line in 2009). Although schedules are somewhat unreliable, the times posted for trains on the electronic boards in each station are almost always exactly right; this makes riding the rails in DC a remarkably low-stress experience.

The Lines are:

  • The Red Line covers northern DC and the city's northern suburbs in Maryland, running in a U-shape from Glenmont, MD, to Shady Grove, MD, looping through Downtown at Union Station (where you can connect to Amtrak, MARC and VRE commuter rail, and intercity bus services) and Metro Center. It is one of only two lines not to cross into Virginia.
  • The Blue Line runs in an L-shape from Franconia-Springfield in Virginia to the south of the District to Largo Town Center to the east in Maryland. It runs concurrently with the Orange and Silver Lines for most of its run.
  • The Orange Line runs in a generally straight line from Vienna, VA in the west to New Carrolton, MD in the east. It runs concurrently with the Blue Line for most of its route in the District from Rosslyn to Armory Stadium, and with the Silver Line from east of West Falls Church to Armory Stadium.
  • The Yellow Line runs in a generally straight line from Huntington, VA in the south to Fort Totten Station in the northern part of the District. It runs concurrently with the Blue Line for most of its route in Virginia; concurrence runs from King Street in Old Town Alexandria to The Pentagon. In the District, it mostly runs concurrently with...
  • The Green Line, which runs in a general C-shape from Branch Avenue in Suitland, MD southeast of the District, to Greenbelt, MD northeast of the District. Helpful tip: Best way to get to the University of Maryland. Like the Red Line, it does not run into Virginia.
  • The Silver Line, when fully completed, will run from Loudoun County, VA in the west to the aforementioned Largo Town Center in the east, running by Washington Dulles International Airport on the way. It is mostly concurrent with the Orange Line, diverging at East Falls Church, and shares the Blue Line up to Largo Town Center. The first completed part opened in 2014.

There have been several proposed extensions; the one that seems to be most likely (despite thirty years of delays) is the proposed "Purple Line" that would run north of the District entirely within Maryland to connect the outer portions of the Green, Red, and Orange Lines; it would be the first line not to be a radial going to Downtown and also the first not to enter the District. It is planned as a light rail line, instead of a true part of the metro, in order to keep costs down, as the ridership demand wouldn't be as great. DC is also (re)introducing streetcars to supplement the Metro in some neighborhoods; however, these have little to do with the Metro system and are run by the District directly.

A few things to note about the Metro:

  • It is clean. And they intend to keep it this way. Do not eat or drink on the Metro. Small children have been arrested for eating a few McDonald's fries on the Metro. You have been warned. The reason was that at the time, the transit police could issue a ticket (which has a fine of $100) to adults, there was no provision to do so for minors, so if a minor got caught eating, the only thing transit police could do was arrest them. As a result of incidents like the above they can now issue children citations for eating on a train or in a station. This, however, does not stop some people from doing it anyway.
  • If you intend to be in the city for more than a day, get a SmarTrip card. This wave-and-pay stored-value card makes everything easier and cheaper for you and everyone. This is not shilling; it's actually true. Ask anyone who's been there.
    • You can also use this on certain Maryland and northern-Virginia transportation networks, including Baltimore's transit network; the system is interchangeable with the Maryland DOT CharmCard.
    • Metro has announced plans to phase-out the paper farecards entirely, meaning eventually SmarTrip cards will become mandatory to ride the system.
  • The Metro does not go to Georgetown. You can get there from Foggy Bottom without too much trouble, though.
  • The station listed as "Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan" is a ten-minute walk from the main center of Adams Morgan and from the National Zoo. You have been warned.
    • If you go one more stop to Cleveland Park, the walk to the zoo is shorter and downhill.
  • Despite the previous two grouses, you really can take the Metro pretty much everywhere in DC. You're well-advised not to drive; the Metro is generally faster, easier, and less stressful, and driving in Washington is a pain in the ass. Street parking is basically nonexistent - it's damn near impossible to find a parking meter that is available for more than 30 seconds - and off-street parking is very expensive.
  • The Metro is one of the deepest subway systems in America and indeed in the world(see: Ragnarok-Proofing below). Unlike most US rapid transit systems, which largely follow the street network and were dug by cut-and-cover, the Metro often deviates from the street system, typically using bored tunnels for its underground sections. The Forest Glen station on the Red Line is so deep that it has no escalators; you take a high-speed elevator to get to the surface. The Wheaton, Woodley Park, Columbia Heights, and Rosslyn stations are also very deep and have extremely long escalators—Wheaton's are the longest in the US, taking a good 2 minutes 45 seconds to go up standing.
    • The plethora of escalators in the Metro has strongly reinforced the rule in DC: if you wish to stand on an escalator keep right. This is Serious Business.
    • The escalators also frequently break down, so be prepared to walk up even some of those very long ones.
  • The Metro stops running at around midnight on weeknights; it runs until 3:00 on Fridays and Saturdays (the bars in DC must close at 2). This can be bothersome at times, e.g. when the Fourth of July is on a weeknight.
  • Like the NYC Subway, they do trackwork on the weekends during the daytime. If you have to be somewhere at a particular time during the day on Saturday or Sunday, take into account the possibility it could take over half an hour longer than you expect.
  • After you hear the "Doors Closing" chime, do not try to board. The doors do not bounce back open if something (even a limb) gets caught, and you need to rely on the kindness of the train operator to open the doors back up so you can get all the way in. It doesn't always happen.

Appearances in media

  • Large sections of Fallout 3 involve you trekking through broken-down Metro stations. Some parts (the map, the turnstiles, the trains themselves) are clearly not based on reality, while others (the vaulted concrete ceilings, the orange hexagonal floor tiles, the shape of the platforms) are almost creepily accurate. note 
  • The "Washington, DC" field in NFL Street 3 is based on one of the Metro station designs. It is not, however, an actual station (you can possibly get a good look during replays at the list of stops on one of the poles; none of them are actual stops on the Metro).
  • Beau Willimon's play Farragut North is named after that station on the Red Line; it was later adapted into The Ides of March.
  • The Metro appears several times in the American version of House of Cards; this includes the opening credits, as well as two of Zoe Barnes' meetings with Frank Underwood, including the one in which Underwood kills her.note 

Tropes applicable

  • Accidental Innuendo: There is a station on the Orange and Silver Lines called "Ballston-MU." It's named for its suburb, but still...
    • "Foggy Bottom" also tends to make out-of-towners smirk.
  • Ascetic Aesthetic: The spare, grey station architecture. As noted, it still manages to be magnificent in its own way.
  • Baltimore Doubling: WMATA is very strict regarding what can be filmed inside the Metro system (no violence or illegal activity, among other restrictions), so in media the Baltimore Metro is typically used instead (as in the House of Cards example above). Other systems are occasionally used, but since Baltimore is so close to DC it is by far the most common stand-in.
  • Berserk Button: Stand on the right side on the escalators. Failure to do so may earn you an umbrella poke or a trampling.
  • Overly Long Name: Some of the double-barreled and triple-barreled stations had this reputation, like "U Street-African-American Civil War Memorial-Cardozo" and "New York Ave–Florida Ave–Gallaudet U". Officials shortened some of the most egregious examples in 2011 and 2012.
    • Not to mention the name of the metro itself: The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).
    • The station for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, whose name was actually mandated by Congress (it and the airport were previously just "National Airport"). While it is never referred to by that actual name in conversation, whether it is called "Reagan Airport" or "National Airport" can give a clue to the person's political leanings.
  • Public Relations Ad: A large proportion of the advertising on the Metro is of this kind, thanks to the large proportion of government and government-related workers who ride it.
  • Running Gag: It's sometimes joked that if the Metro had even one day when every single escalator was working, it would be headline news.
  • Ragnarok-Proofing. Why is the Metro buried so ridiculously deep into bedrock, lined with concrete and built using hefty arches and strong vaulted ceilings? Simple: its meant to survive a direct nuclear strike at least partly intact and In Working Order. The Metro is underneath the hub of the US government. In the event of World War Three, natural disaster, a surprise ground invasion, or giant tapir attack, the Metro is designed to remain intact and operational long enough to deliver the members of the US government and military officials to safety in any of a number of even deeper bunkers, serve as refuge and evacuation route for the general population of the city, and provide an efficient and defensible Tunnel Network from which to operate an effective counter-strike.
  • Scenery Porn: The aforementioned concrete coffered stations. The vaults at Metro Center and Gallery Place are particularly pretty.
    • Also, Huntington, the Yellow Line's south terminus, built into the middle of a hillside.
  • Serious Business: Don't eat on the train. Don't drink on the train. Stand to the right on the escalators.