Six lines, 97 stations, 129 miles of track, 800,000 trips daily. Washington, D.C.'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 privately owned lines (as did what became the NYC subway, the Chicago 'L', Boston MBTA, Philadelphia SEPTA, San Francisco Municipal Railway, and others). In The '60s, the United States 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 perimeter highways, 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 the freeway revolts, 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 bureaucracynote .) 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, thanks to the very modern signaling technology in use, 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.
However, the Metro has, for some time now, been in a state of disrepair, with signals malfunctioning, trains breaking down, and other equipment failures leading to various and frequent delays. None of this is out of the ordinary; the system was almost entirely built 40 years ago and while regular maintenance was done, it was not done to a sufficient extent and some things can only be repaired so many times, so a lot of the network is currently at or near the end of its useful life. In an attempt to remedy this, Metro carried out a complete overhaul of the system, which began on June 4, 2016 and completed June 25, 2017. They dubbed the effort "SafeTrack". Following SafeTrack, Metro's next set of updates was named Back2Good. Time will tell if these will improve Metro service.
The Lines are:
- The Red Line covers northern DC and the city's northern suburbs in Maryland, running in an elongated 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 the busiest line on the Metro and one of only two lines not to cross into Virginia. It also is unique in that it doesn't share track with any other lines.
- The Blue Line runs in an L-shape from Franconia-Springfield in Virginia to the southwest of the District to Largo Town Center to the east in Maryland. It runs concurrently with the Yellow Line for part of its journey in Virginia, then with the Orange and Silver Lines from Rosslyn east.
- 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 Stadium-Armory, and with the Silver Line from east of West Falls Church to Stadium-Armory.
- 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 runs from Ashburn, 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, running from Falls Church to Reston, opened in July 2014, while the rest of the line to Dulles and Ashburn opened in November 2022. Most of the new track was built inside the median of the Dulles Access Road, although the line briefly detours away from the highway twice; first to serve a cluster of four stations in the edge city of Tysons Corner, and the second time is to service Dulles.
There have been several proposed extensions; the only one that has actually gone anywhere (despite thirty years of delays) is the currently under construction "Purple Line", which will run north of the District entirely within Maryland to connect the outer portions of the Green, Red, and Orange Lines; it will 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. Furthermore, it is funded by the Maryland Department of Transportation, and not WMATA itself. DC has also begun (re)introducing streetcars to supplement the Metro in some neighborhoods; however, these likewise 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, or on the escalators, or in the elevators. 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. Despite this, it is not uncommon to see people drinking water or coffee on trains; the transit police generally consider water harmless (because, you know, it's water—what're they going to do, clean it up with, um, water?) and coffee inevitable (because people tend to ride the Metro to work, and it also helps that the DC commuters drinking this coffee seem to prefer plain black, which stains but doesn't stick or stink).
- 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.note
- 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 phased out the paper farecards entirely as of 2016, meaning SmarTrip cards are now 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 grouse, 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. 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.
- Of course, said 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.
- During the Safe Track repairs the Metro closed at midnight every night.
- Like the NYC Subway, it is common for track work to be done 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.
- The #1 trope that applies to Metro is "Elevator Failure". All 70+ stations have at least one elevator connecting the track waiting area to the street, and some stations have two, three, or more. It's basically almost headline news when no elevator is out of service. This is so common that they have shuttle service on standby from nearby stations when the elevator at a station has to be taken out of service because of failure or because of maintenance.
Appearances in media
- Metro policy prohibits allowing filming in a station or on a train if any violence occurs. Therefore, any scene where someone gets shot in a Washington Metro station or train has to be filmed somewhere else (probably Baltimore).
- The Jackal, a 1997 remake of The Day of the Jackal, set a scene at Metro Center station but filmed at Lionel-Groulx station in Montreal.
- 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 one of Zoe Barnes' meetings with Frank Underwood, excluding the one in which Underwood kills her. The season 1 example was filmed at ArchivesNavy MemorialPenn Quarter on the Yellow and Green Lines; Zoe's death scene was filmed on the Baltimore Metro, as can be evidenced by its low ceiling, high dinginess, and generally out-of-place design.
- No Way Out (1987) notoriously has a chase scene through the nonexistent Georgetown Metro.
- Hannah Montana had an episode where the titular character won a trip to DC, and one scene takes place on a Metro train. The interior of the car wasn't accurate, but the map (at the time) was.
- Blacklist uses a mix of ersatz stations (Farragut East in lieu of the real Farragut North/West, Shady Green for Shady Grove) though the cars look hilariously nothing like the DC Metro.
- YouTuber GoRemy wrote a loving tribute to the Metro simply called "Metro Song".
- The Washington Metro is one of the metro systems you can attempt to operate in Mini Metro.
- Nancy Drew: Secret of the Scarlet Hand takes place in DC, and Nancy takes the Metro to get to various locations. You pick her destination using a Metro mapnote printed on a piece of paper, with real photos of various stations and train cars super-imposed in the background.