Metrorail hasn't changed much since '76. But some long overdue updates are coming. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Metrorail hasn’t changed much since ’76. But some long overdue updates are coming. Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Daniel Wilcock

Like me, Washington DC’s Metrorail subway system was born in 1976. Also like me, it is starting to show its age. This was never clearer than in the June 2009 Fort Totten train collision that killed 9 people, injured 80 and kept passengers trapped for hours. Since then the system has been a joke by international standards, with single-tracking and multiple station closures common—especially over weekends.

Decades of delayed maintenance due to the chronic underfunding driven by the system’s fractured governance have finally caught up. The endless outages have settled over the city like a rain cloud that never leaves. Blogs like Unsuck DC Metro have gained big followings by serving as a conduit for rider rage. It’s been so bad for so long that any positive stories about the system are liable to be held forth for universal ridicule.

But in a sneaky way, a lot of nifty improvements are cresting on the horizon. Here are three reasons for cautious optimism:

1) The silver line will be an equal partner to the old-school color lines (orange, blue, red, green, and yellow). When the Washington Post published the new system map this week, designed by Lance Wyman, the same man who designed the original map 37 years ago, I was relieved to see the silver line shooting all the way through town. Previous maps had the line ending at East Falls Church, raising the annoying prospect of needing to transfer to get downtown in an encumbered and jet-lagged state after touching down at Dulles Airport.

2) The new rail cars will be made by Kawasaki, a Japanese company. Having lived in Japan, I can attest to the quality of Japanese rail systems. The 1976 models designed by an Italian firm, still in use, will one day be a topic for nostalgia. However, I don’t think they’ll be missed. The prototype from two years ago of the 7000-series, which will replace more than half of the system’s cars within the next five years, pointed to some cool features such as video panels. When these cars start to roll out, I’m certain that folks will notice the almost-four-decade design difference. At the very least, the new cars promise to not have such consistent air conditioning problems.

3) You’ll be able to pay your fare using a smartphone. Buried in a recent Post article was the following bit of news:

“[Metro’s General Manager Richard] Sarles said the agency also had decided to buy new fare gates that will allow riders to pay as they enter with a SmarTrip card, a credit card or a smartphone. The stainless steel gates will be installed throughout the Metrorail system and will replace the 1970s-era gates. Riders should begin seeing the new fare gates next year, officials said.”

This is the logical evolution of Metrorail’s SmarTrip card system, reducing the need for smartphone owners to carry around yet another plastic card.

In other metro news: SmarTrip cards are getting cheaper, and, within the next few months Metro will put its trains back on autopilot (they’ve been operated manually since the 2009 accident, with resultant choppy service).

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