What About a Faster Transit Route Between Dulles and the Core?

March 31st, 2011

The planned Metrorail Line to Dulles Airport will provide a high-frequency, high-capacity link between the airport and the region’s core, and will enable travel between all Metrorail stations and the airport, without requiring rail-to-bus transfers.  Concerns have been expressed about the likely Metrorail travel times between the airport and the core, and the capacity of the Metrorail system, as trains converge through Rosslyn and pass under the Potomac River.  Could there be improvements that would provide faster service, expand the capacity, and also provide for greater flexibility for routing trains when service is disrupted, because of either incidents or planned major maintenance?

To attract riders, transit travel times need to “be competitive with” other travel options, yet setting that competitive bar at the level of auto travel times doesn’t seem to be necessary (nor is it readily achievable.)  Reagan National Airport attracts many transit trips, even though driving times to the airport are generally shorter than by rail.    While travel times need to be competitive, and a faster travel time would be more appealing and attract some more ridership, Metrorail to Dulles Airport will result in considerable transit usage by airport patrons and employees, not only to and from the core, but to Tysons Corner and other locations served by the Metrorail network.

Travel time from Dulles Airport to Metro Center will be 52 minutes, compared with the current travel time of 17 minutes from National Airport to Metro Center.  However, many of the trips using the Dulles extension will be shorter trips that stay within Virginia.  Travel time from Dulles Airport to Tysons Corner will be only 22 minutes and from Tysons Corner to Ballston will be 15 minutes.

Future Rail Travel Time Between Stations Travel Time (min)
Dulles Airport to Tysons Route 7 22
Herndon/Monroe to Tysons Route 7 13
Tysons Route 7 to Ballston 15
Dulles Airport to Metro Center 52
Reagan National Airport to Metro Center 17

As part of the Regional Transit System Plan (RTSP) effort, Metro is evaluating strategies to increase the capacity of service through Rosslyn, and reduce the travel times between the outer reaches of Metrorail and the core. Two specific ideas a include building a new line parallel to the existing Orange Line in Arlington so as to bypass multiple stations there, and operating trains in a skip-stop pattern. Metro is not considering building a third track (or third and fourth tracks) that would follow the current alignment, which would require rebuilding the existing stations. It would likely be no more costly and much less disruptive to build a nearby parallel line. While a skip-stop operation is feasible (though confusing to non-regular riders), the idea of express trains is not being pursued because the future train frequency will be so high that an express train would gain little time before being constrained by the train in front, and operating trains into and out of bypasses would involve considerable switching that is fraught with complications.

A Dulles rail extension alternative to be tested under RTSP

While it’s not planned to analyze express Metrorail service to Dulles as part of the RTSP effort, it is planned to model a configuration that would enable trains to bypass the section of the Orange Line between Ballston and Courthouse. This could provide an indication of ridership potential from reducing travel times by about 10 minutes.

The Commonwealth’s upcoming study of I-66 inside the beltway will provide another opportunity to look at transit in this corridor. At the same time that VDOT is moving ahead with the I-66 spot improvements to widen the outbound roadway in places, this upcoming VDOT study will look at a broad range of long-term options for the corridor. While this road widening will make it more difficult to put a new heavy rail line down the I-66 right-of-way between East Falls Church and Rosslyn to enable a parallel Metrorail route in this corridor, it may still be feasible should high quality transit be a priority for future travel along this corridor.

Map of the Orange Line Bypass from the 2001 Core Capacity Study (PDF, 1MB)

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  1. March 31st, 2011 at 11:22 | #1

    Where is there space in the I-66 median to do something like this?

  2. Michael
    March 31st, 2011 at 16:12 | #2

    Hi, Michael:

    The 2001 Core Capacity Study describes such a routing.

    For part of the distance between WFC and the existing tunnel, there is enough room for two additional sets of rails, and part there isn’t. For sections where there is no at-grade room for the ROW, it would be constructed as an aerial structure.

    For the stretch between the diverge and Rosslyn, “depending on the right-of-way and optimum track alignment constraints, some of the line would be in the center of I-66 and some of it would run along the side of I-66. The track on this section would continue on aerial structure into Rosslyn until descending to its at-grade connection with the existing blue line north of Arlington Cemetery station.”

    The study also describes the second Rosslyn station as “an aerial structure east of the existing station, situated between I-66 and Arlington Ridge Road. It would be designed to include easy passenger connections between the new and existing stations.”

  3. EW
    March 31st, 2011 at 19:47 | #3

    I like this idea. One suggestion, however. From Rosslyn run the route up and along Lee Hwy. and place stations at Cherrydale and another at the Lee and Glebe Road intersection. There could be pocket tracks (in stations) along the route to allow express train service from Dulles to bypass non-express trains.

    Eventually, at some time in the not too distant future, another tunnel under the Potomac will be utterly necessary. This expanded proposal could do the trick in getting such a project off the ground.

    How do we pay for this? A 1 cent sales tax increase in DC and Northern Virginia. Plus some funding from the feds.

  4. March 31st, 2011 at 19:54 | #4

    The problem with an aerial structure west of the Rosslyn tunnel (between the tunnel and Spout Run) is that you have already existing street overpasses over I-66.

    I just don’t see this being viable given the cost involved. Would be better to put that cost towards a separated Blue Line.

  5. John T
    March 31st, 2011 at 20:26 | #5

    probably better off linking Dulles and National with one line by creating a tunnel btw Court House and Arlington Cemetery, making the Silver Line from Dulles to National and running extra yellow line trains to relieve congestion on the Orange line

  6. March 31st, 2011 at 20:37 | #6

    Is there really room to descend from an aerial Rosslyn station to a tunnel along the Key Bridge alignment before hitting the Potomac?

    If we were actually going to build this, it might be better to follow I-66 across the river and descend just south of Kennedy Center, tunneling under New Hampshire Ave to a West End station (and then following the separated Blue alignment).

    But for the purposes of the study, it’s probably OK to use this alignment. You want to estimate Convention Center/Metro Center-Dulles ridership with and without the Rosslyn-Ballston stops. And whether the stops between Rosslyn and West End are two Georgetown stops or Kennedy Center and Foggy Bottom is probably not important.

  7. KB
    March 31st, 2011 at 23:56 | #7

    This isn’t about cutting travel time to Dulles. This is about getting metro into Georgetown. Does metro really think that nobody would figure that out? Does metro really think that people would support this expense when you can’t even keep the current system running reliably, just to save 10 minutes between metro center and dulles?

    If this is the logic that management decisions are made with, now we know why the system is in shambles.

  8. San Box John
    March 31st, 2011 at 23:57 | #8

    I have solution that will get people from the urban core to Dulles Airport that is likely just as fast but but is far cheaper. Build a track that bypass Tysons Corner. Put in high speed flying junctions in the median of the Connector road south of Old Chain Bridge road and west of Leesburg Pike. The bypass would create a single shot run from East Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue.

    I happen to believe the M Street subway should be used as the alternate route through downtown for the Blue line.

    John R Cambron

  9. John P
    April 1st, 2011 at 02:32 | #9

    For the proposed line along I-66 between E Falls Church and Rosslyn, include at least one intermediate station stop. Lee Highway at Spout Run (just east of Cherrydale) makes the most sense, as it is near commercial areas and a fairly dense area of apartments in addition to the more typical suburban neighborhoods. It would provide metro rail access to many more people in North Arlington, and I doubt that Arlington would look to kindly on a project that provides no access to the communities it would run through.

  10. Kaya W
    April 1st, 2011 at 07:53 | #10

    I love this idea. The only bad about it is that it will take 20 years to happen, if it ever were to happen.

  11. MLD
    April 1st, 2011 at 11:04 | #11


    Due to capacity problems downtown on the Blue/Orange line, a separate line through downtown will have to be built eventually. So it’s not just about “getting metro into Georgetown,” it’s about increasing capacity in the downtown core.

  12. April 1st, 2011 at 11:34 | #12

    There are so many shortsighted mistakes with the Silver Line, one can hardly enumerate them all.
    – Yes @San Box John, they should have planned in a Tysons bypass along the access road as part of the project. It not only speeds rides, but allows for flexibility in cases of breakdowns, etc.
    – In fact, they should have made the whole thing–or at least sections–three tracks wide for the same reason, it adds enormous flexibility.
    – Not building the tunnel in Tysons. Enormous mistake.
    – How about some sort of transfer at WFC? Would have been better than EFC. The tracks aren’t that far from the existing station.
    – The bottleneck at Rosslyn is going to be a catastrophe from the day it opens. You think the Orange Line is crowded now? Just wait.
    – The Dulles station should be inside the terminal–not hundreds of feet away (just more time & inconvenience for transit users vs. driving. . .but who cares about them).
    – Etc.

  13. April 1st, 2011 at 12:51 | #13

    @Sand Box John,

    Why not a double bypass? This design plus a Tyson’s bypass. There would then be a Silver Express with Virginia stops at (the new) Rosslyn, (the new) EFC, Wiehle Ave, Reston Town Center, Herndon and Dulles as well as a Silver Local running the existing planned Silver Line. It wouldn’t be too hard to connect from the existing at-grade Blue Line north of Arlington Cemetery to the new Rosslyn station and thus into the new M St./Mass Ave. tunnel, which creates the separated Blue Line (at least one version) for relatively little more. As long as Blue + Silver Express adds up to 26 tph, Orange + Sliver Local adds up to 26 tph and Blue + Yellow adds up to 26 tph, everything works.


    It might be worth modeling this double bypass as part of RTSP. A half-hour trip between Dulles and the Core starts looking awful attractive.

  14. April 1st, 2011 at 14:10 | #14

    A Tysons bypass would be the easiest to construct. Unfortunately, it also bypasses your key destinations. If you wanted to run an express train from DC to Dulles, you’d likely want stops in DC, Tysons, maybe one in Reston and the Airport.

  15. Michael
    April 1st, 2011 at 14:10 | #15

    Lots of good conversation here, people. Thanks for all the feedback. Keep it coming.

    I like the idea of moving the modeled “Dulles rail” bypass along US-29, but only if the Lee Hwy corridor is interested in growth like the Rosslyn/Ballston corridor was. I also like the “double bypass” idea, drastically reducing the time of trips between Dulles/Loudoun and the core.

    We are already looking at an interline connection (“Y”) between Court House and Arlington Cemetery, allowing Dulles trains to stay in Virginia and/or use the Yellow Line bridge.

  16. Marko
    April 1st, 2011 at 14:55 | #16

    It cannot be overstated how HUGE the “Y” connection between CH and Arlington Cemetery would be, but I would then assume that there would need to be a second “Y” built at the same time to get you from between Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon to between the Pentagon and L’Enfant (which appears to also be in the works based on the Interline Connectors noted here – https://planitmetro.com/2011/02/16/rtsp-rail-enhancement-strategy-interline-connections-and-station-improvements/).

    Those 2 improvements IMHO would add some much needed flexibility to the system.

  17. MMDKD
    April 1st, 2011 at 15:08 | #17

    This will cost so much money – its a total pipedream.

    There is not enough demand for this, just have buses do this.

  18. McLean Old Timer
    April 1st, 2011 at 15:47 | #18

    I agree that at least 1 intermediate stop should be added between EAST FALLS CHURCH and ROSSLYN.

    The best single location for this would be along US-29 between Glebe Road and Old Dominion Drive, which is roughly half-way between the existing EAST FALLS CHURCH and ROSSLYN stations. The area is called “LEE HEIGHTS”, which is a practical working name for this station proposal.

    That location best optimises bus connections northwards through northern Arlington, Chesterbrook, and downtown McLean (i.e. Old Dominion @ Chain Bridge) and also southwards towards Ballston and the existing high-density offices/condos. It also best optimises the “kiss-and-ride” and “bicycle” connections to MetroRail, while maximising the portion of north Arlington that is within walking distance of a MetroRail station.

    (Old timers will remember that “Old Dominion Drive” used to be the light-rail route from Rosslyn via McLean to Great Falls, which is why that road has such a smooth grade, and partly why so much retail/commercial development lies along that pathway. :-)

  19. McLean Old Timer
    April 1st, 2011 at 15:52 | #19

    It would be helpful to see some explanation from Metro staff of the depth considerations in the Georgetown/West End section of this proposal. It seems like a station at GU or at Georgetown West would have to be very deep, possibly deeper than the existing Rosslyn MetroRail station. That would seem to make both construction and station design quite challenging (i.e. expensive).

  20. McLean Old Timer
    April 1st, 2011 at 15:56 | #20

    For the future WOLF TRAP station, which is already planned (although reportedly not currently funded) for the Silver Line, one hopes that it still could be built as a 3-track station with 2 platforms (one each direction). Separate platforms will be helpful during periods just after a performance ends when a huge crowd wants to return home via MetroRail.

    Having a siding/passing-track there would be helpful in enabling extra trains to serve popular performances at Wolf Trap NP. It also would create a contingency option to park a train that became disabled during peak periods, until it could be moved back to the shops after peak hours.

  21. San Box John
    April 2nd, 2011 at 14:16 | #21

    @Alex B

    The bypass would be irrelevant to trips originating or terminating in Tysons as regular Ashburn Stadiun-Armory through trains would serve those stations.

    My thinking is for every eastbound train that uses the bypass the previous or following train would terminate at Tysons-McLean and return to Ashburn. For westbound trains that use the bypass again the previous or following train would originate at Tysons-McLean. If the layover time for trains terminating and originating at Tysons-McLean is greater then the time between Ashburn Stadiun-Armory trains those train could relay in the Falls Church Yard lead.

    Using Tysons-McLean as an eastbound terminal would have been a lot simpler had the pocket track east of Tysons-McLean not been deleted from final plan.

  22. April 2nd, 2011 at 16:33 | #22


    That’s not my point about the bypass.

    If you were designing an express service from scratch (with no other existing conditions to worry about), you’d want that express service to serve several important stations and skip the lower ridership, less important ones.

    Your proposed service plan also fails to address the primary purpose of an express, limited stop service – the value of such a service is that it speeds the trip from the fringe into the core. If you terminate express service at a pocket track that’s not really a destination, then you force a transfer for a through passenger and lose any time advantage the express service offered.

    The same problem happens with bypassing the four Tysons stations. Those stations represent key destinations for trips originating at the end of the line – likewise, they’d represent key destinations for trips originating in the core.

    My point is, if you were designing a system from scratch, you’d want to bypass the lower ridership stations, not Tysons Corner.

  23. San Box John
    April 4th, 2011 at 09:50 | #23

    @Alex B

    Isn’t the subject here about getting passengers to the airport faster from the urban core and not about getting passengers to Tysons Corner faster from that same urban core?

    My idea would do that only and at a cheaper price to boot. I happen to believe that a plurality of the boarding generated west of Tysons Corner are heading to destination within the state of Virginia only. I also happen to believe that a significant number of that plurality will not be heading to or originating from destinations east of Tysons-McLean.

  24. April 4th, 2011 at 13:57 | #24

    FWIW, I suggested this in two blog entries in 2006, when I wrote that the problem of devolving responsibility for system expansion to the separate jurisdictions meant that planning as a system no longer occurred, and that the opportunity to use the Silver Line extension as a way to create the separated blue line was missed, because obviously it wasn’t something important to the state of Virginia.


  25. April 4th, 2011 at 14:00 | #25

    Oh, and David Alpert kindly did a visual, a map, for me in 2008 to accompany an entry on DC transportation planning, showing this idea:


  26. April 4th, 2011 at 20:39 | #26

    @Sand Box John

    I’m not comparing proposals against each other – the Tysons bypass clearly is the most realistic idea.

    My point is simple – if you were designing an express service from scratch and money was no object, you’d want to stop at Tysons and bypass the other stations instead.

  27. San Box John
    April 5th, 2011 at 07:46 | #27

    @Alex B

    Now we are getting down to brass tacks, I agree. However if money were no object I would do both so trains could use both urban core east west corridors to get to Dulles faster. I would also put those express track under the existing Orange line so both could share the express tracks and the Court House Arlington Cemetery Y.

  28. Josiah
    April 7th, 2011 at 12:28 | #28

    Where is the Silver Line currently planned to go past the Trinidad area of D.C. The maps I’ve found show it dipping down towards the Orange Lne, but that doesn’t make much sense to me as that would leave a large gap in access to the rail system in the triangular area enclosed by Union Station,College Park, and New Corrollton. That seems like a lot of neglected populated areas to me.

  29. Mark Kellogg
    April 7th, 2011 at 13:58 | #29

    @Josiah, re “where is the Silver Line currently planned to go past the Trinidad area of DC”

    The route that is being modeled for the Northeast DC portion of a relocated Silver Line follows H Street and Benning Road, across the Anacostia, to a new station where the Blue and Orange Lines converge/diverge. This is the same DC routing as was modeled for the relocated Blue Line. (See January 13th post, slide 14 of presentation.) This routing would enable patrons of the Blue and Orange Lines east of the Anacostia to connect with the Silver Line at the new station, rather than either transferring at Rosslyn (which would require doubling back to reach Silver Line stations in DC) or transferring twice. You’re correct that there are areas of DC and Prince George’s County that are unserved by Metrorail, but it was not intended that this model run would address that. Rather, this model run should provide some insight as to which line relocation (Blue or Silver) would be more effective at relieving forecast Metrorail congestion in the vicinity of Rosslyn, and whether a Silver Line routing that bypasses four stations between East Falls Church and Rosslyn would attract more ridership.


  30. DC Transit Rider
    April 18th, 2011 at 11:13 | #30

    In addition to the excellent proposal above, I’d encourage you to take a hard look at bypass tracks at some of the new stations along the Toll Road. Mainline railroads have high-speed turnouts that are good for 70mph+ which would allow local trains to reach the platform tracks with no delay. With careful scheduling and some strategically-placed bypass tracks, express trains should be possible between EFC and Dulles on your mostly two-track railroad. True, during rush hour you’d need a slower express schedule to account for express and local trains tangling up every now and then, but that’s when people are going to take the train anyway in order to avoid the traffic. Off-peak when trains are only running every 10-20 minutes, you could run a pretty good airport express service.

    At a minimum, make an allowance in the new station designs to do this in the future.

    Ultimately though, the most important thing is more capacity getting across the river into DC. Without that, the Silver Line is going to be a nightmare from the day it opens.

  31. April 20th, 2011 at 19:12 | #31

    The proposed Silver Line map in DC looks like the proposed Blue Line separation, with the drawback that the Silver Line loses its express service within DC. I propose merging the routing of the Blue Line and Silver Line in DC using 4 tracks, with the Blue serving local stops and Silver Line terminating at Union Station and stopping only at transfer stations: Farragut Square and Mt. Vernon Square. With proper design and bypass tracks west of East Fall Church, the Dulles Express could become a premium service and charge higher prices to help offset the increased costs.

  32. NikolasM
  33. Dave P
    June 28th, 2011 at 15:51 | #33

    How about another idea for later that extends the Orange line to the Rt 50 corridor through Fairfax City and then turing north along Rt 28 with another option for the airport? This could result in a new Orange Line (or pick your color) that could deviate at Ballston, take off along Glebe Road into Shirington and pick up at National or Potomac Yards.

  34. Sand Box John
    July 4th, 2011 at 12:45 | #34

    I was looking at these proposal and thought why not build a second platform above the East Falls Church station. The Silver line tracks would merge with the Orange line west of the existing Orange Line portal. The Silver tracks would run parallel at the same elevation as the Orange line tracks.

    The outbound trains of both the Orange and Silver lines would be served by the new upper level platform, the inbound trains would be served by the existing platform. The 2 platform 4 track East Falls Church station in the Arlington and Tysons Corner and Arlington options would allow cross platform transfers for the same direction between the Orange and Silver lines.

    Ramps beyond both ends of the station would carry the outbound tracks up to the upper level platform.

    The high speed crossovers east of K and N Junction would allow easy conductivity of both Orange and Silver lines along both the K route in Arlington and bypass.

    The Y junctions in Rosslyn would allow both the Orange and Silver lines the ability utilize the proposed Y junction at Pentagon to enter DC by way of the Fenwick Bridge and L’Enfant Plaza.

    Here are the options in track schematic format:

    M Street subway Silver line bypass no build

    M Street subway Silver line bypass Tysons Corner

    M Street subway Silver line bypass Arlington

    M Street subway Silver line bypass Tysons Corner and Arlington

  35. Sand Box John
    July 4th, 2011 at 14:24 | #35

    @Sand Box John

    M Street subway Silver line bypass no build

    M Street subway Silver line bypass Tysons Corner

    M Street subway Silver line bypass Arlington

    M Street subway Silver line bypass Tysons Corner and Arlington

  36. John
    September 14th, 2011 at 12:26 | #36

    Why not make improvements to Rosslyn and Pentagon Stations to allow the Silver line to follow Orange into Rosslyn and then follow Blue to Pentagon and then Yellow into the City. This would alleviate a lot of the congestion in Rosslyn. People along the Orange Line in Arlington would be given a much shorter commute to the L’Enfant area. It would also alleviate the mass orange to blue transfer at Rosslyn.

  37. q
    February 17th, 2012 at 12:46 | #37

    can the silver line go to minnesota avenu also make river terrace a station so people dont have a long time transferin to orange or blue line

  38. Mark Kellogg
    February 17th, 2012 at 14:38 | #38


    As per comment #29 of April 7th, yes, in conjunction with any new cross-town line via M St NW, H St NE and Benning, whether it carries Silver, Blue and/or Orange Line trains, it should connect with the existing Blue and Orange Lines. This has been modeled as occurring east of the Anacostia at a new station at Benning and Minnesota, which appears to be in the vicinity of River Terrace. This modeling is conceptual only, and the physical feasibility hasn’t been investigated.

  39. angela jones
    March 21st, 2012 at 13:35 | #39

    i looking for a survey on tuesday october 11,2011 that was @ rosslyn and ballston stations. we studying this information in school. can you help me out with this the one i have it’s in spanish i need it in english

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