Managing the D.C. Metro

The DC Metro system is a good way to get around Washington D.C. without a car. It is great for tourists who want to feel part of the city life, or not drive in the city, as well general commuters. This article is intended to give a basic overview of the D.C. Metro system.


D.C. Metro MapThe D.C. metro was built between 1969 and 1976. It has had some upgrades since- many of them track maintenance. The metro consists of 5 interconnecting lines. These include the red, blue, yellow, green and orange. Some of the lines run on the same track during parts of their route (such as the orange and blue, blue and yellow, or yellow and green) while the red line mostly serves to connect the other 4 lines and runs within its own territory.


Each train is marked by line color and its ultimate destination. For example, an orange line train at Farragut West going west out of the city will say ‘ORANGE’ and ‘VIENNA’ on the digital signs displayed outside of the train. Vienna is the final station, not the next station (that would be Foggy Bottom/Georgetown). Trains also consist of 6 or 8 cars. The most common number of cars on a train is 6, however during high-traffic times metro will run more 8-car trains. If the train is an 8-car train, the additional cars are in the back of the train. Many people will not use the last two cars as many trains are 6-car ones, so even if most of the cars on trains are crowded, the last two cars are generally not.


Metro stations are all put together differently. Usually, they are marked with a 4-sided, tall sign from the outside. If the station is underground, this sign and an escalator are the only indications of the metro stop, so sometimes they are hard to find. (Hint: The blue signs in D.C. that show which direction monuments are also show the closest metro station.) Each station sign says the name of the station vertically down the sign and the top of it has at least one colored band. The band(s) represents the line(s) that the station services. Also note that some stations have two exits and entrances, whereas others only have one. Whenever you leave a metro station, be mindful of which exit you left to make returning to it easier.

The stations themselves are nondescript, but get the job done. Once you enter the station, there is a large room with electronic payment stands. Some of these take credit cards and others do not. Some of these allow the rider to upload money or SmartBenefits onto their SmartCard, while other machines do not.


Fares are hard to figure out. There are 3 different rates depending upon what time you are traveling (I think.) Each pay station has all rates to all other stations on them, but this is not always helpful as there are 3 different travel times that are not demarked with numbers. I think your best bet would be to put what you think is enough to get to your destination and back. But do not to worry too much as their is a cash machine on the inside of the row of turnstiles if you must add money to a paper punch card and SmartCards will go through with a negative balance up to -$20.


Fort Totten Station

There is also the option of a paper punch card or a $5 plastic SmartCard. For infrequent riders, the paper card should be sufficient. You can load money onto it and use it to enter and exit stations. The SmartCard works well if you are a regular commuter and keeping track of a number of little white cards would be difficult.

Station Platforms:

To enter the train platform, you must go through the turnstiles in which to put your paper punch card or to swipe your

SmartCard. Pay attention to the lit up circular sign on the right of the turnstiles. Go through the turnstiles marked with green and not the red, while swiping your SmartCard or inserting your punch card on the right side above the circular sign. If you have a SmartCard, you need only wave it over the sensor that is marked with a sample SmartCard. If you have a paper punch card, you must insert it into the front of the turnstile and pick it up on the top of the turnstile before going through the retractable gates.

Once on the platform, watch for the signs showing the ultimate destination of the train/line you need to go. This will direct you to the appropriate platform. Some stations have singular platforms where you wait on opposite sides depending on which direction you are traveling while others have the trains going down the center of the platform so that there are two platforms within that station.

Stations that serve multiple lines (such as Metro Center, for example which services the red, blue and orange lines) will generally have different levels for the different lines. Staircases and escalators are marked with arrows showing which platforms service which line and in which destination (by showing the ultimate destination). Last note on platforms, the illuminated lights flash slowly when a train is coming, so be sure to stand back behind the knobby floor part of the platform to stay away from the very edge.

Train Signs:

The signs in the stations and on the platforms show the upcoming trains. It shows first, the color of the line, second how many cars on the train, third the trains’ final destination and last how many more minutes until that train. Most signs can hold information for the next 3 trains. They look something like this:

B 6 Franc/Spring      2

O 6 Vienna               4

O 8 Vienna               5

The sign on this platform means that there is a 6-car Blue line train coming in 2 minutes with final destination of Franconia/Springfield station. Next is the 6-car orange line train with the final destination of Vienna in 4 minutes and after that is the 8-car orange line train with the same final destination.

Train etiquette:

1. Always let the passengers getting off to do so before beginning to board.

2. Never stick your foot or bag or something in the door to hold it open. They are not like elevator doors and will close on you. If this happens frequently enough, the train conductor may offload the entire train.

3. Take a seat if they are available or stand as out of the way as possible. If you like, offer your seat to an older person if there are few seats left.

4. Metro rules say no food or drink, loud music or pets on the metro. Most people conform to this although some bring a closed travel mug.

5. Many people read on the metro (especially during commuting time). Just be aware if you and your friends are the only people talking a train although it’s entirely packed.


If you have issues with metro, you are not at all alone. One of the most popular, and funniest, websites about the DC metro is UnsuckDCMetro. It generally has funny albeit frustrating stories of crisis that the DC metro could not handle.

On the other hand, the station workers, I have found, are generally the best people to ask for help. They seem to be the most knowledgeable and have always been pleasant to me. Metro does have a host of hotlines for different issues. Sometimes calling is helpful, while sometimes it is a huge waste of time. Often times, I have been hung up on when there is a large volume of calls and I have been told frequently that they could not fix my problem, to call a different office and then the different office couldn’t fix it either.

Overall, I still think that the DC metro is a viable way to navigate the city. It does not have to deal with general rush hour traffic as it’s located underground, but does definitely back up.  Hopefully this basic explanation of the D.C. metro will help make a first use easier.