Train riders can now call, scroll Instagram and watch Netflix throughout the entire underground network of Metro tunnels.

More than a decade after it was originally proposed, a project to equip all 100 miles of tunnel with cell service is now complete, according to Metro and wireless carriers AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. Most of the work has been done for months, but crews recently finished the last three legs: on the Red Line between Dupont Circle and White Flint in Maryland, on the Yellow Line from L’Enfant Plaza to the Pentagon and on the Silver Line in Tysons Corner.

While it brings a new amenity and convenience to the system, the project came about for safety reasons. It’s another added layer of communications for riders and first responders during an emergency. Metro has also installed Wi-Fi at all 91 stations, but the Wi-Fi connection drops out in between stations.

Congress originally mandated that the cell service project be completed by 2012, but it was put on hold to address more pressing issues like track, signaling and track circuitry in the wake of the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people. Another attempt failed after a contractor for the project went bankrupt.

The need was highlighted again in 2015 when a smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza killed one woman and sickened more than 80 passengers. Calls to 911 didn’t get through clearly and emergency responders struggled to communicate with passengers trapped inside the tunnel as it filled with smoke

“This is something we’ve been working with Metro and the carriers on for years, because it will improve safety for Metro riders and workers,” Virginia Senator Mark Warner said in a statement. “The federal government and the region have made substantial investments in making this system safer and more reliable, from rebuilding tracks to introducing new rail cars, and now passengers will be able to use their cellphones underground throughout the system.”

It may also bring new ways of communicating with riders in the future, too. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld noted in a statement that it could enable “new technologies to improve real-time customer communications and operate more efficiently,”

Metro began the project in 2016 and it was estimated to cost $120 million, which was split between Metro and the wireless carriers. It was supposed to be finished in mid-2020. Going forward, the carriers will be in charge of maintenance and will “regularly test and enhance the network to provide an optimal wireless experience for their respective customers.”

Last year, the transit system also launched another long-awaited technological improvement: adding SmarTrip capabilities to iPhones. Android capability is in the works, but it’s unclear when that will be released.


(As published by dcist)