United States Capitol Subway System: A Brief History

A United States Capitol subway system car beneath the Russell Senate Office Building (Image: US Congress. United States Capitol subway system car beneath the Russell Senate Office Building)

The Washington Metro rapid transit system, which serves the Washington, DC metropolitan area in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, began operating just over four decades ago, in 1976. But beneath the streets of Capitol Hill lies another underground railway, decades older, which has its roots in the early years of the 20th century.

Studebaker Electric cars in the US Capitol subway system in 1909 (Image: US Congress. A Studebaker Electric in the original 1909 tunnel)

The United States Capitol subway system was first built in 1909 to link the US Capitol to the Russell Senate Office Building. Initially Studebaker Electric motorcars were used to ferry passengers from one station to the other. These were replaced by an early monorail, complete with wicker coach, in 1912 (below).

(Image: Library of Congress. A monorail system is installed in 1912)

We’re all familiar with tales of shadowy underground railway lines shuttling public officials and VIPs between sensitive government buildings. But this small network is no secret within the Beltway.

The original US Capitol monorail system in use around 1912 (Image: Library of Congress. The original monorail system in 1912)

Comprised of three lines and six stations, the Capitol subway is usually off-limits to the general public, though it has featured on official tours of the Capitol Complex. Over the decades it’s gradually expanded, and essentially incorporates three subterranean people mover lines into a broader rapid transit system.

(Image: Library of Congress)

The first major upgrade to the original system came around 1960 (see below), when a monorail was installed to transport members of congress and staffers to the Dirksen Senate Office Building. This was followed five years later by a two-car subway from the Capitol to the Rayburn House Office Building.

(Image: US Congress. The system is first upgraded around 1960)

The Dirksen line was then extended to reach the Hart Senate Office Building in 1982. And by the early 1990s, the original operator-controlled monorail had been upgraded to an automatic train.

Senator Joe Lieberman rides the Capitol subway with his wife Hadassah (Image: Shirley Li/Medill DC. Senator Joe Lieberman and wife Hadassah on the Capitol subway)

The United States Capitol subway is made up of three separate systems. The House side operates an older, more traditional twin track train system, where manually controlled open-top cars ferry passengers between the Rayburn Building and the Capitol.

(Image: US Congress. An engineer carries out maintenance on the Senate subway system)

On the Senate side, a similar installation to the Rayburn subway is used to ferry officials and staffers from the Capitol to the Russell Building. Another separate – and more modern – system shuttles passengers connects to the Capitol to the Dirksen and Hart Senate buildings. The latter uses three automatic trains, made up of three cars each.

(Image: US Congress. Repairing a Capitol subway car)

Both the Capitol and Hart stations feature side platforms on the Senate side, while Dirksen station has both a side and an island platform for Capitol and Hart-bound trains respectively. A junction at Hart station also leads to a maintenance spur allowing engineers employed by its operator, the Architect of the Capitol, to service rollingstock.

Diagram of the Capitol basement showing the House and Senate stations of the US Capitol subway (Image: US Congress)

Both Senate lines terminate in the same spot beneath the Capitol. The House line, however, is located beneath the far side of the building, and is connected to the Senate lines by an intricate network of basement-level tunnels. The diagram above shows the location of each Capitol subway station.

(Image: Dave Williams)

Public access to the United States Capitol subway system has been available during official tours though restrictions have been in place since the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001. But our fiends at Untapped Cities took a tour of the network back in 2016.

Riding the Senate subway (Image: brownpau. Riding the Senate subway)

Michelle Young writes: “The exclusive transit system is not exactly open to the public unless you’re a member of Congress or a staffer on Capitol Hill. It’s also one of the world’s shortest – the portion between the Senate to the Russell Senate Office Building is about 1000 feet and takes less than a minute. Riding US Capitol Subway system is mundane operating procedure for Capitol Hill employees, but a fascinating find for the lay people.”

(Image: Greg Palmer)

Offering a first hand insight of time spent working in the US Capitol (and presumably travelling on its subway), Greg Palmer (who took the above photo) wrote on Flickr: “Before I turned in my Congressional ID and left DC, I gave myself one last tour of the Capitol. It’s beautiful on a daily basis, but after the tourists leave and it empties at the end of each day, it gains a certain spookiness to it. I tried to capture a bit of the eerie silence engulfing the empty halls of the US Capitol.”

Check out the video above to see the US Capitol subway in action.

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