LED on Washington Metro enrages city bigwigs

The train lighting on the Washington Metro was originally designed to match the warm hue of the stations, creating a twilight feel throughout the day. The new LED trains however, create a jarring comparison. 

Washington DC, home to the American power elite, has seen many controversies rise and fall, the latest, however, doesn’t involve presidents or congressmen, but the new LED lighting on the city’s Metro network. And it's not only commuters that are enraged, lighting designers with any sense of history are cringing at the network's tinkering with an iconic, if unusual, scheme. 

The trains on the Washington Metro, which is the third largest and third busiest transport system in the United States, have recently been upgraded to feature white-blue LED light.

Detractors of the upgrade, of which there are many, have labeled the new light as ‘clinical’ and have equated their commutes to ‘walking into a giant Xerox machine’.

The architecture of the Washington Metro and indeed the original lighting scheme is condidered to be something of a design classic by architects and lighting designers alike.

The lighting scheme was developed by the iconic lighting designer William Lam and it is widely viewed as being one of the finest examples of integrated lighting design in the world.

Working in conjunction with the Metro’s architect, Harry Weese, who developed the network in the Brutalist style, Lam created a lighting scheme that set out to be comprised of warm light, in direct juxtaposition to the hard concrete style of the stations. He also aimed to create a lighting design that prevented commuters from feeling claustrophobic.

A pioneering use of uplights were used to illuminate the architectural surfaces, which today is taken for granted, but at the time was something of a revelation.

The idea was to make transport in the city as warm, welcoming and pleasant as possible for federal government employees, a notion that was dreamed up in the age of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, when government was perceived as striving for the common good, a perception that wasn’t to last long.

A pioneering use of uplights were used in the orginal lighting design for the Washington Metro, to illuminate the architectural surfaces, something which today is taken for granted, but at the time was a revelation. Picture copyright: Ralf Roletschek/ www.roletschek.at via Wikimedia Commons

In the years that have passed Lam’s original warm T12 fixtures have been replaced with T5s and despite the network’s attempts to make sure that the light temperature remained between the 3500K to 3000K level, the tone of the illumination has gradually been getting brighter.

The recent instillation of LED on the network’s trains has completely blown Lam’s original intentions out of the water and people aren’t happy.

The train lighting was originally designed to match the warm hue of the stations, creating a twilight feel throughout the day, meaning the new LED trains create a jarring comparison.

Reactions on social media have not been kind, with one regular commuter describing the new lighting as, ‘creating a pallid, factory-like and unwelcoming ambiance’.

Of course the new and bright-blue lighting mixture is good for the morning and will act in concert with commuter’s circadian rhythms to ensure that they are awake and ready for work. However, at night, the opposite will be true.

The disdain for the new lighting has not been unanimous though, with some saying that brighter lights will lead to a safer network.

‘Customers frequently comment about station lighting,’ Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told The Washington Post. ‘They ask us for brighter stations, which also helps them feel safer and more secure.’

It remains to be seen if the majority of Washingtonians will be won over to their ever brightening Metro network, but with further LED train conversions in the pipeline, commuters may have no choice but to adapt.

  • Lux's Lighting for Rail Conference will take place at the Cavendish Conference Centre in Central London on Thursday 18 May 2017. You can read the full programme and register to attend by clicking here.