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Transit


So you've got a friend in town and they're really into trains. Here's where to take them.

Last year, we published lists of toys you could give to a young train buff and places you could take them to visit. But what about the railfans who are all grown up? Where are the best places to take adult friends to hang out, do some train spotting, and learn some rail history?


The Dew Drop Inn. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Restaurants and bars are a good start

Payton Chung suggests a few places in DC to check out. The Dew Drop Inn, located in the Edgewood neighborhood near Brookland, is named for a number of "Dew Drop Inns" across America. Housed in a rustic stone industrial building that was used as a workspace for stonemasons and metal workers, you can get a great view of the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks on the Red Line between the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland stations when you're hanging out on the porch.

Along the H Street corridor, there's Maketto, a communal marketplace that's made up of two buildings with a courtyard, roof deck, and a catwalk that connects the spaces together. The catwalk has retail, a Cambodian/Taiwanese restaurant, and a café and bakery on the second floor where you can get a great view of the DC Streetcar.

In Maryland, Julie Lawson says to check out Lotus Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant located in Downtown Silver Spring at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Sligo Avenue that overlooks the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks as they cross over Georgia Avenue. She says her son "loves to watch the trains there so I would assume grownup railfans might enjoy it for dinner too."


The view from Lotus Cafe. Image from Google Maps.

A short walk from Lotus Cafe, there's Denizens Brewing Company, located on East-West Highway on the opposite side of Georgia Avenue near the rail overpass. Dan Reed mentions that the place as an appropriately-named beer called "Trainspotting".

Walk around and explore

If you live near a rail line and feel like doing a little bit of exploring, a simple walk around is always a best bet.

Jonathan Neeley says there's plenty to see in his neighborhood, Brookland:

I like going on walks, and a lot of my friends do too, so I'd probably go with something simple like being sure to walk over the Michigan Avenue and Taylor Street bridges by my house, where you can watch trains come and go from far away. I'd probably also take them on a ride on the Red Line between Rhode Island Ave and Silver Spring just to see the graffiti.

Looking south from the Taylor Street bridge. Photo by Jonathan Neeley

The Washington DC Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society has a list of "railfan hotspots" located within two hours of the beltway that have a lot of rail activity and history.

One of these hotspots is Long Bridge Park in Arlington, which has an extensive railroad history and a name that's a reference to the railroad bridge connecting Washington with Northern Virginia. Chris Slatt mentions that the esplanade is a "top notch spot for viewing CSX freight trains, Amtrak trains, and VRE trains."


The esplanade at Long Bridge Park in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Chris Slatt.

Another hotspot, this one suggested by Canaan Merchant, is Burke Lake Park in Fairfax County. The park has an attraction that young railfans, and even some grown ups, can enjoy. The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine is a new version of the original one-third scale replica that makes the rounds on its own narrow gauge 1.75 mile track.


The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine at Burke Lake Park. Photo by Fairfax County Department of Parks.

David Cranor adds "there are several rail trails in the area, but the W&OD really does the best job of celebrating that. There are old train cars set up along it and lots of historical information/markers about the railroad too." Payton also mentions that "a ride along the Metropolitan Branch Trail is also a good option; it even parallels the Acela tracks for a bit."

Our region also has quite a few museums and other attractions around that are good bets for taking train aficionados or folks who just want to learn more.

Canaan points us to the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum in its namesake location in Fairfax County. This museum has displays, activities, and events that help preserve local history and promote railroading—even "a couple of cars you can go inside." The station itself played a critical role in the American Civil War as an important supply and medical evacuation site where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, assisted in relief and evacuation efforts during the Battle of Bull Run in 1862.

The National Museum of American History in DC and the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville in Montgomery County are also great options for railfans who want to learn more history.

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture will have an exhibit dedicated to transportation and race, exploring how Jim Crow laws affected streetcar and railroad travel, as well as the history of Pullman porters and railroaders behind the scenes.

Are there any other places in the area you know of that would be good spots to take a railfan? Let us know in the comments.

Photography


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 91

On Tuesday, we featured the ninety-first challenge to see how well you knew the Metro system. Here are the answers. How'd you do?

This week, we got 44 guesses. 24 of you got all five. Great work, everyone!


Image 1: Georgia Avenue

The first image shows an entrance to Georgia Avenue station, viewed from the Park Place across the street. The primary clue here is the lozenge-shaped entrance pavilion. This style of entrance is only present at three stations, with Columbia Heights and Congress Heights rounding out the set.

Other clues included the acute intersection of Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues and the rowhouses of Pleasant Plains in the background. 37 got it right.


Image 2: Ballston

The second image shows the entrance at Ballston station. This canopy is fairly unique, though a similar style is used for the eastern entrance at Judiciary Square. The commuter store in the center provides another hint.

39 knew this one.


Image 3: Judiciary Square

The third photo was taken at Judiciary Square. While there's not a lot of direct evidence in the photo, the reflection in the water is of a very distinctive building: the National Building Museum. The iconic structure stands directly across from the eastern entrance to Judiciary Square, which has an uncovered escalator shaft.

40 guessed Judiciary Square.


Image 4: Rhode Island Avenue

Rhode Island Avenue station featured in our fourth picture. The station is visible at left, viewed here from the new pedestrian bridge linking the station to the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The fencing on either side of the bridge is fairly distinctive, and that was the main clue.

The radio tower and the distant Capitol dome may have helped you narrow down the possibilities. 40 sussed out the right answer.


Image 5: Tenleytown

The last picture comes from Tenleytown. We featured a very similar photo in week 57, as it happens.

Tenleytown is the only Arch I or Arch II station where the elevator bypasses the mezzanine and goes straight to the platform. Because of this, there's a solitary faregate, TVM and exitfare machine at the south end of the platform.

29 came to the correct conclusion.

Thanks for playing. Great work! We'll be back in two weeks with another quiz.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


In San Diego, an example of how "within walking distance" does not always mean "walkable"

I like to ride the San Diego Trolley when I visit family there, but the mile walk from the station to their house is so, so awful that it always makes me think twice about riding the train. Here at home, my walk to the Metro is the same distance, and I do it happily all the time.


The walk along Jackson Drive in La Mesa isn't very inviting. Image by the author.

The 1.1-mile walk from the Grossmont Trolley station in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa to my family's house takes you through a strip mall parking lot, along the six-lane major arterial Fletcher Parkway and then up the overly wide four-lane Jackson Drive before you turn into their neighborhood. It's not pleasant, as the picture above shows.


The route of my walk in La Mesa. Image by Google Maps.

As a result, my family only drives to the station when they ride the Trolley, and I—someone who likes to ride transit—think twice about making the walk when I'm there.

The crazy thing is that this is a comparable distance to what I walk a couple of times a week from the Shaw-Howard U Metro station to my house in Eckington.

What's the difference? The walk in DC is along leafy streets lined with rowhouses in the Le Droit Park and Bloomingdale neighborhoods. Yes, I cross three major roads—Florida Avenue, and North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue where they meet—but it is just two intersections, and I do not walk along either street for very long.


I use T Street NW when walking from the Shaw Metro station to Eckington. Image by Google Maps.

Street design and development patterns matter

Much of the residential development surrounding the Grossmont Trolley station, including where my family lives, was built during the post-war suburbanisation of the 1950s and 1960s. Miles and miles of single family ranch houses built for people that get around in a car.

Retrofitting this suburban, auto-oriented built environment for pedestrians is difficult. The basic infrastructure, including sidewalks and crosswalks, exists in La Mesa.

However, there are also a number of missed opportunities when it comes to changing the built environment to make the walk more pleasant. These include wider sidewalks, barriers between passing cars and the sidewalk that increase pedestrians' perception of safety, and streetside land use that is inviting to pedestrians, like store or home fronts, instead of strip mall parking lots and driveways.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of Retrofitting Suburbia, talked about turning major arterials into tree-lined "boulevards" as one example of a suburban retrofit in a 2010 TED talk. Transit access can be a catalyst to such retrofits, she noted.

La Mesa is trying. The 527-unit Alterra and Pravada apartment complex is immediately adjacent to the Grossmont station, built atop its parking lot.

But even the Alterra and Pravada building is not the most inviting pedestrian environment. The ground level lacks retail and is instead dominated by entrances to the parking lot.

DC, at least in its older neighborhoods, benefits from having a pedestrian-friendly streetscape already in place. However, the region faces many of the same issues at some of Metro's more suburban stations, for example in Tysons and White Flint.

Better walkability means more transit riders

PlanItMetro has found that a larger "walkshed"—the area around a station that is easily walkable—to a Metro station directly correlates to higher ridership. Shaw, which has a Walk Score of 97 out of 100, saw an average of 5,087 Metro riders on weekdays in 2015 compared to Grossmont, which has a Walk Score of 76 out of 100, that saw an average of 5,707 Trolley riders on weekdays during its 2016 fiscal year that ended in June.

However, Grossmont is a transfer station between the Trolley's Green and Orange lines, which boosts ridership numbers. San Diego measures ridership by the number of people who get on or off a train, versus the number of entries and exits to a station as DC's Metro does.

The Metro system handled an average of 712,843 weekday riders and the Trolley system an average of 122,157 weekday riders in 2015, data from the respective transit agencies shows.

La Mesa is a reminder that simply building transit is not all that it takes to make a suburban neighborhood walkable and generate new transit ridership. A fact that is applicable in many city's around the country, including in the DC suburbs, as they build out their own light rail systems to previously auto-oriented suburbs.

Transit


Use this tool to see how often Metrobuses come to a particular stop, and where they go from there

Metrobus is a great way to get around, but some people avoid it because it's not easy to remember where, exactly, buses run, or when they come to your stop. A new tool from Metro hopes to make finding that information a lot easier.


Image from WMATA.

With Metrorail, maps, charts showing the next stop, and PIDs all make it clear where train lines go, when they come, and where they stop. With the bus network, it can be hard to provide such detailed information at each stop because it's far larger and more complicated.

WMATA has made big strides by adding real-time arrival boards to some bus stations, and in 2012 the agency introduced a new bus map that makes it clearer where each line runs. But that map still has quite a bit going on, especially if you're trying to use an online version by loading it on a small screen or picking between multiple route options.

To address this issue, planners at WMATA have developed Metrobus Explorer, an online tool that gives users real-time arrival displays and a personalized spider map showing where bus lines from a given stop run to. Spider maps clear the clutter of information a typical bus map gives riders, allowing them to see only the routes and stops relevant to them.


Here, we've selected three bus stops that run along Michigan Avenue, just north of the McMillan Reservoir and south of Washington Hospital Center. When you hover your mouse over the stops in the app, you see how many buses run there per hour.

Metrobus Explorer shows you a map of all the region's Metrobus stops, marked with larger dots for locations with more frequent service. It then allows you to select one or more stops. After selecting the stop (or stops) you want information for, a second map showing the routes available from those stops and their destinations is displayed.


The tool shows us which bus lines run from these stops and where they go.

The information is available for each hour of the day, reflecting the changes in frequency throughout the day. For a route view in both directions of a bus line, you need to select the stop on both sides of the street.

Metrobus Explorer is a great tool for riders; something that provides accurate, easy-to-understand information should help increase bus ridership. That said, the current version of Metrobus Explorer is a bit clunky and in order to create a full working version to be incorporate into wmata.com, WMATA would like hear your feedback.

WMATA is hoping to hear from users on the following:

  1. Would the tool be useful?
  2. What features are important? Would you like to be able to print your personalized spider map?
  3. What is missing? Should the route lines' thickness vary depending on headway?
  4. Should this be available on mobile? Would that be more or less useful than BusETA or other transit planning apps?
You can comment directly on the Metro planning page or leave a comment with your thoughts below.

Transit


On Thursday, the WMATA board heard about why Metro keeps catching on fire. Then on Friday, Metro caught on fire.

At the height of Friday afternoon rush, an insulator caught fire at Metro Center, kicking off a meltdown on the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines. A smaller but similar incident hit the Red Line Sunday evening as well. The day before, the WMATA board received a briefing on the power system that both issues were related to and how problems with it continue to plague the system.


Photo by John Grant.

Friday's fire right around 5 pm at Metro Center on the Orange/Silver/Blue lines caused trains to halt service for around 40 minutes and then single-track until the system closed, delaying thousands and adding an hour or more to some commutes. Sunday's issue happened at a time where delays were an inconvenience for fewer people, but it was certainly a problem nonetheless.

Issues can crop up at various points in any power system, which makes routine maintenance so important. Substations that receive power from the supplier (Dominion and PEPCO, primarily) have cables that run to the third rail, which runs alongside the tracks that trains run on and which supplies power to the trains. Trains use this power, which is then fed back through the rails through the "negative return" back to the substation.

The likely culprit in both incidents is what's called stray electrical current, which can happen when a power circuit is created through a path that isn't the one intended. Instead of making a circuit from the power substation through cabling to the train then back out through the rails, an alternate circuit path could be created across insulators or through the stud bolts that help secure the tracks.

This unexpected path can create arcing, smoke, and fires, which cause harm to the equipment and are dangerous for passengers. Dirt, dust, and other contaminants, all of which aren't exactly uncommon in Metro tunnels, can increase the severity of stray currents.

When these mixtures stick to the third rail insulators, the insulator's function starts to break down. Instead of preventing the current from "escaping" the third rail through the trackbed, the debris lets the current travel to unintended portions of the system not meant for it. These stray paths can case bolts to heat up and glow, smoke, or spark, or cause the insulators to arc or even catch fire if they've broken down far enough. These side-effects are just a few reasons why proper maintenance of a power system and making sure insulators, supply and return cables, transformers and other components is important.

The stray current and other power issues aren't new to Metro; a current issue across an insulator led to an explosion at Federal Center in May, and arcing insulators are almost a common occurrence, especially on the Red Line.

Metro's General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, requested an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) peer-review of portions of its third-rail power system back in June, and the report was made available after WMATA's September 22nd board meetings. The peer review request was part of Metro's safety department's larger holistic review of the power system to try and help pinpoint and solve its various power issues once and for all.

The APTA review provided a list of observations about Metro's third rail system that could potentially cause issues. One of the primary ones (which isn't a new idea, or even new to Metro) is that the reviewers found "insulators seemed to be excessively contaminated" both in the rail yard they visited as well as on open track. This contamination, a combination including brake dust from train brake pads, oils, and various other types of dust and debris, can stick to the insulators that hold up the third rail which provides power to the trains.


A cracked insulator, which the APTA peer review noted. Image from WMATA.

APTA gave Metro two recommendations for the contamination. One, Metro should analyze what the deposits on the third rail insulators are to figure out where they come from, and determine how to cut down on how much is generated. Second, they suggest Metro develop and maintain an insulator cleaning program. A tunnel cleaning program did exist at Metro up through the early 90's, but was terminated.

APTA reviewers also found that Metro staff are "constantly in a catch-up mode" when it comes to the power system, so they don't have much time for preventative maintenance that might also help cut down on smoke/fire incidents.

Metro's Board of Directors has heard about many of these issues before

The lack of an active cleaning program was one issue the NTSB found that contributed to the January 2015 smoke incident that killed one passenger and injured dozens others. Metro's deputy general manager in May of 2015 told the Board that the agency was to reinstate this program, and wanted to become "so proactive that these incidents don't happen."

Smoke and fire incidents, many caused by stray or imbalanced current, continue to occur in the system—more have happened in 2016 than had up to this point and last year.

Metro is certainly more active now than it has been in the past regarding tunnel cleaning (said to be part of SafeTrack and partially restarted after the L'Enfant incident) and insulator replacement from ceramic to fiberglass within underground station limits is complete (but still needs to be done for above-ground stations and in tunnels), and many power cables and equipment have been replaced in the meantime as well.

But becoming a proactive organization requires hard analysis to detect issues and get to the root causes before they become larger problems, not simply when an outside organization finds them or when somebody gets hurt. It's a long road to walk down, but with the proper management it's an achievable goal and results in a safer and more reliable transit system for riders to use.

Public Spaces


NoMa's first underpass park is almost here!

Work to brighten the otherwise-drab underpass on M Street NE is underway. Crews have begun installing "Rain," the first of what will eventually be four underpass parks in NoMa.


Installation of "Rain" has begun in the underpass on M Street NE. Image by the author.

Rain is designed to make the underpass on M Street safer and brighter, as well as knit the neighborhood on either side of the throat tracks to Union Station together, lead designer Andrew Thurlow said in 2015. Thurlow is a partner at Thurlow Small Architecture, which partnered with NIO on the underpass.

The installation is made up of 4,000 LED light rods that will be hung from ceiling of the underpass in a series of vaults, and react to people moving through the space.


Rendering of Rain. Image by the NoMa BID.

Rain is just the first of four underpass parks NoMa plans for the K Street, L Street, M Street and Florida Avenue in the neighborhood. Work on "Lightweave," a series of undulating, cloud-like lights hung from the ceiling in the L Street underpass, is also expected to begin later this year.


A rendering of Rain's vaults. Image by NoMa BID.

NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) director of parks projects Stacie West says she expects Rain to be finished in November barring any delays from other construction projects.

One such delay could be WMATA's SafeTrack work that is scheduled to close the Red Line between the NoMa-Gallaudet station and the Fort Totten station from October 29 to November 22.

The NoMa BID will hold a community meeting on its park plans on October 25.

Photography


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 91

It's time for the ninety-first installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of 5 stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?


Image 1


Image 2


Image 3


Image 4


Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun.

Please have your answers submitted by noon on Thursday. Good luck!

UPDATE: The answers are here.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Development


Scarred by urban renewal, Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood gets a second chance

Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood has a rich history, but urban renewal nearly destroyed it. With the Purple Line coming, this historically-black community could get a second chance, but not everybody looks forward to it.


Urban renewal nearly destroyed Lyttonsville in the 1970s. Photo by Alan Bowser.

Located west of the Red Line tracks from downtown Silver Spring, Lyttonsville is one of Montgomery County's oldest neighborhoods, founded in 1853 by freed slave Samuel Lytton. The area could soon be home to a Purple Line station if the light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton opens as scheduled in 2022.

Over the past two years, Montgomery County planners crafted a vision for a small town center around the future Lyttonsville station, bringing affordable housing and retail options the community lacks. Some residents are deeply skeptical of what's called the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, though it could restore the town center Lyttonsville lost long ago.

A rough history

During the early 20th century, a thriving main street developed along Brookville Road, including schools, churches, and a cemetery. As surrounding areas became suburban neighborhoods exclusively for white residents, the black Lyttonsville community lacked public services like running water and paved roads. For decades, its only connection to Silver Spring was a wooden, one-lane bridge that remains today.

In the 1970s, the county seized much of the area, destroying Lyttonsville's main street and replacing much of it with an industrial park, a Ride On bus lot, and storage for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Many of the older homes were replaced with large garden apartment complexes.


This wooden bridge was once the only way in and out of Lyttonsville. Photo by the author.

Today, Lyttonsville is a racially diverse community, and sought-after for its location between Silver Spring and Bethesda and being in the vaunted Bethesda-Chevy Chase school catchment. But one out of ten residents lives in poverty, compared to 6.9% of residents countywide. Lyttonsville is hard to access by any form of transportation, isolating its residents from nearby jobs.

Some residents claim the county's plan will continue a legacy of destructive planning decisions. They're worried about traffic and density, about getting redistricted out of the B-CC cluster, and that the area's affordable apartments could get replaced with luxury housing. Others are wary of the Purple Line after fighting off plans to locate a storage yard in the neighborhood.

Charlotte Coffield, who grew up in Lyttonsville during segregation and whose sister Gwendolyn fought to bring services to the area (the local community center is named for her), has emerged as one of the biggest critics. "All [Purple Line] stations do not need to be town centers," she wrote in a letter to the county planning board. "The proposed density would destroy the stable character and balance of our ethnically diverse neighborhood." Last week, the Lyttonsville Community Civic Association, where she is president, voted to accept no more than 400 new homes in the area.

New development in Lyttonsville

Bethesda-based developer EYA, which is currently building townhomes next to the future Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line station, has an alternate proposal for Lyttonsville that could address residents' concerns. The biggest land parcels in the area are owned by several different property owners, including multiple government agencies, each with their own plans. Some want to build lots of new homes, while WSSC has a large site that they intend to leave alone.


EYA's vision for Lyttonsville.

EYA has reached out to several landowners about coordinating, allowing development on a combined 33-acre site to happen together. First, they would partner with WSSC to build several hundred affordable apartments and townhomes on their property. Residents of existing apartments could move there first without getting displaced. Then, EYA would partner with the two non-profits who own the affordable apartments to redevelop them with market-rate townhomes. The county would restrict building heights to 70 feet.

Next to the Lyttonsville station itself, EYA envisions a plaza surrounded by market-rate apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space (about half the size of a Giant supermarket), and a small business incubator modeled on Baltimore's Open Works that would offer job training to local residents.

Public art would promote the area's history, while Rosemary Hills Park would get a small addition. Local streets where drivers speed today would get traffic calming and new pedestrian and bicycle connections.

The $500 million proposal addresses most of the neighbors' concerns. EYA seeks to build 1200 new homes on the land, compared to the nearly 1700 the county would allow there. (What Montgomery County wants to allow in Lyttonsville is still less dense than plans for other Purple Line stations, including Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake.) One-third of the new homes would be set aside for low-income households, and every existing affordable apartment would be replaced.


Lyttonsville's future Purple Line station. Image from MTA.

"The county can leave a legacy for how you can build Smart Growth," says Evan Goldman, VP of Land Acquisition and Development at EYA, stressing that the private development could help pay for the public amenities neighbors want. "There's only so much [public benefits] this can afford," he adds. "If you reduce the units so you can't pay for the benefits, the public benefits won't come."

Can the proposal actually work?

Residents I've spoken to like EYA's proposal, but are skeptical if it can happen. This project could have a transformative effect on Lyttonsville, but only if all of these partners agree to it. Recent experience in Shady Grove suggests finding new locations for the Ride On bus lot or WSSC's facility may be difficult.

"If EYA can execute its plan, there are more upsides," says resident Abe Saffer, "but since they don't have any letters of intent or partnerships firmly in place, I remain nervous."

The Montgomery County Council will hold two public hearings on the Lyttonsville Sector Plan next week in Rockville. Here's where you can sign up. If the plan is approved, the county would then have to approve EYA's proposal, which could then start construction in 2020 and take 10 to 15 years to get built.

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