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Plan envisions decking railroad, adding 4th track in SW DC

One day, disjointed streets and lifeless blocks around L'Enfant Plaza could become a complete neighborhood with a connected street grid, park space, mixed-use buildings, and an expanded 4-track rail hub connecting MARC and VRE commuter trains to Metro, buses, and the DC Streetcar.


L'Enfant Promenade, above the rail tracks.

That's the vision of DC's Maryland Avenue SW plan. While there's currently no funding to actually build the improvements it calls for, the plan can and should shape smaller steps to transform the area, including CSX's National Gateway project to double-stack its trains.

For the this to be a reality, though, DC will need to start at least preliminary engineering soon. CSX is moving ahead with National Gateway planning, and if the the District wants to make sure that CSX's work integrates rather than conflicts with the plan's long-term vision for the area, more planning needs to be in place.

More tracks would serve a new L'Enfant station

The Maryland Avenue SW plan recommends building a new and larger L'Enfant rail station where the current station is today, and extends it farther east. Currently the rail line has 3 tracks through the area, and Amtrak, CSX, and the commuter railroads all want to expand it to 4. The expansion would let more commuter trains stop at L'Enfant, while allowing the Amtrak and freight trains to pass through without delay.


Diagram of proposed L'Enfant commuter rail station expansion.

A 4th track would help MARC to run trains past Union Station to L'Enfant Plaza, letting MARC riders directly connect to the 4 Metro lines that don't serve Union Station and thus get to jobs in the area more easily.

Right now, one of the other challenges to through-running MARC trains to L'Enfant is that MARC trains use high platforms at the level of the train floor, while VRE uses low platforms with stairs to the trains. The Maryland Ave plan recommends building platforms on both sides of some of the tracks in the new station, so that both high-floor and low-floor trains could use the same tracks and just open their doors on the side that accommodates their train height. These new platforms would also be longer than those in the current station.

That's not the only logistical question to work out. The MARC Penn line uses electric wires for power. CSX has expressed concerns that their double-stack trains might not be able to reliably coexist with wires. They haven't opposed putting wires on a new 4th track, but are reluctant to allow them on a second track, reducing the number of wire-free tracks to 2. Officials will have to work this out and hopefully convince CSX that the wires won't interfere with their operation.


Poor pedestrian connections in the area today. Photos from the DC Office of Planning.

Streets would connect in a grid

The other major set of recommendations in the plan reintroduces a grid of streets, as once existed, but elevated above the railroad tracks.

The development known as the Portals, which includes the Mandarin Oriental hotel, decked over a short piece of the tracks to create a new Maryland Avenue west of 12th Street, which now ends in a circle. The plan suggests adding 3 more decked blocks here, from 12th west to 9th.


Composite of 2 study options reflecting the final recommendation for reconnecting the street grid.

Immediately east of 12th Street is the "12th Street Expressway", which branches off from the Southwest Freeway. There are off-ramps to D Street in each direction. The expressway then dives below the Mall to 12th Street NW. The plan recommends making this into a regular street, called 11th Street. It would have a regular intersection with the new Maryland Avenue where the off-ramps are today.

When the Department of Energy's Forrestal complex is redeveloped according to the SW Ecodistrict plan, Virginia Avenue and C Street could also be restored through the site. The new 11th Street would continue through to Independence Avenue. The ramp to the tunnel under the Mall would be rebuilt to split off from 11th Street just north of the Maryland Avenue intersection, then go under C and the Mall.


Proposed new grid and public realm, potentially reconnecting Virginia Ave.

We need to plan the track expansion now

The report estimates it would cost $429 million to build all of this. That money is not even close to available now, but there is something important that DC needs to do: the preliminary engineering for the station, tracks and deck. A more detailed architectural and engineering design will figure out exactly where the new platforms and station could fit.

That's important because CSX is going to be spending a lot of money on these tracks to fit the double-stack trains it wants to run along its major east coast route, which passes right through DC. It's going to lower the tracks here to fit those freight cars under some of the bridges. The plan notes that recreating Maryland Avenue will require lowering some of those bridges even further, which means lowering the tracks more.

And do some of the tracks need to shift a few feet here and there for the future L'Enfant rail station? When CSX lowers and rebuilds the tracks, that's the time to put them in the right spot. CSX certainly wouldn't pay to move the tracks later, and might not even allow DC to do it; once the line is running, they'll want to keep it in use for freight trains.

CSX's project will happen in the next few years. DC should fund enough engineering right now so it can push CSX to locate the tracks properly and design them to accommodate any neded infrastructure like electric wires. Then, whenever money comes up to create a new commuter rail station or deck Maryland Avenue, there's no need to touch the tracks or disrupt freight trains again.

Perhaps one day, some people will move to homes at L'Enfant Plaza station and enjoy walking around a lively mixed-use neighborhood on top of the tracks, and be amazed when people tell them that once upon a time the neighborhood had no residents, no walkable Maryland Avenue in that area, restaurants almost all in underground malls, and a generally inhospitable feel. If people can't tell that the neighborhood once felt like it does, that'll be the best success of all.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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"Then, whenever money comes up to create a new commuter rail station or deck Maryland Avenue, there's no need to touch the tracks or disrupt freight trains again."

Not exactly true, especially with decking over Maryland Ave...that will incur a major disruption to both freight and Amtrak trains as I-beams and decking are built over the tracks. Regulations require that overhead construction and train movements not be timed at the same time. This is why the Blue Line had to be shut down during those weekends when VDOT was working on the Telegraph Rd bridge widening. In the case of freight/Amtrak trains, the work could not be going on when the trains are directly underneath the work area and a time window (not sure offhand how long) on either side of train passage.

by Froggie on Jul 17, 2012 10:21 am • linkreport

Building high and low level platforms is a temporary solution - the long-term solution must be to get MARC and VRE to merge. If not as operating entities, at least in terms of standards.

This means VRE has to get used to some high platform operations. MARC uses some high platforms, mixing in some low platforms, too.

As for track clearances, I'm not sure what CSX is complaining about, aside from the tendency of all freight railroads to resist any change. If a 4th track is added, you'd essentially just move the switch point to the Long Bridge. The northern two tracks would be passenger-only, feeding into Union Station, and the southern two tracks would be feeding into the VA Ave tunnel. When electrification comes around (and it should), you'd only need to electrify the northern two tracks.

Any long-term expansion will likely require adding capacity to the Long Bridge as well, so you could continue that pattern further south along the line. There's no technical reason 25kv AC can't work with double-stacked trains, you just need some extra clearance to avoid arcing.

I like the plan's attention to decking and unifying a street grid on top of this bowl-of-spaghetti of onramps and offramps, but the one thing that drives me nuts is that all of the document's images are in plan, not in section. The changes in grade are the main challenge. There are points where you have at least three levels of streets - 9th Street has the 9th street underpass, the main grade of D street (and the train tracks at that point) and a proposed deck above that to match with the 10th St plaza.

What I want to see are ideas on bridging those changes in grade. Recommended clearance for double stacked trains is 23 feet, so how are they proposing to take a deck that's 23' plus above the rail now and get it down to grade? Likewise, CSX talks about lowering the tracks to get under some bridges, but you can't lower them at 9th St because of the roadway below.

The plan also doesn't talk a great deal about facilitating existing changes in grade. Chicago has some interesting examples with their double-decker streets that could be of use in this area.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multilevel_streets_in_Chicago

by Alex B. on Jul 17, 2012 10:29 am • linkreport

Is it correct the MARC Penn Line stations have high platforms and MARC Camden and Brunswick Lines have low platforms due to freight trains?

by mcs on Jul 17, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

The L'Enfant Plaza area is a maze for pedestrians, trapping tourists who are trying to reach the Tidal Basin on foot. Hopefully we'll see some improvements in this area soon (at the very least, some wayfinding signs for tourists are in order.)

by jcs on Jul 17, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

I get on a low platform on the Penn Line everyday. There are at least 3 low platforms on the Penn Line and sometimes Penn trains come in on a low platform in DC.

MARC trains have the trapdoor over the steps that let them serve both high and low platforms.

by JQ on Jul 17, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

@mcs, there are MARC - and Amtrak - stations on the NEC which still have low level platforms. The long term plan for the NEC / Penn Line is to upgrade all the stations to high level platforms (HLP) or at least some HLPs for large stations such as DC Union Station.

The other MARC and VRE lines are on freight tracks, so there are clearance issues for the freight trains. Have to have pullover or gauntlet tracks for a HLP on CSX and NS lines. Or passenger only tracks which could run in the ROW which is what the plan appears to be for L'Enfant Plaza.

by AlanF on Jul 17, 2012 11:09 am • linkreport

I remember when the rr corridor was electrified across the river into Virginia. The old poles installed by the Pennsylvania RR are still there. It would be nice to see it electrified all the way down to at least Fredericksburg or Richmond.

by John P on Jul 17, 2012 11:15 am • linkreport

All MARC Penn Line cars have the ability to use low or high platforms. West Baltimore and Halethorpe are currently low platform stations. Also, Union Station has low platforms at some tracks.

If CSX refuses to electrify the tracks, MARC could use the diesel engines that are routinely used on the Penn Line.

by Brad on Jul 17, 2012 11:16 am • linkreport

Wouldn't the better solution be to nix the National Gateway project altogether, and build a new freight line to the west, so that every CSX freight train running up and down the East Coast isn't forced to detour through DC?

by andrew on Jul 17, 2012 11:29 am • linkreport

How does this project connect or coordinate with the Virginia Ave CSX tunnel expansion project currently moving forward?

by goldfish on Jul 17, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

andrew:

Wouldn't the better solution be to nix the National Gateway project altogether, and build a new freight line to the west, so that every CSX freight train running up and down the East Coast isn't forced to detour through DC?

There's a good reason all of the existing railroad lines funnel through DC (and other NEC cities) - terrain. The hills of the fall line prevent easy north-south freight routes to the west. Likewise, further to the east and you have severe water obstacles. NCPC's freight rail re-route study looked at other options around DC, and the pricetag was greater than the Gateway projects by an order of magnitude.

by Alex B. on Jul 17, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

@goldfish:
From the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs:
That's the vision of DC's Maryland Avenue SW plan. While there's currently no funding to actually build the improvements it calls for, the plan can and should shape smaller steps to transform the area, including CSX's National Gateway project to double-stack its trains.

For the this to be a reality, though, DC will need to start at least preliminary engineering soon. CSX is moving ahead with National Gateway planning, and if the the District wants to make sure that CSX's work integrates rather than conflicts with the plan's long-term vision for the area, more planning needs to be in place.

The "National Gateway" is the larger project of which the Virginia Avenue Tunnel is a part.

by Matt Johnson on Jul 17, 2012 11:39 am • linkreport

Matt Johnson: thanks, I did not know that the VA tunnel project was part of the National Gateway deal.

OK, so the VA tunnel seems to be mving forward, and is paid for privately by CSX. So we all agree that coordination between these projects is lacking right now, and will be essential to get the entire rail and road network to function properly -- correct?

by goldfish on Jul 17, 2012 11:45 am • linkreport

Nope, not at all.

1. Not all NEC stops are high-platform. All stops the Acela stops at, however, are.

2. Low-level platforms were generally standard in the U.S. for many, many years. High-level platforms were only used at central city termini (Washington Union, Baltimore Penn, Philadelphia 30th St., NY Penn, Grand Central) where reduced loading time made a difference--and even then, nearly all of the cited examples were done by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the lone exception being Grand Central.

It takes quite a bit of expense to raise platforms. But, along the NEC, they will, slowly but surely, be raised to meet ADA requirements.

I agree MARC and VRE do need to merge. MARC also needs to stop treating Baltimore like a red-headed stepchild.

And finally, the CSX concerns are not particularly serious, as long as the wires are strung high enough not to come into (electrical) contact with the top level of containers. Norfolk Southern has been known to route double-stacks along the Trenton Cutoff, for example, a freight route whose connections at either end (Trenton, NJ, and Norristown, PA) must pass under wire. Metra Electric runs gallery cars under wire. China runs double-stacks under wire. Etc.

by Steve S. on Jul 17, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

The plans for the 4 tracks through L'Enfant Plaza can't be really discussed in isolation. Has to be tied in with the current engineering study to replace or supplement the Long Bridge, the southeast HSR corridor to Richmond and beyond, Amtrak traffic, MARC and VRE someday changing from weekday only commuter service to 7 days a week regional rail, and future electrification for passenger trains on the SE HSR corridor.

Fortunately the $2.9 million preliminary engineering and environmental analysis study is funded for the Long Bridge to Alexandria segment so the plans for SW DC redevelopment can be coordinated with the ROW height and width needs for CSX, Amtrak, VRE, MARC and future HSR.

What I hope they are considering is replacing the Long Bridge with a 4 track bridge or building a 2 track bridge parallel to the Long Bridge for passenger tracks. Have 2 tracks for CSX, 2 tracks for passenger trains from DC down through Alexandria station to AF interlocking. Separate the freight trains from the passenger trains over that segment. Catenary can be put up on the 2 passenger tracks without interfering with CSX. Then the corridor to Alexandria can be used for as the starting point for an electrified HSR line to Richmond and Charlotte.

by AlanF on Jul 17, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

I need to be more clear: I was responding to:

"How does this project connect or coordinate with the Virginia Ave CSX tunnel expansion project currently moving forward?"

by Steve S. on Jul 17, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

Can you run open bay coal cars under electrical wires? What about inside of tunnels? Is there any danger from the sparks from the overhead wires igniting the coal dust?

by dcdriver on Jul 17, 2012 12:28 pm • linkreport

Norfolk Southern runs freight north of their yard on the other side of Baltimore along NEC tracks with wires above them.

by JQ on Jul 17, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

@dcdriver:
Can you run open bay coal cars under electrical wires?
Yes, most definitely.

In fact, CSX does this every day. The Pope's Creek Secondary is used by CSX to deliver coal to the Chalk Point Generating Station and the Morgantown Generating Station.

The only access to the Pope's Creek Secondary is via the Northeast Corridor at Bowie. Most of these coal trains operate down the (electrified) Northeast Corridor from the Bowie Wye to the turnouts for the Landover Subdivision, where they continue to Benning Yard.

So these coal trains (using open-top hoppers) operate under wire from (Old) Bowie to just north of the Cheverly Metro station.

by Matt Johnson on Jul 17, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

@Alex B
VRE's coaches were made for low platforms and cannot be used for any high platforms. The reason for the low platforms were for clearances for freight cars. Also, given how CSX is regarding operating, they really do not consider passenger service to be their top priority when it comes to operating on their tracks.

Also, I don't see VRE or MARC merging at all let alone having MARC trains operate into Virginia. Both railroads serve their own purpose and there would be some serious red tape involved with operating agreements and whatnot. Secondly, there isn't much space on the lower level of Union Station to hold Amtrak, VRE, and MARC trains going through Union, and third, the amount of slots that would be available for trains heading south of DC would have to increase if only CSX would allow them. Like I said, CSX doesn't consider passenger service their top priority. They want to run their trains more often since they own the right of way.

by K. Conaway on Jul 17, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

K. Conway,

I'm well aware of the limitations of VRE's rolling stock and why they use it. That's not my point, however. The point is how to improve regional rail service in this area. The region would benefit from through-routed service (think German S-Bahn or French RER) connecting current MARC passengers to VA and current VRE passengers to Silver Spring, Rockville, Fort Meade, New Carrollton, and even Baltimore.

Same thing regarding CSX and their attitudes to passenger rail of all stripes.

Both railroads serve their own purpose and there would be some serious red tape involved with operating agreements and whatnot.

I know that - what I am proposing is that we change that so that the railroads better serve the region, rather than treating that as an immutable constraint.

Secondly, there isn't much space on the lower level of Union Station to hold Amtrak, VRE, and MARC trains going through Union,

If MARC and VRE operated as one railroad, there would be plenty of capacity. Treat it as a through station instead of having them operate as if it were a terminal.

third, the amount of slots that would be available for trains heading south of DC would have to increase if only CSX would allow them.

We're talking about substantially increasing capacity through DC and across the Long Bridge into VA - as well as other Amtrak plans to increase service to Richmond and other points in VA. We can add capacity if needed.

by Alex B. on Jul 17, 2012 2:31 pm • linkreport

@AlanF -- No need to plan for HSR to Richmond. Since the Virginia government is controlled by Republicans who have an antipathy to trains, especially really fast ones, there won't be HSR to RIchmond.

In fact, I think that HSR should be delivered to all willing communities (this means Democratic-leaning states), leaving the ignoramuses to wallow in their 16th-Century paradises. Maybe, we could build tracks through the "red" states, using federal money, and the trains could be fitted with car horns that toot as they go through the red states without stopping.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jul 17, 2012 3:16 pm • linkreport

Virginia and North Carolina have accepting all federal HSR provided to them. Its to bad Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, and California were selected for big HSR $$$ instead.

by mcs on Jul 17, 2012 3:24 pm • linkreport

I was in a studio last semester that looked at decking over the railroad and 395 to reconnect the street grid in L'Enfant Plaza (and removing the elevated Southeast Freeway) as well. We had a lot of similar ideas as this plan, and I'm glad to see that DC is looking at this seriously! One of these days, I'll have to post/write about our project online.

by dan reed! on Jul 17, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

This is a great improvement. Is there a reason why direct connections between the VRE and Metro stations aren't being considered? Then again, is there a reason why direct connections between commuter rail and Metro rail are never considered?

by OctaviusIII on Jul 17, 2012 4:45 pm • linkreport

@Fischy, Gov. McDonnell and many VA Republicans have been supportive of or at least have not halted intercity passenger rail projects. VA is spending $114 million of state funds to extend Amtrak service to Norfolk this December. Gov. Kaine put much of the state rail funding programs in place, but McDonnell has not shut them down - unlike 3 Republican governors elsewhere. I think the proximity to the Northeast Corridor plays a large role in that.

The NE Regional service extension to Charlottesville and Lynchburg has been a major success. Adding a second daily Regional to Lynchburg is being considered. Extending those Regionals to Roanoke is the subject of a cost study by Norfolk Southern.

VA received federal funds to do a full up Tier II EIS and PE for the Alexandria to Richmond portion of the SE HSR corridor. The state is keeping and will be using those funds to do the engineering for future project upgrades to the corridor. Does not sound like a state with leadership that is shutting down passenger rail projects.

Are all the Republicans in VA fully supportive of Amtrak service and the SE HSR plans? No, of course not. But I would say many of the Republicans are.

by AlanF on Jul 17, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport

@OctaviusIII, there is a funded project to built a new pedestrian tunnel between the King Street Metro station and the Alexandria Amtrak/VRE station. The tunnel will have elevators leading directly to the Amtrak/VRE platforms. IIRC, the project will take 2-3 years.

Which other stations are you looking at for "direct" connections? Crystal City is one with a distance between the VRE and Metro stops, but that is not an easy one to fix. it could be improved, but based on my recollections of the layout, would probably require a new entrance on the east end of the Metro station.

Part of the plans for SW DC as presented above appear to improve the connection at L'Enfant Plaza.

DC has a good setup with 4 Metro stations that are shared or next to Amtrak stations: Union Station in the center and 3 outer connections nicely spaced around the city: Rockville, New Carrollton (NEC), and Alexandria. Looking at other cities, I think that feature of the DC Metro system is under appreciated. Even Boston only has 3: South Station, North station, and Back Bay for the T.

by AlanF on Jul 17, 2012 5:11 pm • linkreport

It is possible and how much would it cost to put everything underground and build one giant L'Enfant station for Marc, VRE and Metrorail station

by kk on Jul 17, 2012 5:21 pm • linkreport

If you quad-track Long Bridge and the L'Enfant Plaza station, how long before the double-track first street tunnel becomes the new bottleneck? Any plans to deal with this?

by orulz on Jul 17, 2012 5:46 pm • linkreport

Orulz,

It would be a little while before that's a constraint. Since all the freight traffic would use the new Virginia Ave tunnel, you'd essentially have to separate, but side-by-side lines - one two-track passenger line to Union Station via the First St tunnel and one two-track freight line via the Virginia Ave tunnel.

by Alex B. on Jul 17, 2012 6:21 pm • linkreport

Octavius, I'm a bit confused by your statement, too. Where are the supposedly missed opportunities for connections between Metro and Amtrak, MARC or VRE?

-MARC Penn line - Stations with direct connection to Metro - Union Station, New Carrollton; stations without connection to Metro - NONE.

-MARC Camden line - Stations with direct connection to Metro - Union Station, College Park, Greenbelt; stations without connection to Metro - Riverdale

-MARC Brunswick line - Stations with direct connection to Metro - Silver Spring (U/C), Rockville; stations without connection to Metro - Kensington, Garrett Park; Metro stations with no connecting MARC station - Shady Grove.

-VRE - Union Station, L'Enfant Plaza, Alexandria, Franconia/Springfield (Fredericksburg line); stations with indirect connection to Metro - Crystal City. Stations without connection to Metro - NONE.

by Frank IBC on Jul 18, 2012 9:36 am • linkreport

This part of Southwest reminds one of Streeterville in Chicago with all the different elevations...but this is not good for tourists. The Jefferson memorial is cut off and difficult (and dangerous) for tourists to find. Maryland avenue needs connect to Jefferson Memorial like the McMillan plan calls.

by Taku on Jul 19, 2012 11:42 am • linkreport

As always, a good piece on the DC transit scene and some great comments. As a person who no longer lives in the DC area, I'd still support tax dollars being spent on this (heck in genera I'm in favor of tax dollars on most transit projects.).

Yes, CSX has its own motivations (profit, not passengers) but it seems like now is the time to at least do as much of this as possible, even if the final plan isn't done for years.

by Greg on Jul 21, 2012 5:52 pm • linkreport

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