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Through-running isn't so easy for MARC and VRE, part 1

It seems logical: MARC's trains all end at Union Station in the south. VRE's trains all end at Union Station in the north. Union Station has capacity constraints. Why not create one regional rail operator, where all trains continue through the core and out the other end?

Photo by phrenologist on Flickr.

This idea, often called through-running, comes up often. Unfortunately, several hurdles make it much more complicated and expensive than one would think at first glance. The platform heights and train systems are incompatible between MARC and VRE, the tracks at Union Station don't line up properly, and VRE does not right now have the track space.

The most technically difficult problem to resolve is platform height. MARC uses a combination of high platforms and low platforms, with their cars optimized for high platforms. VRE runs cars that can only use low platforms.

Unfortunately, just replacing all of the railcars in one of the two fleets would simply create another problem: inefficient boarding.

Why does VRE use low platforms?

VRE trains operate on two lines south of Washington that are owned by freight railroads. Because the freight railroads (CSX for the Fredericksburg Line and Norfolk Southern (NS) for the Manassas Line) own the tracks, they get to have a say about what types of platforms can be built. And that means low platforms.

Low platforms are typically placed at about the height of the top of the rail. The reason freight railroads want these types of platforms is because freight cars are wider than passenger cars, and high platforms could intrude into the dynamic envelope of a freight train.

As long as VRE operates on rail lines that are predominately freight railroad corridors, it will be stuck with using low platforms. There's not really anything wrong with that, except that in this case, it's an obstacle to through-running.

Railcar design matters

For passenger railroads using low platforms, there are 3 basic types of double-decker cars in use. Two of these offer access to the lower level with just one or two steps up from the platform, and can therefore be fairly efficient in boarding.

They're also much easier for mobility-impaired riders to board. Platforms can be designed to have a small area at the height of the floor, set back from the tracks. When necessary, a bridge plate is used for wheelchairs.

Left: A bi-level commuter coach with low-level boarding in Minneapolis. Photo by the author.
Right: An Amtrak California double-decker car. Photo by Wayan Vota.

Many cities outside of the Northeast use these cars, with the Amtrak California cars operating in Southern California and the Bay Area. The bi-levels are used in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and Miami.

VRE uses gallery cars, the third type. These cars have 2 levels, but passengers must climb 4 steps to board even just to the lower level. But the stairs are fairly wide and are not as steep as the stepwells on high-platform equipment. Gallery cars cannot use high platforms at all.

VRE gallery car. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

In order to speed boarding, VRE could easily move toward either the bi-level or Amtrak model. In fact, for a while, VRE was using a set of bi-levels leased from Seattle's Sound Transit.

What's wrong with using high-platform equipment on VRE?

If MARC can use high-platform equipment, why can't VRE? Well, VRE could use high-platform equipment, and in fact, they have done so in the past. But using high-platform equipment at low platform stops is inherently less efficient.

Using high-platform equipment means that conductors have to manually open each door (instead of automatic doors in the whole train) at low-platform stops. That generally means that only one or two doors aboard the train can open, as is the case with the MARC stops at places like College Park and West Baltimore.

Additionally, boarding a high-platform train from a low platform means ascending a narrow, steep staircase. That means it takes longer for passengers to board and alight.

Similar stairs on an Amtrak train. Photo by the author.

What about MARC?

Like VRE, MARC runs 2 of its lines on tracks that are primarily used for freight. For that reason, most of the stations on the Camden Line and all of the stations on the Brunswick Line have low platforms.

But for MTA, the agency that operates the MARC commuter trains, it makes a lot of sense to have a fairly standard fleet because it can then move its cars between lines as necessary.

MARC's busiest line, the Penn Line, operates on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, and most of those stops have high platforms. This is due to the fact that Amtrak (and the previous operators) have long used single-level railcars for their services. For single-level cars, high platforms are the only way to have step-free access to trains.

On the Penn Line, south of Baltimore, only West Baltimore, Halethorpe, and some of the platforms at Union Station are still low. Halethorpe is currently undergoing conversion to high platforms, and Amtrak recently announced plans to convert most of the platforms at Union Station to high platforms.

On the Camden Line, Greenbelt and Camden stations have high platforms. The other stations all have low platforms. On the Brunswick Line, all stations have low platforms.

What does this mean for through-running?

The practical effect of this arrangement is that through-running trains from either MARC or VRE will be difficult.

The current fleet of VRE trains are not able to use high-platform stations, which means they can't operate on the Penn Line to Baltimore. VRE trains also can't operate on the Camden Line, because they would be unable to serve the terminal station in Baltimore, since it only has high platforms. And that leaves the Brunswick Line as the only viable line they could operate on.

But running VRE trains on the Brunswick Line presents some other challenges: the way tracks are laid out in DC. Tomorrow, we'll look at those issues.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Heís a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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Interesting idea, but don't we have a terrible track-record when it comes to a transit system being managed/funded by multiple entities? This train super-conglomorate would be inhibited by the same problems that plague metro.

by MJ on Aug 21, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

This is the kind of problem begging for some regional coordination.

The end result will be VRE moving to high platform capable cars. There's just no other answer - the standard is the standard. The real question is in handling the transition.

I would think that there's got to be a way to modify the Gallery cars to serve high platform stations, perhaps by installing traps on the existing stair entries. The floor height of a gallery car is already more or less level with the NEC high platforms (4 feet ATR).

Beyond that, changing rolling stock is certainly not trivial, but relatively easy - particularly in the longer timeframe. VRE can sell off Gallery cars to commuter railroads that don't need to use high platforms at all (e.g. not on the east coast) and buy new rolling stock that can start with high and low, and eventually move to all-high.

by Alex B. on Aug 21, 2012 10:58 am • linkreport

There's no way that VRE will go to high platforms. The only way to make them work is to install sidings at east station (like the Greenbelt MARC station) or gantlet tracks. Either would require switches, signals (read: $$$$$$).

by Ryan S on Aug 21, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

Given the recent Rush+ failures, I think there is less of a market for Virginia commuters to get to Maryland, and vice versa.

I'd focus on expansion to Ft. Belvoir and Ft. Meade instead.

by charlie on Aug 21, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

This is a nice assimilation of facts, but my hunch is that the real problem is explained in part 2.

Whatever the problems with running high-platform cars on CSX tracks in Virginia, Amtrak manages to do it about 12 times a day in each direction. Even Penn Line trains only open a few doors at several stations because of short (albeit high-level) platforms. That also makes it more feasible to inspect everybody's ticket in the morning.

by Jim T on Aug 21, 2012 11:24 am • linkreport

@Ryan S

Implicit in the plans for through-running would be an increase in the frequency of trains. Add to that Amtrak's desire to also increase frequency and essentially extend the NEC to Richmond, as well as CSX's desire to run more freight trains, and the net conclusion would be a large expansion of track capacity on the RF&P line. Quad-track that line and you've got plenty of room to handle high-level side platforms without infringing on freight movements.

by Alex B. on Aug 21, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

It works for Amtrak on tens of passengers boarding and alighting, but it doesn't scale well to hundreds of passengers boarding and alighting on VRE.

by Ryan S on Aug 21, 2012 11:33 am • linkreport

It seems to me that the fist priority ought to be getting (some) MARC trains to run to Alexandria, because I can imagine that there might be quite a few MD commuters for whom the L'Enfant or Crystal City stations would make an overall easier commute than Union Station does.

Aside from going all the way to Baltimore, what sort of demand would there be for VRE passengers to continue north? Silver Spring perhaps. College Park or New Carrolton might make some commuters' Metro rides easier, but not in the way that MARC to Alexandria would.

by thm on Aug 21, 2012 11:37 am • linkreport

Good point, Alex. I'm somewhat skeptical that we're going to see any kind of large scale track capacity improvements (especially on the Manassas side of the house).

Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see quad track, electrification and Acela (or Acela II) trainsets running all the way to Richmond, but I'd be very surprised to see it happen in any reasonable timeframe.

by Ryan S on Aug 21, 2012 11:37 am • linkreport

Amtrak's Alexandria station, that VRE stops at, was built with really low plaforms. So, they have to use stepping stooles. I don't know why Amtrak built so low. VRE built all of it's stations with low platforms as well - not as low as Alexandria however.

In the future, MARC trains may stop at VRE's L'Enfant Plaza station in DC

by Davin Peterson on Aug 21, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

This train super-conglomorate would be inhibited by the same problems that plague metro.

The reasoning behind this statement is exactly right. A lot of work needs to go into creating a capable, competent institution.

Although, just because WMATA actually has funding and management problems doesn't mean that WMATA must always have funding and management problems. It also doesn't mean that a similar regional authority would be forced to suffer with WMATA's issues.

(Although the cynic in me says this hypothetical authority would create its own, totally new unsolvable problems)

by WRD on Aug 21, 2012 11:52 am • linkreport

Their is a version of the Gallery cars made by Nippon-Sharyo that can be used on high platforms

by Davin Peterson on Aug 21, 2012 11:53 am • linkreport

Couldn't some sort of gauntlet track ( be added by the VRE stations? This would seem to allow freight to run slightly further away from the platforms while passenger would run closer to the platforms. Then VRE could use high platforms while also not affecting freight's wider needs. This seems cheaper than a full siding but allows for high platforms.

by Steve on Aug 21, 2012 12:10 pm • linkreport

They're not really any cheaper. You still need longer ties, 4 rails, a switch at each end and signals controlling them.

by Ryan S on Aug 21, 2012 12:12 pm • linkreport

@Ryan S
Fair enough. I guess they can be used in less space than a full siding but have comparable costs. Do all the VRE stations have room for a full siding (or double tracking)?

by Steve on Aug 21, 2012 12:15 pm • linkreport

Given the recent Rush+ failures, I think there is less of a market for Virginia commuters to get to Maryland, and vice versa.
I'd focus on expansion to Ft. Belvoir and Ft. Meade instead.
I feel like I missed something here. What are you talking about?

by Gray on Aug 21, 2012 12:20 pm • linkreport

NJTransit has both high and low-level platforms, automatic doors, and boarding efficiency is not an issue.

They're gradually moving to high-level platforms to improve accessibility, although they're unlikely to ever convert the entire system.

by andrew on Aug 21, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

My question is, why the heck do freight trains have to go through the middle of DC - isn't there some way we can figure out how to build a bridge for CSX and help them connect their tracks and go around the city?

by MLD on Aug 21, 2012 12:43 pm • linkreport

Matt actually wrote a pretty good article on that topic a few years ago (link is to the first of 5 parts):

by Ryan S on Aug 21, 2012 12:45 pm • linkreport

My question is, why the heck do freight trains have to go through the middle of DC

Ryan's link to Matt's earlier piece is a good one, but the short answer is geography. DC is like lots of Eastern cities in that it sits right on the fall line between the more hilly inland terrain and the coastal plain. Go too far to the west and you have lots of problems with hills. Go too far to the east and you have to deal with massive water bodies.

isn't there some way we can figure out how to build a bridge for CSX and help them connect their tracks and go around the city?

Sure, but the price tag for those options is massive - particularly when compared against the cost for CSX to just improve their existing route. Re-doing the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, for example, is substantially less expensive than any of the bypasses proposed in the NCPC plan:

by Alex B. on Aug 21, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

@gray; WMATA is finding less yellow line switchers than predicted? Why --there are less Maryland to Virginia (and vice versa) commuters than predicted.

As I said, there might be a better future if the two new major areas for the federal workplace (meade and belvoir) were included in the MARC/VRE footprint.

by charlie on Aug 21, 2012 12:59 pm • linkreport

Meade is included in the MARC footprint (Odenton).

by Ryan S on Aug 21, 2012 1:01 pm • linkreport

NJT conductors still have to manually open the traps at low-platform stops.

Making passengers climb steps to board is inherently less efficient. For comparison, look at the Metrobuses that still have steps versus the one that have low-floor sections in the front.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 21, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

How about a train using a 50/50 mix of VRE and Marc cars?

by Jim T on Aug 21, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport


Got a link on that?

Plus, the plan wasn't to get MD to VA commuters at all - rather, it was to more efficiently move the trains. To the extent that meant reducing service for some blue line riders, it means convincing them that a transfer might actually work best to get to Downtown - not to MD.

by Alex B. on Aug 21, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

I think it would still be worth it to completely reroute CSX south through Maryland around the city with a new potomac crossing and meeting back up near Fredericksburg in Virginia. It would free up so much space to create real commuter rail options.

by NikolasM on Aug 21, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

While through trains would be nice and certainly a long-term goal to work towards, I wonder why VRE runs essentially no reverse commute trains. I agree with thm that it would seem that getting MARC trains to Alexandria should be a priority (as a Baltimore resident and Alexandria worker I would certainly use them), but if VRE isn't already running these trains themselves, maybe they've already determined there isn't a demand for them?

by Ted on Aug 21, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

I meant to add that I really don't want to wait for a freight train carrying chlorine to derail and leak in the middle of the city. That would be devastating and ridiculously expensive and in light of post 9/11 security concerns amazing that the Feds haven't stepped up to fund it 10 years ago.

by NikolasM on Aug 21, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

@Matt: The current practice on NJT (at least on the M&E) is to leave one trap open, and the one on the other side of the vestibule closed.

Solves that problem nicely. Stairs suck, but if you're going to have low platforms, there's really no choice...

by andrew on Aug 21, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport


"The agency also conducted a four-day survey of Blue and Yellow Line riders to help understand why more Blue Line riders weren't switching to the Yellow Line. The agency intends to use the results to develop outreach to riders, Asato said."

When you look at the revenue side, you can see a drop off. My thesis is that is gas prices kicking in; Metro was making a lot of riders going from Maryland to Virginia. Once gas prices dropped down, those riders went away and even with the bump up they haven't come back (service matters for longer commmutes)

Cleary part of rush+ was to capture that -- espcially for the Pentagon and what not. My guess is the reduction is WMATA didn't factor in enough the reduction in employment around Crystal City enough.

by charlie on Aug 21, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport


That article says nothing about what you asserted here.

And no, Rush+ was not about 'capturing that' at all. It was simply about better allocating trains through Metro's two existing Potomac River crossings.

by Alex B. on Aug 21, 2012 1:43 pm • linkreport

Great article! Very thorough.

MARC actually has plans to run trains through to Alexandria in its long term plans (as well as connect to SEPTA at Newark, DE). The only barriers to doing this are capacity constraints and MARC's electric locomotives.

I would like to point out that there are stations on the Brunswick Line with high platforms. On the Frederick Branch at Monocacy station half of the platform is high level, and there's a mini-high platform at the Downtown Frederick station. The only commuter rail system in the nation with all high-platforms is New York's Long Island Railroad. All commuter rail systems in the Northeast (including MARC) use a mix of high and low platforms, while all other rail systems in the country use solely low platforms (except for Metra's single electrified line in Chicago and the neihgboring South Shore Line).

It is possible to have high level platforms in freight territory. Greenbelt for instance has high platforms adjacent to two side tracks, in addition to the two through mainline tracks. Hopefully College Park station will one day be upgraded this way, since there's plenty of space. MBTA uses high platforms in freight territory by utilizing platform extensions. Installing gauntlet tracks are another way to serve high platforms (New Carrollton had one until recently for CSX freight trains passing through the station).

by King Terrapin on Aug 21, 2012 1:46 pm • linkreport

This is interesting. NJ Transit is able to use bi-level cars that have both high and low platform doors. Especially on the North Jersey Coast line, some of the stations are high platform and some are low. In these cases, the doors that are high platform only, only open on high platforms and the other doors are opened for low platforms.

I'm a daily Brunswick line rider and we will likely never see high platforms, but the gallery cars are harder to get in and out of.

by dctravel on Aug 21, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport


Funny that you mention that since MARC just>purchased 54 of the same bilevel cars used by NJT. The low platform doors (in NJT's configuration) can be used at both high and platforms.

Unfortunately, you're probably right in that the Brunswick line will never see any more high platforms (as I mentioned in my previous post, Monocacy station has a high platform and Frederick has a mini-high for wheelchairs).

by King Terrapin on Aug 21, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

Re: The rerouting of the freight trains around DC.

Maryland opposes this and they have 2 more Senators then DC does. They also have the second most powerful Democrat in the House, who's district would be impacted by this, and who will never let it happen.

CSX opposes this, unless the federal government or someone else is willing to pay the entire cost, plus subsidize them for any potential lost revenue. CSX is a pretty serious political player in DC and state capitols.

Every one of CSX's customers opposes this because it will mean longer trips to and from the NE mega markets. For example, Tropicana is a major CSX customer that has operations, and thus political clout, in Florida as well as NJ and which has customers in every Congressional district. Not to mention the impact on the Ports of NY, NJ, and Philly.

So who favors this? DC, which has no real power in Congress and the homeland security folks, but their influence only goes so far and lessens with each day we get further from 9/11.

by dcdriver on Aug 21, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

Hey Matt,

interesting article! Might be worthwile to look into the need for through trains from a passenger perspective (is there a need for such a service) and from an operational perspective (Given the lack of stabling facilities around union station, could we stable some VRE trains in Maryland and some MARC trains in Virginia?)

by DCvinc2009 on Aug 21, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

I ride the Brunswick line, and I think the Gallery Cars are much easier to board than MARC's bi-level or single level cars.

One correction for Matt- standard passenger platform on a freight rail ROW is 8" above top of rail. That is what you have at Silver Spring, and half of Rockville, for example. The feds want to make the standard 15" above top of rail, which is the height of the bottom of the stairs for Amtrak's single level equipment, but the freights don't like this, because of the envelope issue you mentioned.

MARC definitely wants to run through to Virginia. It is not exactly on VRE's priority list though.

by Jamie on Aug 21, 2012 4:55 pm • linkreport

If you want some detailed discussion of platform heights, I'd recommend this discussion about integrating Caltrain and CA HSR:

This handy graphic helps a lot:

by Alex B. on Aug 21, 2012 5:12 pm • linkreport


Yeah they're easier to board at low platforms, but at Union Station where all the other cars can use level boarding (if high platforms are available) the gallery cars are restricted to the crappy low level platforms on track 7, 8, 15, and 16. Also, getting to the second level is a test of agility and is much more challenging than on the normal bilevels. They're only a few of them left though and they're slated to be replaced in about 6 months or so by the new Bombardier bilevels.

Through service to Virginia is not really on MARC's priority list either. Weekend service, adding platforms to BWI Rail Station, and the extension to Delaware are more important.

by King Terrapin on Aug 21, 2012 6:59 pm • linkreport

Of course if you actually use modern technology (as in the Stuttgart streetcar ) there is really no need to choose between high and low...

by egk on Aug 21, 2012 7:02 pm • linkreport

Why doesn’t MARC use the CSX lines and provide the transportation into Southern Maryland? We have been asking for a better method into DC for years. The Charles and Prince Georges commissioners want to build a light rail. Why build when you don’t use what you have right now.

by Gabe on Aug 22, 2012 6:58 am • linkreport


The southern Maryland lines don't really connect to DC well. The line through Waldorf doesn't go into DC, it goes to Upper Marlboro, Bowie, and then connects to the Northeast Corridor. For service to DC, that's a long ways out of the way - service would have to be very fast to make it work out for commuters heading to DC - or you'd have to carve some new right of way.

by Alex B. on Aug 22, 2012 9:42 am • linkreport

@ Gabe

The challenge with using CSX tracks, aside from the fact that it's single track for most of the route, is that it's not the most efficient way to get to DC/Union Station.

The track that runs to Waldorf and LaPlata connects with the mainline all the way to the north of Bowie. It connects here to the Penn Line. This is quite a diversion. From Bowie it's 20 min to Union Station, and it would likely be an hour minimum, but likely more, from Waldorf.

Even if one accepts that, the line would need a lot of money for double tracking and other additions to bring it up to snuff for passenger service.

by Mainland on Aug 22, 2012 9:58 am • linkreport

In San Diego the Sprinter trains operate on freight tracks and use high level platforms with boarding extenders that automatically bridge the additional clearance gap.

by Steve Strauss on Aug 22, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

RE: Sprinter
An example can be seen about 1 minute into this video:

This works on Sprinter because the freight and passenger services are completely time separated - so the extenders go down in the morning, and they come up at night. Freight trains only run at night and I think this line is much less used than the CSX tracks in DC.

by MLD on Aug 22, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

@ Steve Strauss

Yeah, MBTA (Boston) has something similar on one of its commuter rail lines.

by King Terrapin on Aug 22, 2012 1:49 pm • linkreport

@ King Terrapin

Thanks for that clarification! I have never been to the Monocacy or Frederick station, so I did not know that. Am I correct that the Frederick branch has no freight trains, so high platforms are more possible?

by dctravel on Aug 23, 2012 8:18 am • linkreport

@ dctravel

No problem! Right, except for the portion on the Old Main Line, the Frederick Branch doesn't see any freight traffic and is owned and maintained by the MTA.

by King Terrapin on Aug 23, 2012 9:46 am • linkreport

The state of Virginia used to own a 20% interest in the line from Richmond to DC. That would have been sufficient leverage for Virginia to push CSX to allow high platforms.

Freight cars can go past high platforms just fine. Where the passenger operator owns the railroad, there are lots of high platforms and the freight trains run right past them.

The freight railroads' dislike for high platforms is because freight railroads like to have poorly maintained, out-of-alignment freight cars, which won't go past high platforms. And also because they like to move "oversize loads", which also won't go past high platforms (this is a more reasonable complaint).

Of course, Virginia sold the line from Richmond to DC to CSX, thus putting Virginia in a more difficult situation than before. Stupid.

by Nathanael on Aug 31, 2012 11:16 pm • linkreport

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