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$7B Union Station plan: Too big, or could even be bigger?

Last week, Amtrak unveiled a master plan for the future Union Station. Most press coverage immediately focused on the dollar figure in the plan, $7 billion, and even many transit advocates fretted that this cost sounded unrealistic. But we should not criticize Amtrak for suggesting a $7 billion plan. Instead, we need even more big plans to go along with this one.

Image from Amtrak.

That's because this plan isn't just for today, and isn't just for Amtrak. It's about what it will take to update a 100-year-old commuter and intercity rail bottleneck that we haven't invested in for generations. It even goes far beyond Union Station, and there need to be plans for all of it.

Plus, transportation planning is not about what we need today. States put things on the plan which have no money at all, but decades later, they get done. If we want a commuter and intercity rail system that can grow for the next 100 years, we need to plan investments 30 years hence, today.

Make no little plans, because other transportation agencies are making big plans

The Washington region's transportation investment primarily revolves around the Constrained Long-Range Plan, or CLRP. The Transportation Planning Board, a commission of government officials from DC, Maryland, Virginia, many local cities and counties, WMATA and more, creates and approves this plan.

The current CLRP plans for spending $222.9 billion in capital and operating money over 30 years. That's the size of the region's transportation spending to keep roads and transit running and add new capacity on both. It includes the DC streetcar, 11th Street Bridge, Silver Line, Beltway HOT lanes, I-95 HOT lanes, Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, Columbia Pike Streetcar, widening I-66, widening I-270, and widening nearly every major road in Northern Virginia and many in Maryland. It's got a few bike and pedestrian projects, too.

In short, this plan contains almost everything the state and local governments currently want to do over the next 30 years. But a lot is not in the plan. There are no new Metro lines through the core. There are no dedicated bus lanes. There are a lot of road and rail and bus and pedestrian and bicycle projects that regional governments want to do, but had to cut because of that C in CLRP: constrained. The CLRP requires there to be some concept of where the funding will come from, like federal transportation dollars between 2025 and 2030 or something like that.

Make no little plans, because your problems are not little either

The CLRP also doesn't have projects to do something about one of the most severe transit bottlenecks in the region: trains in and out of the core. Right now, Amtrak and MARC trains from 3 lines have to all come together at the "K interlocking," the spot near K Street where all the tracks merge, and they also have to fight for space with VRE trains that go out to a storage yard in Ivy City.

Farther south, VRE and some Amtrak trains go through a tunnel to the L'Enfant Plaza area, where they merge with CSX tracks coming through Capitol Hill. 4 tracks, 2 from each, merge down to just 2 tracks over the Potomac's Long Bridge and out to Virginia. The L'Enfant VRE station is horribly undersized for its need, especially since, being near the intersection of 4 Metro lines, it is a better transfer point for many riders.

Diagram of proposed L'Enfant commuter rail station expansion. Image from DC Office of Planning.

MARC, VRE, and Amtrak could all move far more people than they do today if they could load and unload more passengers at Union Station and L'Enfant Plaza, fit more trains in the area, and commuter railroads could run trains through from Maryland to Virginia and vice versa. They'll also need to fix bottlenecks elsewhere, like in Baltimore.

We've been gradually upgauging roadway capacity in the area for at least 60 years, but during most of that time we neglected 100-year-old rail infrastructure because transit was declining. Now it's growing quickly, and could grow even more if it had the room.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

The platforms at Union Station are far too narrow compared to modern intercity and commuter rail stations, especially major terminals. The railroads can't load and unload trains from more than one side of a platform at once, and therefore Amtrak says they can't let anyone wait on the platform for trains before they are ready to board.

That means the too-small waiting areas become even more massively overcrowded. Other large train stations let people access the trains from more than one end.

Union Station is also more than just trains. It's got the Metro station with the most people coming in or out, even though only one line serves it. It's a major loading point for tour buses. Many intercity buses now stop there. Numerous local bus lines serve it, including 2 Circulators, and soon the streetcar will as well. It's a huge parking garage and a major mall.

Many people also got confused by thinking that this plan is an Amtrak plan. Amtrak was the lead agency, though they made a major tactical mistake by focusing the rollout around themselves and reinforcing the idea that it was an Amtrak plan. This is a master plan for a place that serves many, many modes and agencies.

Make no little plans when you really need an even bigger plan

A good master plan considers all of the needs for all of the modes and all of the agencies, then fits everything together like a massive puzzle. This plan not only includes a complete rebuild of the inadequate tracks and too-narrow platforms, but also a fixed K interlocking, 3 new concourses, underground parking (some of which we might be able to do without), a whole bus station, rebuilding the H Street bridge (something DC says needs to happen anyway), more space in the Metro station (another severe problem even today), more retail which brings in more money, supports for buildings atop the railyards, and more.

But this plan doesn't even cover everything. We also need an even bigger master master plan, that goes along with the Union Station plan, for the railway corridor from at least Springfield through to Baltimore. The master master plan should look at what it will take to integrate MARC and VRE into a commuter rail operation that runs through from one state to the other, if that turns out to be worth the cost.

This even more comprehensive plan should look at how to untangle passenger and freight on the Long Bridge, include the cost of a better 4-track L'Enfant station, improve connections to Metro at stations, and even new Metro lines to serve Union Station.

A potential future Metro system, if the commuter rails ran frequent service and served as "express" lines.

Then, that plan needs to go on the CLRP. Maybe that's a $25 billion plan. That could be 10% of the region's investment in the 30-year timeframe, but this is also even more significant to the federal government. This is the gateway to the nation's capital, a pair of stations by the United States Capitol and the densest cluster of federal offices, the way many visitors come to see our monuments and memorials.

Make no little plans when by the time they happen, big plans might be realistic

Sure, right now Congress seems entirely hostile both to having a great capital and to investing in infrastructure across the nation. But 30 years ago a lot was different, and by 30 years from now a lot will change again, for better or worse. The stimulus popped up very fast, and rewarded everyone who had "shovel-ready" projects. A lot could change one day, and maybe almost overnight.

Meanwhile, the railroads, Metro, and everyone else needs to price out these projects and get them onto the long-range plans. If they don't, someone else will put something on instead. It's not like the state DOTs will just put in a 5-, 10- or 25-billion dollar placeholder for "really important stuff we will figure out later."

No, they'll stuff the tail end of that pipeline full of just about everything anyone can come up with, and grab all of the future money. Even if most of that stuff is also worthy, and even if not everything from the Union Station plan gets built, the only way stuff like fixing the commuter railroads and Union Station overcrowding will ever get done is if someone puts it into the hopper along with everything else now.

We should cheer Amtrak, the commuter railroads, USRC, Akridge and everyone else for thinking big. We need similarly big plans for Metro, L'Enfant and the Long Bridge, and everything else. Then all transit supporters need to push Congress and the states to invest as they should, today and 30 years from now, and in the meantime, push to at least fund the highest priority pieces.

Yesterday, Dan Malouff wrote about the long-term planning from Gaithersburg versus Rockville. Gaithersburg planned ahead by about 10 years, while Rockville didn't, to its detriment. Dan wrote, "Proactively plan for what you want, or lose out to someone who did."

He could just as easily have been talking about Union Station or any other transit expansion plan. With this plan, what Union Station needs might or might not happen. But without it, it definitely won't.

Update: Another problem, which I meant to include but didn't get in, is that Amtrak only released a top-line cost number, without details about where the $7 billion comes from or how much each element contributes to the cost. Amtrak will need to be more forthcoming with details as it moves forward so that people can better understand the dollar figure and either understand why it is the size it is, or challenge assumptions that make it so large.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Fantasy metro map time!

by Jasper on Aug 7, 2012 2:42 pm • linkreport

The only reason I'm becoming more agnostic about this (from pro, to anti, and back to agnostic) is because of the Akridge development. Union Station could handle significantly more passengers and trains than it does now for significantly less, but Akridge's development will lock down track locations for generations. If Union Station is to be the center of the region's intercity rail infrastructure in a century, getting it done right now is important. That's your argument, as I see it.

But it's still astoundingly expensive and overbuilt for the foreseeable future. We can work much, much smarter with what we have, and I'd like to see a plan to use the capacity we already have before the plan to boost capacity to a point likely beyond any of our lives.

by OctaviusIII on Aug 7, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

But we should not criticize Amtrak for suggesting a $7 billion plan. If anything, they could have suggested an even bigger plan.

This seems to be equating scope with cost.

I agree, kudos to Amtrak for the scope of this plan. That said, the cost is really high. There are lots of examples of similar projects around the world (even knowing that you won't get an apples to apples comparison) that have similar scopes with lower costs by an order of magnitude.

This isn't just this plan: Amtrak's $151 bn plan for HSR on the NEC comes to $330 million per mile, which is absurdly high compared to similar projects in Europe and Asia.

I get the point about trying to earmark a spot in future budgets, but that still undermines the fact that we have a serious infrastructure cost control problem in this country. It's not just rail - see everything from the Silver Line to the Big Dig.

That said, the scope of the plan is indeed amazing. The scope and the big, long-term thinking is indeed exactly what we need. However, the biggest threat to actually implementing that kind of thinking (especially when it represents a change away from the current paradigm of road and highway investment) is the inability to control costs.

by Alex B. on Aug 7, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport

OctaviusIII: That's not the argument I was making, but it's an argument others have made. I'm saying that we should think about all the things we need to do, and THEN figure out which ones we can do first to get as much out of limited dollars.

Anyway, what is the plan that will get more capacity for much less? Because from what the Amtrak folks are saying, with the K interlocking and so on, there's really very little extra capacity they can do without doing at least most of this reconstruction.

Another point I didn't have room to make is that the plan isn't really clear about how much each piece costs. How much is the H Street bridge, which has to happen anyway, or the larger Metro station, which pretty much has to happen anyway? What about the parking, which maybe doesn't?

by David Alpert on Aug 7, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

Alex: I think I'm equating scope with cost because most of the criticism has been, "the cost is too high, so shrink the scope."

Hey, if we can find ways to do things cheaper, great. That's absolutely worth talking about. The debate thus far has only been about what we can NOT do, not how we can do it cheaper, though.

by David Alpert on Aug 7, 2012 2:57 pm • linkreport

David, that's probably because we, as a nation, have a very bad track record at lowering unit costs for projects like this. The surest way to reduce the cost is indeed to shrink the scope.

And, I would note, that some of that should probably happen here. Adding lots of parking and an intercity bus terminal to the project is nice, but placing those elements below ground and under rail tracks is bound to be extremely expensive. Reduce those elements from the scope and then we shall see what it looks like.

That said, much of the criticism I've read (in particular from people like Alon Levy or Stephen Smith) is all about our high unit costs in the US.

by Alex B. on Aug 7, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

I was going to write a long comment about cost vs. scope, but Alex beat me to it. The problem isn't that rail advocates think the cost is too high. The problem is that the cost is too high relative to scope, and Amtrak -- and all of the U.S. -- should attempt to address why HSR is going to cost TEN TIMES MORE per mile here than it does everywhere else.

Once we figure out why the costs are so high and how we can lower them, then we can talk about spending the money and expanding the scope. Until then, it's very hard to embrace this plan.

by Benjamin Kabak on Aug 7, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport

K, gotcha on your argument; thanks for clarifying.

Well, passenger capacity is stymied by the anteroom boarding passengers need to go through before reaching the tracks. Track capacity is limited by the MARC/VRE integration, and by leaving some tracks fallow. Trains could run on a more precise schedule, too.

Creating access on the other side of the platforms and opening them up as waiting areas would further boost passenger capacity, and Spanish boarding (from both sides) would help, too. Raising platforms would help, as would upgrading VRE's rolling stock.

Putting other trains through to L'Enfant Plaza would do even more.

But all that isn't bundled into a single plan, though it's thrown around the blogosphere. If MARC and VRE become MetroExpress, though, then I think we'd have a problem that the $7B plan doesn't address.

by OctaviusIII on Aug 7, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

I was under the impression that much of the costs for this project have to do with the logistics and engineering involved with widening and lengthening platforms, having to tear down structures to activate a currently dormant set of tracks to the far west that would be needed for the phasing and building, tearing down an existing aboveground garage, building a new one underground along with new concourses, and a slew of other things that aren't readily apparent from the pictures we've seen.

I just think it's such a large number that it's just a non-starter to most people. I think a lot of people think it's too much money for the scale of project that they've been presented with. Many people agree that we should have a world-class transportation center at Union Station.

Controlling costs is a huge problem and a lot of people already bake the overruns into the costs we see at the early stages and assume that this project would end up costs double or more.

by Vik on Aug 7, 2012 3:12 pm • linkreport

well you and Dan Malouff and myself (and Matt Johnson when he was blogging independently) have been making similar kinds of points for awhile.

I haven't gotten around to blogging about the Union Station stuff, but I made similar points about the regional passenger railroad system needing to be combined and planned.

Dan M. has considered the railroads part for a long time, and some of his work from a long time ago has significantly influenced my thinking about this.

Yes, it's key that the heavy rail and light rail system be planned in concert with railroad passenger services, to become somewhat comparable to how such systems work in NYC, Paris, London, Montreal especially, and to Philly and Boston somewhat. Currently the system in our region works more like in Chicago, complementary but disconnected.

And maybe not quite 2 years ago Dan wrote a post opining the need for another gateway station to spread out demand across the system (not unlike how the 3 stations work in Downtown Philadelphia). I thought I wrote about it, but I can't seem to find an entry.

Where I have been very much disappointed in your lack of advocacy is on the related issue of rebuilding the regional consensus on transportation planning, which I wrote about after the Ft. Totten crash, as a precipitating call for action.

It's been about 28 months since that initial post.

Anyway, this entry has lots of links to various pieces, news stories, etc. relating to the topic:

by Richard Layman on Aug 7, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

OctaviusIII -- you mentioned L'Enfant Plaza, that gets activated in part by other planning initiatives by DC, NCPC, and connects to VA DRPT initiatives, and then combine that with Dan's point about another railroad station (outside of the city) and you begin to see opportunities, if coordinated. I don't want to witness big fighting between Arlington and Alexandria for having a big train station. Maybe it's better to just have two smaller ones--Crystal City and Alexandria. (There are some people who ride the train from Alexandria to the city because it's faster than WMATA.)

And looking at the railroad part of the fantasy map above, I've always thought that there are opportunities for more stations in the city again, excepting that most of the places where the railroad lines are other than in the core aren't the kinds of places to have railroad stations in the modern environment (e.g., Takoma, Langdon, Brookland, etc.) because there wouldn't be a lot of usage.

by Richard Layman on Aug 7, 2012 3:21 pm • linkreport

Shorter Richard Layman: Union Station is too important to let Amtrak run it.

by charlie on Aug 7, 2012 3:25 pm • linkreport

Gee, Richard, you really know how to encourage people to support your ideas. I write something that agrees with your general philosophy and things you might have said at various times, and your reply is to say how disappointed you are that I didn't say it sooner?

by David Alpert on Aug 7, 2012 3:29 pm • linkreport

Well this is pretty important. Same with the decline of WMATA, especially after the crash. All the various anti-transit opposition to transit projects (Columbia Pike, Purple Line, streetcars in DC, Loudoun County Silver Line) despite the very clear benefits to the metropolitan area (at least the core) from transit. If these (and other) incidents aren't an indication of a crisis I don't know what is.

by Richard Layman on Aug 7, 2012 3:32 pm • linkreport

@Alex B, while the Amtrak price tag for the NextGen NEC HSR is high, it is NOT $151 billion. The total price includes $33.5 billion for the Gateway Project to NY Penn Station, track upgrades, new tracks, replacing bridges and tunnels for the current NEC, Keystone East & Springfield to New Haven corridors. This part would get the current NEC to the long sought State of Good Repair, 4 tracks between DC & Baltimore, multiple 160 mph Acela segments by 2025, and so on.

The Vision report projected price tag for the NextGen NEC with 220 mph tracks, new route through CT is $117 billion which also includes the cost of rolling stock and service facilities. This includes some very expensive components such as a 7.5? mile long tunnel under Philly with a new deep underground station at Market East and a potential new tunnel from the east side of NY Penn Station to the Bronx. Drop those by using 30th St station in Philly and the current East River tunnels and cut many billions from the NextGen NEC costs.

A frustrating part of the discussions on the proposed $7 billion project for Union Station is there is no breakdown at all of that $7 billion figure. What are the major cost components? How much of it is the Akridge Burnham Place development?

by AlanF on Aug 7, 2012 3:41 pm • linkreport

I'm not even convinced that MARC should run into Virginia - it needs to go as far as L'Enfant, but that's about it. (A case could be made for taking it to the Pentagon, yes.) As long as VRE links up at Union Station, that should take care of the bulk of trips on both lines. (While we're on the subject of VRE, it wouldn't hurt them to consider some kind of a station to service Fort Belvoir, now that BRAC is finished. But that's a subject for another day.)

I've heard talk about putting space at Union Station for another potential Metro line, but haven't heard many discussions about if/when such a line might come on board. Is that part of the hypothetical separated Blue Line? Or is there another plan I'm missing?

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Aug 7, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

@Ser Amantio

Part of the benefit of through-running is that it not only makes the service go to more locations, but you also then don't have to store the trains at the central railway station all day until evening rush hour. Part of the capacity problem at Union Station is that they have a bunch of tracks/platforms being used just to store trains.

by MLD on Aug 7, 2012 3:56 pm • linkreport

I may have missed seeing it discussed here, but Akridge has put up a Aerial Flythrough Video with renderings and views of the proposed Union Station plans on the Burnham Place at Union Station project vision page: Worth taking a look at.

by AlanF on Aug 7, 2012 3:58 pm • linkreport

Through-running also allows for more to be done with fewer platforms and tracks. Even in Union Stations, much of the use is actually the Metro station. And how many passengers use Farragut North per day on just two tracks and one platform?

by OctaviusIII on Aug 7, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

Alex B There are lots of examples of similar projects around the world (even knowing that you won't get an apples to apples comparison) that have similar scopes with lower costs by an order of magnitude.

Can you give one example?

by David C on Aug 7, 2012 4:37 pm • linkreport

@David C—

London's St. Pancras International: £800 million. Berlin's Hauptbahnhof: €750 million.

I'd like to turn the question around and ask, has there ever been a train station in the history of train stations that has had $7 billion worth of renovations planned (which doesn't even include dedicated HSR tracks or a new Metro tunnel!)? Pretty sure the answer is no.

by Stephen Smith on Aug 7, 2012 4:49 pm • linkreport

Isn't the cost mostly going to be born by the developer? Amtrak is constrained from incurring much in the way of debt which is one reason why they are forced to make capital expenditures in a way that slows progress with the system (that's Congress' doing).

by Rich on Aug 7, 2012 4:57 pm • linkreport

To add to what other people have said about scope, one of the reasons to criticize the scope is that Union Station is not, in fact, a bottleneck. The North River Tunnels are a bottleneck. The flat junction in New Rochelle either is a bottleneck already or will become one if Metro-North sends trains to Penn Station. Union Station could accommodate a lot more capacity than it has now. Amtrak's shoehorning a lot of nice-to-haves into this plan.

by Alon Levy on Aug 7, 2012 5:21 pm • linkreport

alanf -- i took a photo of the presentation slide with the cost breakdown, but i haven't uploaded it yet. They said they'd be putting the presentation online, but I haven't checked (they being Amtrak). It's probably online.

2. the cost of the platform is $1.2 billion. I talked to Mr. Akridge about it, he said that Amtrak will pay for it, that they need to do it anyway to be able to go deeper underground.

b. While I am a big fan of TIF, the costs on the table were such that it would take more than 100 years to come up with the money from TIF.

3. note that the estimated cost of building a platform over hudson yards in Manhattan is $800 million (although it is misreported as $800,000 in an AP story that ran over the weekend -- it's on the website, I don't know where else).

4. I do agree with Alex B. that a 5000 car parking structure might be too big, although it is to serve the Burnham Place dev. too. OTOH, they are also planning for decades, which is reasonable, because the cost of building underground is so expensive.

5. Stephen Smith -- while I agree with you about costs and find your previous writings on the subject generally to be pretty compelling, the fact that this is an underground project makes it much more expensive than a typical station expansion, even on a really large scale. But I don't have a lot of experience with construction cost estimation other than very basic above ground construction cost/s.f. figures, so I wouldn't venture to comment.

The above ground parking structure at Glenmont cost about $25 million for 1200 spaces. 4x larger, underground, a lot more expensive. etc.

by Richard Layman on Aug 7, 2012 5:24 pm • linkreport

AlanF -- you're right. I just looked at my photos and the numbers presented are gross-grain (at least in the slide I photographed). For the record, I did ask the Amtrak people about dissemination of a full blown master plan, rather than the executive summary, and they said they weren't prepared to do that right now. Obviously, they'll have to going forward.

by Richard Layman on Aug 7, 2012 5:32 pm • linkreport

Whoa whoa whoa... Amtrak is paying for Akridge's deck?

by OctaviusIII on Aug 7, 2012 5:37 pm • linkreport

David C: In addition to the two projects Stephen Smith mentions, I'll throw in Stuttgart 21: 4.1b Euros for a complete rebuild of their main station (turning it from a terminal to a through-running station), but that also involves actually building the high speed line through the city as well as a rapid connection to the city's airport.

Amtrak's plan doesn't include any of the rail costs, just the station costs.

by Alex B. on Aug 7, 2012 5:38 pm • linkreport

Obviously no toothfairy is going to drop $7B all at once but I see this as a vision of the future to get acceptance for smaller incremental parts of this plan that need to be done anyway.

Once the less sexy parts are done I think there would be willingness to finish it.

And all our infrastructure projects in the US are absurdly more expensive than comparable work in Europe. Politics and Pay-to-Play.

by Tom Coumaris on Aug 7, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

St. Pancras station ($1.2b) and Berlin ($0.930b) were both built in completely different ways. As Richard points out, both are completely above-ground. Also, in the case of St Pancras they closed the whole station and rebuilt it, and in Berlin they built the new station next to the old one, then hooked up the rail lines and tore the old one down. The Union Station plan has to keep the station open and functioning while they do all this construction.

by MLD on Aug 7, 2012 5:49 pm • linkreport


That's all true, and as I said, there's no way to get an apples to apples comparison.

That said, those restrictions still don't increase the cost 7x. As noted, it would be very helpful to see a line item breakdown of those cost estimates.

Richard, maybe 5,000 is the right number of parking spaces. I think it's on the high side, but maybe not. If it is, then the onus needs to be on providing that parking (shared with other uses) in someplace where it's a whole lot cheaper to build both the parking and the stuff above it. The empty AOC parking lots south of Union Station would be an obvious choice that's probably out of bounds due to various institutional entanglements.

by Alex B. on Aug 7, 2012 5:57 pm • linkreport


One more thing: Berlin Hautbanhoff is not all above-ground. The east-west line is above ground, but the newly constructed north-south link is below ground, as well as a new extension of the u-bahn.

There are six tracks above ground and eight tracks below (plus two more for the u-bahn).

by Alex B. on Aug 7, 2012 6:04 pm • linkreport

@Richard, if it includes tearing down the parking garage, $1.2 billion for rebuilding and expanding the concourse space, putting in new platforms and tracks with a new open train shed space is not unreasonable. Big complex slow project that has to be done while replacing the tracks and platforms one a time. But Amtrak is going to have a difficult time lining up $1.2 billion in funding while competing for funds against the Gateway project in NY and other NEC projects. MARC and VRE are presumably expected to contribute towards the costs of the new concourse, platforms, and tracks.

What I would like to see is roughly how much the two underground parking garages are expected to cost. Of course, the parking garages will generate revenue which can be used to pay off construction bonds for building the parking garages.

by AlanF on Aug 7, 2012 6:33 pm • linkreport

So much is being done for just building an underground garage. Even at $25,000 per space (i.e. the above-ground suburban cost of garages) it's too much for a location that is by definition well-served by transit. And this is not $25,000 per space. If all you need is to raise the platforms, and maybe rearrange them if it can be done cheaply, then it's not a $7 billion project. Accommodating the garage is a substantial fraction of the project. I don't know how much, but to pull 10% ex recto, it's $140,000 per space, which compares unfavorably with the per-rider costs of even the worst rail boondoggles that I'm aware of.

by Alon Levy on Aug 7, 2012 8:01 pm • linkreport

What should have been done is for them to create some very unrealistic plan for $10-20 billion and this as a $7 billion less expensive plan and then let the government choose. This way there would be no bitching over $7 billion.

Why not just put everything fully underground concerning the rails; so that you could actually have H street at ground level and connect I street to 1st Street NE.

Also wont all the changes effect the front of Union Station; I imagine that when this is done 1st Street and 2nd Street would have to be blocked off causing problems for everything around the station.

What is the front of Union Station supposed to look like when finished anyway I have seen no drawings for the actual finished product

by kk on Aug 7, 2012 8:11 pm • linkreport

Looking at the three stations listed here, none of them seem to have a similar scope. This is much larger than those projects. You can argue that this project is expensive, but not that there are "lots of examples of similar projects around the world that have similar scopes." Stuttgart is ambitious and involves trains, but really the similarities end there.

by David C on Aug 7, 2012 8:47 pm • linkreport

Stuttgart 21 has far, far, far more scope than this. See here for how much tunneling it involves, both in and out of the city. The station itself is in a constrained location, with takings and city-center impacts, which together with the project's mounting costs led to massive protests.

I'm hesitant to compare Union Station to Stuttgart 21, because it almost legitimizes it. If you ignore Stuttgart 21's massively larger scope, then $7 billion for a station sounds reasonable. In truth, it's like comparing the cost of the Dulles extension to the cost of a fully underground subway, finding that they're comparable, and declaring that there is no cost problem in Washington.

by Alon Levy on Aug 7, 2012 9:09 pm • linkreport

Cost overruns are part of the problem here, but they aren't exactly confined to transit projects, either.

Perhaps something is being overlooked here. What organization has both the technical ability and the institutional credibility to produce a Union Station master plan as envisioned by Mr. Alpert? If there is one, I don't know about it.

In my opinion, a there is a necessary step before such large-scale projects become reality. Transit supporters should work to build effective, credible organizations who could be sponsors of large-scale projects like this.

by WRD on Aug 7, 2012 9:17 pm • linkreport

Many people also got confused by thinking that this plan is an Amtrak plan.

Actually, it's a Parsons Brinckerhoff plan. Which explains why the primary objective seems to be driving costs as high as they can go, rather than objective, reality-based goals of, oh, you know, making it easier for people to move around in physical space.

by Stephen Smith on Aug 7, 2012 9:44 pm • linkreport

Note that investing in the capacity to through-run MARC and VRE trains (as David proposes here) would fully resolve any alleged capacity constraints at Union Station, as well as offering meaningful transportation benefits for Marylanders commuting to NOVA & the SE employment area or transferring to non-red trains. What it wouldn't do is provide a pretext to upgrade Amtrak's headquarters or bolster the value of Akridge's air rights investment.

by Matthew Yglesias on Aug 7, 2012 11:09 pm • linkreport

@Alon, Union station needs parking capacity. Yes, it has good transit connections, but can't take the Metro to Union Station to catch a 5 AM weekday Amtrak train to NYC. The station provides parking for tourists, the retail stores, employees, day,overnight and multi-day parking when people need it (and willing to pay $22/day for it). Let's not waste time thinking that the station does not need a parking garage (above or underground).

With Akridge planning a 500 room hotel, 1.5 million sq feet of office space, 1300 residences, it will need parking capacity. The question is how many parking spaces total will the station need in the future? If Akridge needs parking for the hotel and residences, they should be expected to pay for the parking that would be allocated for their buildings.

@kk, read or skim the Master Plan proposal. The front exterior of the station won't change.

by AlanF on Aug 7, 2012 11:35 pm • linkreport

AlonLevy -- from many standpoints, Union Station is a bottleneck. Unlike in NYC or Philadelphia, it's the only station for both inter-city train service and local commuter railroad service, so it becomes a bottleneck fro mteh north and a bottleneck from the south.

There is a capacity issue for both Amtrak and the local railroad services.

And if service is to be upgraded going south generally, not to mention VA DRPT plans to significantly upgrade "and extend" the Northeast Corridor southward to Richmond, then it is a bottleneck.

Plus the issue of accommodating high speed rail.

The reason that through running trains matter some, probably more southward bound MARC trains, to L'Enfant Plaza and Crystal City probably, is because when the commuter trains offload there is almost a continuous line of passengers from the railroad platform to the subway line platform. By getting a goodly number of people closer to their final destination, some of this crush can be avoided.

And yes, as I wrote briefly last week (, the Union Station Master Plan should be used by VRE and MARC as a call to step it up and to merge and to jumpstart the creation of a multistate railroad authority.

So no, while not a physical bottleneck comparable to the B&P tunnel in Baltimore, or tunnel issues getting to Manhattan, there are many issues that must be addressed in order to position for and accommodate rail service in the future.

by Richard Layman on Aug 8, 2012 6:06 am • linkreport

Reading about this plan certainly gives me hope for the future. Improving rail is essential and seeing these players involved tells me the big players are starting to get it. I'd agree with Layman about pulling some of this traffic to other locations to easy the congestion. Why not consider other large civic minded stations to take in and coordinate suburban traffic from the various tributaries? DC is lagging behind just about every large city with only one Union Station.

by Thayer-D on Aug 8, 2012 7:21 am • linkreport

Richard, first, for the commuter railroads that use it, Penn Station is the only one serving Manhattan. Second, being the only station isn't a big deal, unless all trains have to terminate and then dwell forever before they reverse, which they have to do neither. A large amount of traffic is a problem, but hey, Penn Station has five times the mainline traffic of Union Station on about the same number of tracks - and although Penn Station has far more optimally-configured throat, it is not used optimally.

On top of that, my attempt to figure out present track capacity (which is not the same as platform capacity), in which the bottleneck turned out to be the track layout placing through-tracks east of terminating tracks, i.e. something Amtrak isn't fixing, came up with a maximum capacity of 24 tph coming from the north, of which 12 or 18 can run through to the south. This assumes MARC and VRE are interlined, and some intercity trains continue south but most terminate. For future capacity increases, what's necessary isn't a remodeling, but a grade separation allowing southbound through-trains to hop to the eastern half of the station without crossing northbound terminating trains at grade. In New York, something more complex cost $300 million.

And Thayer-D, pulling traffic to other locations is a step in the wrong direction. In fact making it easy to get from anywhere to anywhere is what commuter rail should plan on. So by all means, add more stations in the city, but don't regress to the multiple-termini model whose problems led to the union station movement in many American cities. And don't turn them into large civic minded stations; think of commuter rail as longer-range Metro. Let the civic symbols of US transportation be cost-effective infrastructure and high transit use, not monuments that testify to the extravagance of whoever built them.

by Alon Levy on Aug 8, 2012 8:04 am • linkreport

To follow up on OctaviusIII's comment frmo 5:37 pm last night, no, neither Amtrak nor any other public entity is paying for the Akridge deck. Akridge will build the deck for their buildings.

by David Alpert on Aug 8, 2012 8:12 am • linkreport

If "pulling traffic to other locations is a step in the wrong direction", what traffic are you suggesting be serviced "by add(ing) more stations to the city."? Are you suggesting adding more stations to existing lines that are already being taxed to capacity? Also, I don't understand how "making it easy to get from anywhere to anywhere" won't be addressed by having more multiple-termini stations. I don't see it hampering Paris or London, but not being a transportation geek, I'll wait to be schooled.

Being an architecture geek though, I have to disagree with your assertion that building elegant (and dare I say beautiful) stations would "testify to the extravagance of whoever built them." Non-geeks don't think about things like that, but they do notice the "cost-effectivness" of the current Penn Station. People expect trains to work, they aren't marveled by basic competence, at least not yet, but they do marvel when someone has gone to the length of creating something special, which might actually increase the popularity of that endevor. Let's learn from our recent mistakes and make train travel as marvelous as our grandparents experienced.

by Thayer-D on Aug 8, 2012 8:39 am • linkreport

@David Alpert
That's a relief. Layman's comment ("The cost of the platform is $1.2 billion. I talked to Mr. Akridge about it, he said that Amtrak will pay for it") spooked me.

by OctaviusIII on Aug 8, 2012 10:48 am • linkreport

In the "make no little plans" department:

1. Stop relying on Union as the lone rail terminal. NYC has two, London four. Plan long term on a second commuter rail terminal in the downtown core, either along the Connecticut Avenue corridor or L'Enfant.

2. Stop relying on a wholly ineffeicient Amtrak to guide national policy. Relying on Amtrak to run the rails is like asking the Postal Service to run the Internet. Incentivize private rail.

3. Consider a future where automobiles do not rule the world. Imagine, incentivize, and implement rail lines along existing highway rights-of-way.

4. Start the planning now for a new crosstown Metrorail line above K Street. The existing lines are effectively choking and won't get any better.

by Dane on Aug 8, 2012 11:40 am • linkreport

Stop relying on Union as the lone rail terminal. NYC has two, London four.

Ok, but those cities are much larger. The DC area also stations at New Carrolton, Alexandria and even Rockville. Without retrocession, there would be two in DC.

by David C on Aug 8, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

I'll pass along a few points for the conversation. First, DDOT has begun a planning study to look at trans-Potomac rail capacity (i.e. the Long Bridge) to determine how much additional capacity is needed to accomodate existing and future commuter, freight and intercity passenger rail demand. The study is likely to recommend additional rail capacity in the form of an additional crossing either replacing or supplementing the existing bridge. The Long Bridge is owned by CSX.

Second, the parking structure at Union Station generates a great deal of cash and is the primary revenue stream for the maintenance and operation of Union Station. If someone removes or reduces the parking capacity there new revenue streams will need to be developed for Union Station. Amtrak is a tenant in Union Station but owns everything north of the station building (the platforms, tracks, etc.) The Union Station Redevelopment Corp. owns and operates Union Station under a long term lease from the U.S. DOT.

by Steve Strauss on Aug 8, 2012 12:23 pm • linkreport

Seems to me the 7 billion head line number is misleading. The total cost relating to the parking garage needs to be broken out, the parking fees to pay for that need to be determined, and it needs to be determined in the market will bear those fees. Then we need to look at the costs to upgrade capacity independent of the parking garage costs.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 8, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

I'll have to check back, but my recollection of the cost of the platform and who is paying for it was pretty clear. The cost of the platform is part of the $7B.

2. The problem with a second station in DC in the NW quadrant is the way that the tracks are aligned. Building another station west or northwest of the station "on the Penn Line" would require an underground extension rerouting of the tracks. If the "Penn Line" went underground the city to Arlington and then south to Alexandria, we'd be ok.

If we think of Crystal City as an Arlington station, L'Enfant upgraded as another DC station, and Alexandria as another NoVA station, plus as David C. mentions, New Carrollton, not to mention Silver Spring's upgraded transit center--but it's on the Brunswick Line unfortunately, there are more stations. But MARC trains don't travel south of Union Station.

Of course, the purple line routing could have been a commuter rail line too.

by Richard Layman on Aug 8, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

Regarding Richard Layman's first comment on the lack of focus around regional transportation planning, it's essential that advocates get involved in the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan (RTPP) being launched by the Transportation Planning Board at MWCOG. This has been in the works for a while now, and the public involvement process is in its very initial stages. You can get up to speed by going to and searching for all documents labeled "RTPP."

by Dan on Aug 8, 2012 5:25 pm • linkreport

Really? A call out for the public to comment on the RTPP by the TRB of the MWCOG?

What it missing in the Union Station discussion is a chance to talk about building a real region -- from Winchester and Richmond to Cumberland and Baltimore, with DC in the center. That is what Union station represents, and I don't think Amtrak can be trusted with that goal.

by charlie on Aug 8, 2012 6:09 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D: London and Paris indeed have multiple termini, but this has hampered their commuter rail operations, forcing them to engage in expensive retrofits. Paris built several such connections, at great expense, and turned what were previously basket-case commuter lines into a system so crowded that they constantly need new relief lines; the express line paralleling the busiest Metro line (the RER A, paralleling Line 1) is the single busiest subway or commuter line in Europe. London built just one, and is now building a second one, at even greater expense, but unlike Paris it built the Underground explicitly to connect the termini back in the 19th century, so it has a bit more breathing room. Washington is lucky to not need any of this.

The reason new infill stations do not hurt capacity is that train headway is not the limiting factor in Washington (or anywhere in the US except the North River Tunnels). However, passenger throughput on the platform is an issue, and this means spreading passengers among many stations on the same line adds capacity, same as adding more platforms at Union Station. Far busier lines than anything in the US, including the RER A and also Tokyo commuter lines, get away with two tracks per station in part because there's more than one city-center station.

by Alon Levy on Aug 8, 2012 9:31 pm • linkreport

Is there a technical reason why Brunswick or Camden Line trains can't continue through the First Street Tunnel to SW DC and on to Alexandria?

by Steve S. on Aug 9, 2012 2:57 am • linkreport

charlie -- While you're absolutely right that Amtrak and the Union Station/NEC Plan isn't the right lever to build a true regional passenger rail system, it is a potential call to action, as I mentioned last week (but haven't followed up in a full blown blog entry), along the lines of entries I've written since 2006 (but all along, were inspired by earlier considerations by Dan Malouff/BeyondDC).

It's not conceived of as a plank in the draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan as mentioned above, but there is no reason why it couldn't be.

The basic idea is a multi-state/regional railroad passenger system, with the idea that MARC and VRE merge their assets into one regional railroad authority.

WRT your comment, the Virginia Dept. of Rail and Public Transit is moving the ball forward in terms of building rail service throughout the state, mostly via Amtrak. The next step would be to convert that to a locally provided service. But still, they have been plugging away, governor after governor, and cumulatively, they are having an impact.

(E.g., last year we went to Virginia Beach, with family, so we drove, and the B&B operator talked to us about the new railroad service via Norfolk, and how cheap it is to travel from there to DC.)

The NoVA part is discussed in the tail end of this entry,

by Richard Layman on Aug 9, 2012 6:50 am • linkreport

@Alon Levy

You just said that "pulling traffic to other locations" is a bad idea, and then say that RER/Tokyo are able to carry many more passengers because they have multiple stations along the line. Aren't those two the same thing, and exactly what Layman/Thayer-D are talking about with having trains through-run and serve Union Station, L'Enfant, and Crystal City?

by MLD on Aug 9, 2012 8:03 am • linkreport

MLD: let me clarify. Building lines to different end-stations, i.e. what Paris and London ended up doing, is bad because it makes it harder to connect between various commuter lines. Building lines that do connect but serve multiple urban stations on one line is good, because not only does it make it easier to connect, but also it allows using slack commuter rail capacity for urban travel. I fully support what Richard Layman is proposing; my criticism is with the idea that commuter trains should bypass Union Station or that intercity trains should serve another station in the city.

by Alon Levy on Aug 9, 2012 8:13 am • linkreport

Words have meanings. People mentioned having other terminals in DC. A terminal is not a through station.

Thayer was expressing nostalgia for some of the massive and impressive terminal structures in London and Paris, but the very need for such large stations is party due to the fact that they're dead ends. We don't have that problem here, nor should we create it just for the sake of having a few more stations.

Adding more stations along a through-routed main line for regional rail of Alexandria, Crystal City, L'Enfant, and Union Station would be a good thing, but those aren't going to be the next Gare du Nord. Nor would true intercity services (particularly higher speed services) serve all of them.

by Alex B. on Aug 9, 2012 8:14 am • linkreport

I'm a bit out of my element here, but if you have multiple termini that are connected by another line, how is that any more inefficient than changing trains at Fort Totten? I don't care if a station is the terminus of a line or not, as long as I can keep moving to my destination.

@ Alex, Wouldn't it be nostalgia if multiple termini stations didn't exist anymore? But they do, like in New York, London and Paris. I was simply advocating for good civic architecture, rather than purely utilitarian structures. Why is it when some advocate for beauty it's seen as nostalgia? Reminds me of men who have a hard time expressing emotions becasue they think it's a weakness. Was Senator Patrick Moynahan being nostalgic when he advocated for the neo-classical post office building next to Penn Station to be the new face of Penn Station? A building worth loving is a building worth keeping assuming the functionality is intact. A building worth keeping is more sustainable than disposable architecture. It has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with common sense.

by Thayer-D on Aug 9, 2012 9:28 am • linkreport

I was simply advocating for good civic architecture, rather than purely utilitarian structures.

Fair enough. I understood that. My point was more about the very purpose of those terminals, rather than their appearance.

That said, no one one replicate the transportation characteristics of those stations today if it could be avoided. And in DC, it very much can be avoided, which erodes the very argument that DC 'needs' more train terminals.

So, I'm not accusing you of architectural nostalgia, but nostalgia for an obsolete transportation operations and design. Which is what Alon is getting at, I think.

by Alex B. on Aug 9, 2012 9:37 am • linkreport

"nostalgia for an obsolete transportation operations and design"

Yep, AlexB has the best argument AGAINST streetcars I've seen all morning.

IN any case, another aspect that we are missing is air travel and connection to DCA/IAD/BWI. Regional air travel -- to smaller cities -- is going the way of the dodo. How is someone from Frederick going to get on a plane in 15 years?

by charlie on Aug 9, 2012 9:41 am • linkreport

It's inefficient because it often means multiple transfers. Like, let's say you're connecting from a Metro-North train coming down from White Plains to an LIRR train bound for Port Washington.

You ride the Metro-North train to Grand Central. Now you need to get to Penn Station. You navigate out of the station, and enter the Subway, first taking the 42nd Street Shuttle train to Times Square, and then transferring to a southbound 1, 2, or 3 train to Penn Station. There, you exit the subway, navigate the station, buy new tickets and find your platform.

In places like Paris and London, all of the stations are scattered around town, and you have to connect across the city on local transport. Especially if you're traveling with luggage, that can be difficult, but for commuters, it's simply inefficient.

For the railroads, it can also be inefficient. Up until 1991, Amtrak had to staff and operate 2 terminals in New York City. Penn Station for most trains and Grand Central for anything going up the Hudson River Valley. They built the Empire Connection to solve the problem.

We're lucky in DC that all of our rail services serve one station. Just as an example, let's say that all VRE services were moved to a new station in Rosslyn. Anyone connecting from MARC to VRE, would now have to trek across town on the Red and Orange/Blue lines. That's lots less efficient than walking from Gate A to Gate L at Union Station.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 9, 2012 9:42 am • linkreport

@ Alex and Matt,
I think I understand now. Thanks.

by Thayer-D on Aug 9, 2012 10:11 am • linkreport

I would simply argue that a second major rail station in DC adds logistical redundancy to an area whose lone station was never built to serve a metro population of 5 million. Further, if DHS restricts traffic into Union for security reasons, regional rail comes to a halt.

by Dane on Aug 9, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

@Steve S, besides the organizational and political reasons for MARC not operating into Virginia, there are track capacity constraints at L'Enfant Plaza and the 2 track Long Bridge across the Potomac. The tracks south of the First St Tunnel to Alexandria are owned by CSX and they will allow only so many passenger trains per day to operate on their tracks. CSX's primary business is freight trains. There is a HSIPR funded study on replacing or supplementing the Long Bridge and expanding to 4 tracks to Alexandria which is tied into the Southeast HSR, VRE, Amtrak & VA DRPT plans.

All part of the complex bigger regional transportation development picture that surrounds the plans for expanding and upgrading Union Station.

by AlanF on Aug 9, 2012 11:11 am • linkreport

Alan F. Et al, If DDOT and DRPT are interested in adding to the 14th street bridge complex, I wonder if they would add a bridge so the Columbia Pike streetcar could run into DC? It's maintenance facility is right by the Potomac, almost as if to facilitate an easy hop over the river.

by Steve S. on Aug 9, 2012 12:42 pm • linkreport

Something I haven't really seen brought up is how much a ticket will cost out of a $7 billion station onto 100s? of billions worth of HSR.

Since Amtrak tickets operate like an airline, the price from here to New York can already approach close to $200 on a regular train depending on when you buy a ticket. I find you have to buy at least a month ahead to get anything less than $100 one way on a regular northeast regional for a Fri, Sat, Sun.

I'd be happy if just one of the legs of my DC to NY Amtrak trips would be on schedule. Let's focus on that first before spending all this money. On Monday coming back from NY, my train was delayed an hour and 45 min out of Penn, and we still lost an hour on the way. Supposed to get back at 5:20, end up getting back past 8:00.

by NickyP on Aug 9, 2012 12:56 pm • linkreport

Matt -- ah, but by not having MARC trains go a bit further south, we force lots of people to transfer to the subway to finish their trip, and that creates incredibly congestion at the Union Station red line station. It's just as bad as having to transfer from Metro-North to LIRR.

It's really really terrible to be there in the morning after MARC trains let out. Fortunately, when I was working in Baltimore County, I did the reverse commute on the train, so it was much more genteel by comparison.

Steve S. -- good point about the Columbia Pike streetcar.

by Richard Layman on Aug 9, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman:
I did not suggest that MARC trains should not go farther south. You are well aware about my feelings on the subject, because you mentioned them earlier in the thread.

I was responding to the question, "what's wrong with having different terminals?"

Building a second station for one service would not solve many of the issues facing Union Station, including the one you bring up now. And it would create other problems.

I think Union Station should continue to serve Amtrak, MARC, and VRE. I would also like some MARC trains to continue south, so that they can serve L'Enfant Plaza and potentially Crystal City and Alexandria.

But I don't support building a different terminal to serve different trains just because somebody thinks we need a new grand terminal, or because we're not as good as New York because we only have one major station.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 9, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

P.S. I was wrong about who will be paying for the deck over the Union Station yard, at least when I said that my understanding was that Amtrak would pay for all of it.

The Akridge Company will pay a goodly portion of the cost of the deck as well. The exact split between the two hasn't been determined.

by Richard Layman on Aug 9, 2012 3:04 pm • linkreport

My only point was that if a terminal building needs to get built, don't let it be a dismal structure. Layman's point was my point about the multiple transferes. You'll never have a system that eliminates multiple transfers completely, but when you do have a larger station like they do in Silver Spring, why not elevate it from the look of a parking garage? Especially since it'll be pedestrians who'll be using the sturcture. The new design for Union Station's shed looks like a wonderful place to be, kind of like the newish National Airport.

by Thayer-D on Aug 9, 2012 5:07 pm • linkreport

Re: a second terminal: I'll bet it would be much cheaper if it were built out in the suburbs, say near Dulles. Way less than $7B. And since that is the direction of urban growth, why not?

by goldfish on Aug 9, 2012 6:17 pm • linkreport

Goldfish - railroad terminals usually are next to rail lines. What rail lines in the Dulles area would a terminal there connect to? Talk about putting the cart before the horse...

by Alex B. on Aug 9, 2012 6:20 pm • linkreport

@Alex B: What rail lines in the Dulles area would a terminal there connect to?

I have no idea.

But the point here is to "make no small plans." $7B buys a lot of infrastructure -- consider the silver line. And Dulles is the regional international airport: a nearby train terminal would provide very valuable, car-free connections for arriving visitors not wanting to drive. And the urban growth in that direction is very well established.

While glib, this idea is nevertheless a viable alternative to this incredibly expensive proposal.

by goldfish on Aug 9, 2012 6:30 pm • linkreport

@Nickyp, I have made many trips from DC to NYC on Amtrak in the past 2-3 years on both Acelas and Regionals. The vast majority of those trips were on-time or no more than 5-10 minutes late. The on-time performance (OTP) of Amtrak on the NEC has improved over the past several years with the injection of stimulus funds and increased annual capital grants to Amtrak to upgrade & replace the power system, increase maintenance of the right of way, and so on. The OTP takes a hit over the summer months because of summer storms, heat caused slowdowns and engine failures, and track project work.

The $7 billion price tag includes many components that will be paid by Akridge, retail & parking revenues, commuter rail and WMATA and not borne by Amtrak for the NEC intercity trains. What we lack is even a cursory high level breakdown of the $7 billion cost.

How much Amtrak tickets will cost remains to be seen. Amtrak can't increase them much from where they are in current year dollars w/o pricing themselves out of the market. The increased passenger capacity with the 40 new Acela coach cars that should be ordered soon, adding more coach cars to the Regionals, running more daily trains with the track and bridge upgrades should allow Amtrak to trim ticket prices a bit with more revenue while only marginally increasing operating costs.

On the subject of the NEC, there is a Public Scoping Meeting on the NEC Tier I EIS being held in DC on August 21 as 1 of a series public meetings in the NEC cities over the next 2 weeks. The EIS Scoping Document and info on the meetings are available on Maybe this should be included in one of the daily news summaries so those interested are aware of it and can go to the DC meeting.

by AlanF on Aug 9, 2012 7:37 pm • linkreport

Why not build every track at Union Station as a through track and simply just not use it as such; that way you have the option to do so in the future.

Quite frankly I would support more than one terminal in DC two spread out the masses and to better serve the entire city. There should always be atleast two options for everything incase something happens. Union Station itself is not in the best location as it very far from different portions of DC if you are on the far west, east or south portions of DC you would be closer to New Carrolton or Alexandria stations than Union Station itself .

@ goldfish

How is Dulles the regional airport; you are forgetting BWI. BWI is close to many parts of DC and Maryland than Dulles is

by kk on Aug 9, 2012 7:51 pm • linkreport

I'm sorry, but now that I know the difference between a terminal and a station, I don't see why the former is better than the latter. Why do I care if a train ends there?

by David C on Aug 9, 2012 9:07 pm • linkreport

kk: it is expensive to rebuild terminal tracks as through-tracks. You'd have to dig out a new tunnel, paralleling the First Street Tunnel. While I believe the design of Union Station should not preclude such a tunnel in case traffic grows to the point of requiring it, it is not necessary today, or even in the medium-long term.

The existing tracks are capable of supporting 18 tph to the south (vs. a peak of about 6 today), and this can be improved to 30 with low-hundreds-of-millions scale construction in the throat to prevent at-grade conflicts between northbound and southbound trains.

Now, peak traffic between New Jersey and New York today is 25 tph, and if there were capacity for more, there would be more. But Washington is not New York, NoVa is not New Jersey, and perhaps most importantly, too much of the NoVa sprawl is in areas that are completely unserved by mainline rail, and are getting Metro instead.

by Alon Levy on Aug 9, 2012 11:57 pm • linkreport

@ Goldfish,
"And since that (Dulles) is the direction of urban growth, why not?" I think the realestate trends of the last ten years would indicate urban growth being concentrated in town rather than the exurbs. Probably why developers are footing the bill for much of this work.

by Thayer-D on Aug 10, 2012 6:26 am • linkreport

oy vey. Crystal city is a key density point in Arlington, one Arl Co wants to densify further, and is close to the Pentagon and Pentagon City. It should get increased VRE service, and maybe someday COULD get local Amtrak Richmond service, when there are enough Richmond trains to have both locals and express. Improving that station should be a be fine project for archies. Union Station Alex is close to the density of old town, is an intermodal transfer - it too will benefit from increased VRE and increased Amtrak service. It has an existing 1905 federal revival building - figuring out how to expand that, and be architecturally compatible, also an interesting project.

Dulles is in a key location, but its not on an existing RR nor is a RR extension there needed. Most Dulles travelers won't be transfering to Amtrak. If they need to, and acces to Union station in DC is insufficient - well build a Y from the Silver Line to the blue line, and run some metro trains from the Silver Line down to Pentagon, Crystal City, and beyond. Add an Amtrak stop at Crystal City, and voila, you are done.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 10, 2012 9:19 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D: I think the realestate trends of the last ten years would indicate urban growth being concentrated in town rather than the exurbs.

Well don't tell that to the property owners in Tyson's; and ten years is not a long enough scope. There are gobs and gobs of projects that have not even been dreamed of that will be built out in that direction in the 40 years. You will hardly recognize it. OTOH, development in DC near the capital is pretty well set.

by goldfish on Aug 10, 2012 10:08 am • linkreport

dear mr goldfish

Ive actually lived in Alexandria. Even when living in Alex, I tended to use Union Station DC, rather than Union Station, Alexandria, when taking Amtrak to NYC. FREQUENCY of service matters. A station at Dulles will not have the frequency, it will not be on the direct route from NYC to Richmond, it will require additional track construction, etc.

"While glib, this idea is nevertheless a viable alternative to this incredibly expensive proposal"

It is glib. It is not viable. its not an alternative to expanding union station. And the expense of the proposal is not clear until someone seperates out the self financing components.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 10, 2012 10:25 am • linkreport

@AWitC: It is not viable. its not an alternative to expanding union station.

I provided an alternative idea to the very expensive update to Union Station. I demonstrated that the development is moving toward Dulles, showed that the cost was at least comparable, and the value of the connection for international travelers. I supported and justified my alternative. In your dismissal of it, you gave NO support.

To built public support for the Union Station plan, there needs to be straightforward answers to the sort of questions that are posed by the alternate I suggested.

by goldfish on Aug 10, 2012 10:34 am • linkreport

"I provided an alternative idea to the very expensive update to Union Station."

do you know what the cost is minus the self financing parking, retail, and office building platform? I don't. I don't see that anyone knows.

"I demonstrated that the development is moving toward Dulles"

Even if you include Tysons, it will still be less than the level of development in DC, ALex, close in arlington, and MoCo.

"the value of the connection for international travelers."

trains to which cities? Up the corridor to NYC, or down to Richmond? What frequency? The key thing is operations, not concrete. Are these to be seperate trains, or trains that run through union station DC? Will they also stop at Alexandria? If the operating plan is such that its hardly faster than going by metro or cab to Union Station DC, it will not do well in drawing even LoCo-NYC travelers, let alone Tysons to NYC travelers

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 10, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

kk -- I don't see how Alexandria is closer/easier/faster to get to than Union Station from just about any point in DC.

But yes, Silver Spring (and yes Thayer-D is right about the point I was trying to make about transfers and their impact on the other services and yes that the stations shouldn't be butt ugly), Crystal City, New Carrollton and Alexandria have the potential to be more important stations in the future and it is a shame that the stations that exist aren't attractive. (While it isn't amazing exactly, at least the new station in Albany made an attempt to be attractive, unlike in Silver Spring.)

Historically, B&O marketed the Silver Spring station as a better way for people in Upper NW to get to train service. Obviously, they had to be going in the direction of Pittsburgh for it to be worthwhile. There are ads for it in old timetables. I might have seen ads from local newspapers too, but I just can't remember.

WRT the goldfish points, while you're right about how growth is shifting westward, it makes no sense to build a massive station out there when the likelihood of people using it is remote. Not to mention the difficulty of being able to put in tracks. Although I seem to recall Dan Malouff writing a long time ago about rail service to Dulles being more cost effective than subway. He'd have a better handle than me on the ability to get tracks out there.

L'Enfant does have the ability to become a significant station at least for commuter trains, as it is already from VRE, if MARC could get there.

Steve S's point about Brunswick and Camden MARC trains getting to L'Enfant/Crystal City is a good one.

The problem with having other local stations in DC proper is based on the placement of the railroad tracks, the available locations aren't that great in terms of likelihood of use, although in theory over decades, Fort Totten might have some possibilities, in terms of thinking about east-west connections (green line), but it'd be a stretch.

E.g., when I was a Main St. manager in Brookland, I used to think about creating a MARC stop in Brookland, that with east-west streetcar service, could move some people westward, without their having to go through Union Station, but I just don't think there'd be a lot of demand for it, although it could reduce pressure on Union Station subway platforms--but would create similar problems in Brookland.

However, such could be studied as part of the future selling off of land at the Brookland Metro Station for redevelopment, although it'd be the Brunswick Line which isn't the right one anyway--you'd want Camden trains at the least--to be able to stop there.

Similarly, restoring a stop between Riverdale and Union Station in eastern DC wouldn't really serve much of a purpose either. (There used to be stops in Langdon and in Maryland, in Hyattsville.)

by Richard Layman on Aug 10, 2012 11:18 am • linkreport

@ Richard Layman

Alexandria is closer than Union Station to many parts of SE DC that are near the Border with Maryland and the same goes for NE DC east of the Anacostia.

I have taken trains from New Carrolton and Alexandria before due to it being easier and closer to get to than Union Station at that time. Depending on where one is, the time of day, and traffic it could be easier to travel outside of DC than getting to Union Station

As for multiple terminals I mean that there could be multiple terminals such as Union Station for some trains and either Alexandria or L'Enfant as a second after remodeling where those trains would just past through Union Station and not terminate there.

To simply say a station would not get use due to what is around does not really a basis; New York Ave had use before everything was built up around it and the same can be said for many stations. If you're going by numbers than most of the Metrorail system should never have been built actually.

Lastly I'am not thinking of things with an economic factor but with a public good or service factor to provide options to the people.

by kk on Aug 10, 2012 2:10 pm • linkreport

I live on Capitol Hill but catch Amtrak at New Carrollton. That's because I can hop on the orange line near my house and it's a straight shot, where as getting to US is actually kind of a pain. I do wish I got a discount for starting in Maryland though.

by David C on Aug 10, 2012 2:16 pm • linkreport

@AWitC: since the questions you are asking are not available in for the Union Station plans, why would you think they are available for any alternatives?

The silver line is projected to cost $6.8B -- this buys 23 miles of track plus 29 stations. Surely $7B could pay for connections to tracks north and south of the city, plus only ONE station.

Over the next 50 years, I contend that there will be far more development near Tyson's and Dulles than near the capital. Don't believe me? Consider, again, the silver line, which surely will focus intensive development in that area. Dulles is an incredible engine, and will remain so for many many years.

by goldfish on Aug 10, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport


We arent going to be spending 7 billion of public money the improvements to Union Station. Large amounts of that are going to be for parking, retail, and for the platform for the new development, which should all have their own funding streams. For the amount thats left, you will still have to build a brand new terminal near Dulles. Plus a new line (and the Silver line is mostly going in highway right of way - a new connection to the NS line would required use of eminent domain, I believe) And you need an operating plan - I don't think there is one that makes sense.

by AWalkerInTheCIty on Aug 10, 2012 5:00 pm • linkreport


The silver line is projected to cost $6.8B -- this buys 23 miles of track plus 29 stations.

No, it buys 11 stations.

And many would argue that by the standards of worldwide rapid transit projects, it's far more expensive than it should be.

by Alex B. on Aug 10, 2012 5:21 pm • linkreport

The parking may nominally have its own funding stream, but every person who drives in is a person who's not using Metro or commuter rail or the bus. And the platform is a fraction of the total. Amtrak really is spending what appears to be a large majority of the cost on the station itself.

by Alon Levy on Aug 10, 2012 5:25 pm • linkreport

"The parking may nominally have its own funding stream, but every person who drives in is a person who's not using Metro or commuter rail or the bus. And the platform is a fraction of the total"

I'm not sure why that means it should be counted against the cost of the project. Sure its better to have people take the metro to Union station - as its better to have them take the metro to work, or shop, or to fly out of Dulles. But thats an issue of local transit, and how best to support it. If 2 billion is being spent on a garaage and the garage is funded to 2 billion by parking revenues, AND there is a negative externality of 500 million in pollutants etc - while that may mean building the garage is a bad idea. It does not mean that the 2 billion should be added to the other 5 billion in determining if the cost of tracks, etc are too high.

Is the parking 2 billion? I dont know.

as for the deck yes its a fraction. Based on mr laymans number, its a significant fraction - close to 20% of the total.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 10, 2012 11:17 pm • linkreport

@Alex B: No, it buys 11 stations.

So much for the accuracy of the silverline wikipedia entry! I thought that number seemed high.

And many would argue that by the standards of worldwide rapid transit projects, it's far more expensive than it should be.

I wonder if different countries account for the costs of transportation projects differently. Surely construction in Europe is not significantly cheaper than the US.

by goldfish on Aug 11, 2012 7:17 pm • linkreport

Well, Wikipedia says that it serves 29 stations, with 11 constructed for the project.

by Neil Flanagan on Aug 11, 2012 7:40 pm • linkreport

I don't think in the history of underground parking anyone has expected to extract $400,000 in value out of a single parking spot ($2 billion/5,000 spots). That's $1,300 a month at a discount rate of 4%. Monthly parking in the city is $145. And 4% may be too generous: at $25,000 per spot you still need government regulations and subsidies to get people to build them.

by Alon Levy on Aug 11, 2012 9:27 pm • linkreport

Like I said I do not know how much the parking spots will cost to build, or what will be extracted for spots located right underneath a major High Speed Rail Terminal.Or how much revenue will come from the retail, or how much expenditure is connected to it, etc.

Why not wait till that's clarified - surely someone who did the 7 billion estimate can say, and fairly soon?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 11, 2012 9:44 pm • linkreport

Because the question is how many orders of magnitude less than $7 billion can be reasonably recovered in parking fees. It's entirely possible the parking cavern is that expensive, or almost that expensive - it's just not possible for that amount of money to be recoverable. So we're still looking at, if not $7 billion, $5.5 billion, for something that should charitably cost $100 million.

by Alon Levy on Aug 11, 2012 9:47 pm • linkreport

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