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Through-running isn't so easy for MARC and VRE, part 2

If MARC trains at Union Station became VRE trains to Virginia and vice versa, riders could reach more stations and we could use Union Station's limited tracks more efficiently. Unfortunately, there are several reasons this isn't as easy as it sounds. That doesn't mean trains can't run through, but a number of changes have to happen first, which cost money.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Previously, we talked about the biggest obstacle, high and low platforms. MARC has some high platforms and some low platforms, and wants one car type that can serve both, across all lines. But using those cars on VRE would slow down boarding considerably.

Still, is that a deal-breaker? The Brunswick Line has all low platforms today, which could accommodate VRE trains. What about just running VRE trains onto the Brunswick Line and vice versa to start with? Or just have some MARC trains go at least to Alexandria?

Unfortunately, the track layout at Union Station, insufficient space for reverse-direction trains on most lines, and limited platforms at L'Enfant and Crystal City all pose obstacles.

Union Station's tracks don't line up VRE and the Brunswick MARC

At Union Station, VRE trains coming from the south enter the station from the First Street Tunnel, at the far eastern end of the station. But the Brunswick Line's tracks come into the station at its far western end.

A Brunswick train crossing from the CSX Metropolitan Subdivision tracks on the west side of the station to the through tracks on the east side would have to cross all the tracks at Union Station, blocking trains on the other MARC, Amtrak and VRE lines.

That doesn't mean crossing over is impossible. It just makes scheduling more difficult. If in the future, for example, Acelas leave (and arrive) every 30 minutes and Regionals leave/arrive every 30 minutes, and MARC Penn trains leave and arrive every 20, there aren't many gaps for trains to cross over, and doing so can cause delays.

The Penn Line trains wouldn't face this problem, and as the highest-ridership line, that is the most logical one for through-running. But this is also the line with the most high platforms and thus the greatest incompatibility between MARC and VRE.

There isn't enough reverse-direction capacity

The Penn Line tracks do line up with the First Street tunnel; that's what Amtrak trains use to get to Virginia. Those trains could continue south to Alexandria, or even farther south. This could be a great asset for Penn Line riders, who could stay on the train to L'Enfant Plaza if they want the Metro Orange, Blue, Yellow or Green Lines, or ride to Crystal City or Alexandria if they work at jobs in Virginia.

Unfortunately, this would run into a second problem. There isn't enough track capacity south of Union Station. Right now, there are 2 tracks across the Potomac on the Long Bridge, and 3 through the L'Enfant Plaza area. CSX controls these tracks, and doesn't let VRE use all of the tracks.

Right now, VRE trains run almost entirely one-way. The trains head into DC on one track in the morning, and back out to Virginia on one track in the afternoon; in between, the trains sit at a yard near Ivy City in DC. The VRE schedule lists just one reverse-direction train, on the Manassas Line each morning and evening. Amtrak's trains go both ways all day, but there are only a few of those and mainly not at rush hours.

The bottom line is, if Virginia and Maryland wanted to have all or even some Penn Line trains continue past Union Station at least to Alexandria, there wouldn't be enough track space.

A similar problem applies to letting VRE trains continue north of Union Station. CSX has resisted letting Maryland's MTA add more MARC trains on the Brunswick and Camden Lines without also demanding Maryland invest some money into improvements along the route.

Stations are limited

Another issue with through-running is the design of the VRE stations at L'Enfant and Crystal City. These stations each have just one platform on one side of the tracks. That means trains can only serve the stations in one direction at a time.

This means the reverse peak direction trains on the Manassas Line each morning and afternoon can't stop at Crystal City or L'Enfant, because the trains running in the peak direction are using the platform track.

If Brunswick (or other MARC) trains could run south of Union Station today, they couldn't stop at L'Enfant or Crystal City, which is where most of the MARC riders would likely want to go.

Most of the other stops on the Manassas Line have the same configuration, with platforms only on one side as well. This will prove to be an obstacle for additional reverse peak direction trains, whether they're MARC or VRE.

Maryland Ave plan and Long Bridge study could fix this

There is hope on the horizon. The recent Maryland Avenue study recommended building a fourth track at L'Enfant Plaza. CSX could then let passenger trains travel in both directions at high frequency in that area. It would also transform the station from just one platform to 3, with a combination of high and low platforms for both types of trains.

Proposed L'Enfant commuter rail station layout. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

The next bottleneck would be the 2-track Long Bridge across the Potomac, and there's another study going on for that. VRE's 2004 strategic plan recommended adding a 3rd track from the Long Bridge to Crystal City, where the line widens to 3 tracks, and giving the Crystal City station an island platform to serve trains in both directions.

Combined with needed improvements at Union Station, we might one day see a truly regional rail system, at least from Baltimore and maybe Frederick to Alexandria, alongside more frequent service from Fredericksburg and Manassas to DC. To make this happen, however, Maryland and Virginia will have to make it a priority. With an 8-year-old VRE plan and a 5-year-old MARC plan mostly collecting dust, riders will need to push their leaders to put resources into commuter rail.

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. 
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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Two dumb questions:

1) if the VRE goes to the yard, couldn't the MARC lines meeet at the yard for two way?

2) what prevents VRE/MARC from using the WMATA bridge?

by charlie on Aug 22, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

VRE and MARC park their equipment in different railyards. By the way, VRE trains are operated by Keolis, whereas MARC trains are operated by CSX/Amtrak.

by Davin Peterson on Aug 22, 2012 11:09 am • linkreport

@ Davin Peterson; I'm not talking about the yard, I was actually referred to the graphic above, where it looks as if access to the VRE yard is near the MARC lines.

I understand if the graphic is wrong...

by charlie on Aug 22, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

Charlie: I think the bottom line is this: Almost all of the trains on lines except for Penn are one-way. So the VRE trains are going to Union Station and then to a yard, but there usually isn't a MARC train going outbound from Union Station at that time which it could turn into. So there aren't 2 currently-running services to just pair up in most cases

The reverse-direction MARC trains on Penn, which are the only reverse-direction trains of any meaningful number, are on the line with mostly high platforms, and VRE equipment can't go there.

VRE equipment could go on Brunswick, but there aren't reverse-peak trains on Brunswick, and CSX won't allow them, and plus going to Brunswick requires a crossover that would jam up other lines.

So through-running trains is only partly about the logistics of through-running trains; it's also largely about having reverse-direction trains at all.

The spot with the most value for reverse-direction trains is Union Station to L'Enfant, Crystal City, and Alexandria in the morning, for MARC riders commuting to jobs in SW DC, Arlington, and Alexandria and to give them access to lines besides Red. Unfortunately, that section of the commuter rail network is one of the most severely constrained of all.

In short, the places that are easier to through-run don't have any reverse-direction service, and the places that are most valuable to do it are the hardest.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't through-run, but that it's not a no-brainer and not cost-free. But if you look at the long-term plan for both railroads, substantial through-running absolutely makes sense, once they add space and platforms to the tracks and stations which they need to add onto anyway.

by David Alpert on Aug 22, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

what prevents VRE/MARC from using the WMATA bridge?

A whole ton of FRA/FTA regulations, as well as the design of the two systems. Also there's a big safety issue as commuter rail vehicles are much heavier than Metro vehicles.

by MLD on Aug 22, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

I'm surprised that the electric/diesel locomotive issue didn't at least get a mention as one more incompatibility between running Penn Line->VRE service.

Yes, some of the trains on the Penn Line are running behind the diesel locomotives, but it would be just one more scheduling concern and loss of operating flexibility that increase the degree of difficulty for anything coming off the Penn Line and going into VA.

by Ryan S on Aug 22, 2012 11:31 am • linkreport

MARC could side trains south of Alexandria King Street Station in the rail yards of Eisenhower Valley.

Long Bridge really needs some love shown to it. It looks like crap from lack of any maintenance. I think its piers could be reused to support a three or four track configuration.

by NikolasM on Aug 22, 2012 11:48 am • linkreport

Wow, what an outstanding pair of posts in terms of detail and laying out the strategic issues. Here's a question- do any of the contemplated improvements for the Southeast High Speed Rail ( corridor in between WAS-RVR help on the VRE problems?

I know that SEHSR was one of the justifications for advancing the Quantico bridge project. (see link below for aerial view),va&hl=en&ll=38.52993,-77.286962&spn=0.00475,0.008165&sll=35.170517,-79.860994&sspn=5.082019,8.360596&t=h&hnear=Quantico,+Prince+William,+Virginia&z=17

by CityBeautiful21 on Aug 22, 2012 1:04 pm • linkreport

So here's what I get so far on the To Do list for through-running:

- Change rolling stock for VRE
- Gauntlet tracks or a third track to allow freight/commuter compatibility
- Get a better deal with CSX allowing two-way traffic along all lines in the system
- High boarding platforms for all stations
- Boarding platforms that access tracks going in both directions
- Upgrade the Long Bridge
- Implement the Maryland Avenue track improvements
- Redesign the tracks around Union Station to allow through-running on the MARC lines
- Something else I missed?

Does a $500 million pricetag sound reasonable for all that?

by OctaviusIII on Aug 22, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

I strongly doubt $500 million would do it, but it would be good to get some real numbers behind this approach.

by David Alpert on Aug 22, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

@David A.

Looking back at my list - yeah, I definitely low-balled it. An extremely rough estimate I just typed up would get us more in the $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion range, with most of the costs coming from Maryland Avenue and the Long Bridge.

by OctaviusIII on Aug 22, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

Octavius - keep in mind the benefits of such investments would not solely be for commuter rail - they would also accrue to intercity rail and freight, not to mention the urban development benefits (such as decking Maryland Ave) and investments/maintenance that's already needed (such as the Long Bridge).

by Alex B. on Aug 22, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport

What is the consumer demand for commuting by rail from locations served by MARC to VRE and vice versa?

by ah on Aug 22, 2012 2:36 pm • linkreport

So, IIUC through running MARC to Lenfant will be possible when the Lenfant improvements are done, as long as the locomotive issue can be resolved.

Running to Crystal City and Alex will require at least a third track on Long Bridge, plus platform improvements at crystal city.

The Long Bridge changes are coming anyway. Looks to me like MARC to Lenfant, Crystal, and Alex captures 80% of the benefits of through running for 20% or less of the incremental costs.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 22, 2012 2:41 pm • linkreport

ah: Good question: We don't know. The biggest demand is probably MARC riders getting to L'Enfant to change to the Orange, Blue, Yellow or Green lines instead of having to get on Red at Union station for 2-3 stops.

After that, I'd guess MARC to Crystal City or King Street, where there are many jobs right by the stations; then maybe VRE to Silver Spring, also many jobs, and one day New Carrollton.

VRE riders whose defense agencies got BRAC-ed from Crystal City to Fort Meade could take the train there, and same for MARC riders going to Fort Belvoir.

The VRE report also mentions getting Virginians to BWI airport as a benefit. And let's not forget that some people from Virginia will want to go to Baltimore.

by David Alpert on Aug 22, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

" Change rolling stock for VRE"

only if you need VRE trains to through run, probably a lower priority than MARC to VRE

"- Gauntlet tracks or a third track to allow freight/commuter compatibility"

Probably coming anyway as part of VRE capacity improvements.

- Get a better deal with CSX allowing two-way traffic along all lines in the system

See above

"- High boarding platforms for all stations"

No, only for at least one track at those stations where MARC trains need to go. why do we need MARC trains stopping at, say, Backlick road?

"- Boarding platforms that access tracks going in both directions"


"- Upgrade the Long Bridge"

yes, coming anyway for VRE/SEHSR capacity

"- Implement the Maryland Avenue track improvements"


"- Redesign the tracks around Union Station to allow through-running on the MARC lines"

is that needed for Penn Line? I think Penn Line is definitely the priority over Camden and even Brunswick.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 22, 2012 2:46 pm • linkreport

AWITC: I think with MARC to L'Enfant there's a question of how many tracks CSX will let the commuter railroads use. Clearly if it goes from 3 to 4 the commuter railroads can have exclusive use of 1, but I was told that they'd like to be able to use 2 and have CSX use 2, but CSX isn't agreeing to that yet.

If MARC turns around at L'Enfant that will mean more dwell time there, so there will need to be enough track space for a MARC train to go there, unload & load, then back up on the same track for a while to get back where it was. That's somewhat limiting and even harder if other railroads want to use that track too sometimes.

It seems it'd be a lot easier if the trains can go all the way to Alexandria because there is more room, yards, etc. past there.

I haven't seen a formal study of this stuff though. We need an inter-agency task force or something to actually hammer out exactly what the railroads would like to do and what it would take. Presumably they'd need to hire a consultant to do the work. There's the VRE plan and a MARC plan but no similar "MARC to Virginia" plan.

by David Alpert on Aug 22, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

Yeah. It seems like a lot of the improvements here would have benefits that stretch far beyond commuter rail.

An upgraded Long Bridge benefits everyone, CSX probably wouldn't mind having more double-tracked sections, and Amtrak probably wants to see more through-running capacity at Union Station as well.

by andrew on Aug 22, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport


okay, maybe extension to L'enfant alone as a phase 1 doesnt make sense. Similarly, once you deal with the locomotive issue and the Long Bridge, there would be no reason to stop at Crystal City. But is it fair to say MARC Penn line to Alexandria King Street takes priority over A. any extension beyond Alexandria and B. The camden and brunswick lines?

by AWalkerinTheCity on Aug 22, 2012 3:00 pm • linkreport

@AWITC re: rolling stock and platforms

The rolling stock issue is to allow interoperability between VRE trains and MARC high platforms without hurting performance. VRE needs high boarding to go to MARC territory, but implementing high boarding means slower loading at existing low-platform stations in VRE territory. That would would mean slower travel times and therefore lower capacity.

Hence: high platforms and gauntlet tracks in VRE territory. It's probably not necessary at every stop, but it's a cost for high-use stops even if MARC will never use them.

by OctaviusIII on Aug 22, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport


as you may have gathered, I think MARC into VRE territory is a much higher priority than VRE into MARC territory. A single line can give you access to L'enfant, Crystal City, and Alexandria. Thats a LOT of potential riders. While VRE to Penn Line gives you only New Carrolton and, much less conveniently, Fort Meade, and Brunswick line mostly just gives you Silver Spring. I would be astounded if Penn Line area to L'enfant/Crystal City/OldTownAlex wasnt overwhelmingly more existing trips than either VRE corridor to New Carroton/Ft Meade/BWI/Baltimore, or either VRE corridor to SilverSpring/Rockville.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 22, 2012 3:31 pm • linkreport


True, but those high-demand stops for MARC will have lower capacity for MARC riders because of the platform/train mismatch. Now, high-boarding platforms at those new MARC stops are likely only a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have, but it's a consideration to keep in mind.

by OctaviusIII on Aug 22, 2012 3:50 pm • linkreport

AWITC: Plus, MARC Penn to Alexandria lets people in Alexandria and south Arlington ride MARC to New Carrollton, Fort Meade, BWI and Baltimore as well.

by David Alpert on Aug 22, 2012 4:04 pm • linkreport

Clearly if it goes from 3 to 4 the commuter railroads can have exclusive use of 1, but I was told that they'd like to be able to use 2 and have CSX use 2, but CSX isn't agreeing to that yet.

Why would CSX need more than 2 tracks through L'Enfant? If they're not making any stops, and the commuter platforms are on sidings or separate tracks, don't the trains just plow straight through DC anyway?

Also: Does the Capitol Power Plant still use its freight siding?

by andrew on Aug 22, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport

This also doesn't address the legal issues that could come from having trains owned by state of MD straying into VA territory, or vice versa. For example: the state of DE pays SEPTA to extend their commuter rail line to Wilmington and Newark. CT does the same thing for Metro-North. If MARC trains are extended into VA, is VA then expected to start paying them a fee?

One question I have: is it possible to at least start having more Amtrak trains stop at L'Enfant, and put that on Amtrak's timetables? I know you wouldn't have Acelas stop there, but maybe if Regional Trains started stopping at L'Enfant that would a) increase Amtrak ridership, b) increase options for Virginians, and c) decrease some of the overcrowding in the halls of Union Station and the crush of crowds trying to transfer from the rail tracks to the Red Line?

by Marc on Aug 22, 2012 5:01 pm • linkreport

To run MARC through to Alexandria requires four tracking from the Long Bridge to Alexandria and four tracking from CP Virginia to the Long Bridge. Virginia DRPT estimated the first at $16M back in 2009 for their unsuccessful ARRA proposal. The second ought to be a similar cost. Two stations would need to be rebuilt. Say $10M apiece? Electrifying the ten miles from Union Station to Alexandria is a nice to have, but not absolutely necessary, and would add another $50M or so. Widening the Long Bridge can wait. Even if a passenger train is stuck behind a 20 mph freight for the mile of the Long Bridge, that only delays it by three minutes.

So for $50M we could get a basic diesel MARC run-through capability; for $100M we could run-through electric service.

This doesn't seem totally unaffordable.

@Marc: the early Amtrak train from Richmond does already stop at L'Enfant. A fair number of passengers alight there.

by jim on Aug 22, 2012 5:21 pm • linkreport

As I mentioned in the last post: MARC's Brunswick Line does have high level platforms at Frederick-Monocacy station (and a mini-high at Downtown Frederick station). Although it wouldn't make any sense at all to run VRE trains there.

VRE trains running through to MARC lines is also very impractical. Besides the problems with high-platforms and clearance issues in the Baltimore tunnels on the Camden/Penn Lines, there would be no demand to any MARC station except maybe to Silver Spring where CSX would never let VRE run through to, plus it's an easy one-seat ride on the Red Line on literally the exact same route as the Brunswick Line.

The only sensible through-running is MARC Brunswick Line trains to Alexandria, but as you mention there are serious capacity issues south of WAS (crossing the tracks at Union Station is hardly a serious issue). Until this becomes feasible the MARC/VRE ticket cross-honoring on reverse flow trains is a pretty good system.

by King Terrapin on Aug 22, 2012 6:48 pm • linkreport

King Terrapin:

The eventual point of through-routing isn't to just get VRE or MARC to serve a few more stations, it's to mesh the two together into a regional S-bahn like system.

The goal should be full through-routing service, off peak service, bi-directional service, etc.

You might still have a MARC or a VRE operator, but the passenger experience should be seamless.

This would allow for the commuter rail network to become a true transit network. It would add value to TOD around outlying stations, since those developments would not solely be an origin point for commutes into the city, but could also potentially be an anchor to reverse trips.

Operationally, you'd also save storage space by through-routing. You'll deadhead trains out of the city, yes, but if you use those trips for useful passenger flows, that's a win-win.

by Alex B. on Aug 22, 2012 7:13 pm • linkreport

1 Is there any room to build a tiny rail yard or cross over near any of the VRE stations in Virginia past Alexandria such as Backlick, Burke, Rolling Road or Franconia so that MARC could use it

2 Is it possible to build one or two more tunnels from Union Station going south to future proof the station ?

3 Would it be possible under any circumstances to build a tunnel/bridge from the rail yard north of Union Station to act as a crossover between different tracks.

4 Where are the rail yards of VRE, MARC, Amtrak within 20 miles from DC

by kk on Aug 22, 2012 9:56 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B.

Of course that would be wonderful, but considering the current situation creating a unified system would be extremely cost prohibitive and impractical.

Out of all the major cities with large commuter rail systems in this country only SEPTA (Philadelphia) has an effective through-running commuter rail system. Just look at New York, which has the largest and most efficient transit system in the country, but the three large commuter rail systems serving Manhattan (NJ Transit, LIRR, Metro-North) don't through-run trains (except for MNR/NJT Giants' game specials from CT). Chicago's Metra system has four different terminals in the city with no through running. Finally, Boston's MBTA Commuter Rail system has two terminals with no connection between the two, although one was long planned but the Big Dig was built instead.


1 I don't think there's much room for a yard anywhere near Alexandria and it wouldn't be cost effective. It would be better for MARC trains just to backtrack to Union Station.

2 Extremely cost prohibitive and would never even be considered

3 Again extremely cost prohibitive and not nearly worth the investment.

4 Apart from the Ivy City yards north of Union Station there are none, although VRE has a storage track at L'Enfant that they haven't even used yet.

by King Terrapin on Aug 22, 2012 10:14 pm • linkreport

The Greater Washington Board of Trade did a study back in 1999 for MARC/VRE run-through service. Back then $65M was the estimated startup capital investment.

by Al Carr on Aug 22, 2012 11:37 pm • linkreport

As an FYI the MARC to Virginia plan is specifically layed out in the 5 year old Marc improvement plan by the MTA to have L'enfant, crystal city, Alexandria stops on all lines in the 2020 timeframe. Now we all know how much of that plan has moved forward, but it shows that it is a long term priority for MD

by Scott on Aug 23, 2012 12:52 am • linkreport

It is a little sad that we are all now convinced that thinking 'small and inexpensive' is the only option.

We need a unified system for regional commuter rail. It will cost lots of money but so would another highway bridge across the Potomac, which we will probably have to built in the next 30 - 40 years if we do nothing.

The people who built the national highway system didn't think small. Metrorail is not a small idea that cost a few hundred dollars. Going cheap will only buy you something off of a McDonald's dollar menu. Why are we scared to dream about building big and think asking for big non automotive transportation projects is a nightmare?

Thinking big:

- Bury the line from Union Station to the long bridge - 4 tracks from a new underground L'enfant station.

- Rebuild the Long Bridge, also 4 tracks, so that it look like something worthy of the capital city of the free world and not something you'd find in North Korea. While we're at it, blow it up, make a tunnel.

- Electrify the system. Diesel isn't going to last forever.

- Purchase unified rolling stock.

- Rebuild stations to accommodate high platforms.

- Build and Alexandria Yard along the Eisenhower corridor.

- Come up with a nifty name.

Will this cost billions, absolutely. It has to get done.

by Randall M. on Aug 23, 2012 7:26 am • linkreport

@Al_Carr: I'd love to see that 1999 study, but your link is dead. Do you have another source?

by KG on Aug 23, 2012 10:17 am • linkreport

"Going cheap will only buy you something off of a McDonald's dollar menu"

I think most of us are looking for something scaleable, than can start on the cheap, prove the concept and then grow from there.

Its worth noting that through running isn't the only, or necessarily even the most important, aspect of converting local commuter rail to Sbahn like service. More important are increasing frequency, increasing speeds, reverse service, etc. Given the particular complexities of through running, what I think many of us are looking for is places where through running can piggy back on improvements that will need to be made anyway to improve frequency and create through running - and to put a lower priority on improvements that need to be made ONLY to enable through running, EXCEPT where those have a very high bang for the buck. IMO MARC through running to Alexandria comes first, along with the improvements to Long Bridge, and to L'Enfant. As we move to SEHSR, we can move to electrification, at least on the Fredericksburg line. Maybe extend the MARC service from Alexandria to Franconia-Springfield and Fort Belvoir. Then eventually to Fredericksburg, but skipping the lower ridership stops, to avoid platform investments. Then at some point build platforms at all the stops on the Fredericksburg line, and convert the VRE rolling stock. THEN look at VRE trains to MARC territory and converting the Manassas line to high platforms. THEN, down the road, convert to complete through running.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 23, 2012 11:55 am • linkreport

Here is a better link to the 1999 GWBOT study on MARC/VRE run-through service:

by Al Carr on Aug 23, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport

@Randall M.

But where will those billions come from? There a lot more projects, including those not even transit-related, with a much better net societal benefit. Before building tunnels, replacing brand new passenger coach fleets, and electrifying south of DC, there are thousands of projects that take higher priority.

Just looking at Maryland, there are three unfunded light rail lines in the pipeline (Purple Line, Red Line, and S. MD. Light Rail), a BWI station expansion, 100 year old tunnels in Baltimore, and the similarly ancient Gunpowder and Susquehanna bridges. Then there's the $17 billion Union Station project that isn't nearly as radical as what you suggest.

by King Terrapin on Aug 23, 2012 1:01 pm • linkreport

- Bury the line from Union Station to the long bridge - 4 tracks from a new underground L'enfant station.

Can't do it. You'd run into some problems with existing Metro tunnels.

- Rebuild the Long Bridge, also 4 tracks, so that it look like something worthy of the capital city of the free world and not something you'd find in North Korea. While we're at it, blow it up, make a tunnel.

There's nothing wrong with the Long Bridge. Its a wonderful example of a specific sort of bridge architecture. Could use a coat of paint though. Tunnel wouldn't work either. The east end would need to occupy the same physical space as the Yellow line.

- Electrify the system. Diesel isn't going to last forever.

This is a tougher sell. I'm not sure when the last time someone strung wire over tracks in the US. Of all the stuff on the list, its the only one I'd go for right now. Running wire down to Richmond would end the 45 to 75 minute layover at Union Station for (some of) the NERs.

- Purchase unified rolling stock.

There's nothing particularly wrong or difficult with this. You could even have it happen naturally as equipment is retired. If I recall, those VRE coaches are ex-METRA and CNW. They can't have more than a few decades left in them.

- Rebuild stations to accommodate high platforms.

This makes me sad because it would mean the end of Alexandria Union Station.

- Build and Alexandria Yard along the Eisenhower corridor.

Not really any space to do it. The last good spot was where the DASH facility is now. I think that used to be where the FGE plant was. The only other place you could have wedged one in is at the old SOU intermodal terminal (which I believe is now used for unloading tank cars), but its west of the NS-CSX junction.

- Come up with a nifty name.

Potomac Area Rail

by Another Nick on Aug 23, 2012 5:07 pm • linkreport

The issue isn't really "through running" as much as it is providing MARC access to L'Enfant Plaza, Crystal City, and Alexandria. It doesn't have to be every train either. If MARC could do two Penn Line trains per hour, and if one of them would go past Union Station, maybe that would be enough.

Probably VRE service north isn't necessary.

A combined system, as I advocate for, doesn't have to mean through running either, just integrated and consolidated service.

by Richard Layman on Aug 23, 2012 6:04 pm • linkreport

AnotherNick -- my suggestion for naming the service would be RACER, for Railroad authority of the chesapeake region.

by Richard Layman on Aug 23, 2012 6:11 pm • linkreport

@Another Nick

"- Electrify the system. Diesel isn't going to last forever.

This is a tougher sell. I'm not sure when the last time someone strung wire over tracks in the US. Of all the stuff on the list, its the only one I'd go for right now. Running wire down to Richmond would end the 45 to 75 minute layover at Union Station for (some of) the NERs."

Caltrain (San Fran.) is the only American rail system planning to electrify. There's only a single line, but with ridership equal to that of MARC (double VRE) so it makes some sense. Electrification south of DC is never gonna happen, unless the Southeast Rail Corridor is built (which will probably never happen either given the politics of the South).

- Purchase unified rolling stock.

There's nothing particularly wrong or difficult with this. You could even have it happen naturally as equipment is retired. If I recall, those VRE coaches are ex-METRA and CNW. They can't have more than a few decades left in them."

VRE retired nearly all of their ex-Metra coaches. Almost all of their current coaches (71 @ about $1.5m a piece), which have the same low-level boarding config. as the old gallery cars, are virtually brand new and have multiple decades of life left.

by King Terrapin on Aug 23, 2012 7:27 pm • linkreport

As for the most recent electrification in the US for mainline rail (lots of light rail electrification out there), Amtrak added catenary north of New Haven in the late 90s prior to starting Acela service.

I believe NJ Transit also has re-electrified some lines recently, in addition to also converting some existing electrified lines to 25kv, 60Hz.

by Alex B. on Aug 23, 2012 7:31 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B. -

I don't know of any NJ transit lines that were previously electrified, then de-electrified, then re-electrified. However, the Lackawanna lines from Hoboken to Montclair, Dover and Gladstone were converted from 3000 V DC to 25 kV 60 Hz AC in 1984, and then, following the opening of the connection to the old Erie line at Montclair in 2002, extended to Great Notch.

by Frank IBC on Aug 23, 2012 8:36 pm • linkreport

AMT in Montreal also intends to do some electrification.

by Richard Layman on Aug 23, 2012 8:41 pm • linkreport

Frank, the 1984 switch is probably what I'm remembering reading about...

by Alex B. on Aug 23, 2012 9:02 pm • linkreport

It's all about priorities.

For example.

One aircraft carrier costs anywhere from $4.5 to $9.0 billion.

The U.S. has 11 operational carriers. The rest of the world has 10.

Not suggesting we scuttle the Navy, not saying build a more reliable transportation system tomorrow, I'm talking about a horizon of 20 or 30 years. All I know is when it comes to a road, which is a great invention by the way, we find billions. When it comes to an airport, we find billions. When it comes to building a blue line tunnel from RFK to Rosalyn, everybody cries broke.

Neither Rome nor Metro were built in a day and both of them cost more than a loaf of bread. Honestly, I'm tired of the excuses. I'm tired of complaining about Metro falling apart and trying to find the least offensive or expensive way to ask for things that the region needs.

I'm open for compromise and discussion but seriously, what sort catastrophe will it take for us to invest in our infrastructure? We have to think about the future instead of ourselves. If it means we all pay more in taxes and stop planning for a WW2 style pacific war, count me in. Maybe we could build something big. Here.

by Randall M. on Aug 24, 2012 1:48 am • linkreport

Okay, some facts and figures - without links in order to avoid tempting the gods of comment moderation and spam filtering:

1. The MBTA and Metro-North both have high platforms on active freight lines. On the Worcester Line, the high platform edges are equipped with retracting plates to allow oversize freight through; on Metro-North and the Providence Line there is no oversize freight. I do not know whether CSX runs oversize freight in Virginia, but even if it does, high platforms are possible, at higher cost.

2. High platforms, without retracting plates, cost $6.5 million per full-length double-track, two-platform station on the MBTA. This is Morton Street on the Fairmount Line, the only one for which I can find numbers. Outside the US it's much cheaper to raise platforms, but of course Virginia is in the US.

3. Electrification can be done for about $3 million per double-track kilometer. This was the cost of Northeast Corridor electrification north of New Haven in the 1990s. Caltrain's project is about $10 million per km excluding rolling stock, but Caltrain is the outlier; NEC costs are only slightly higher than British and French electrification costs per track-km.

4. I do not know the cost of multi-tracking in the US. In suburban Berlin, a recent double-tracking project cost $4 million per km.

5. It is possible to set up a schedule such that everything crosses the tracks at Union Station without conflict, allowing 24 tph north of the station of which 12 or 18 continue south. I do not know the cost of the required signaling, though ERTMS 2, which is probably good enough for this, is about $2-3 million per route-km in Europe and budgeted at a similar level on California HSR; ACSES, which is an ERTMS-like overlay, should be similar.

6. New rolling stock is about $2.5 million per car. Either piggyback on the M8 or Silverliner V or yell at the FRA until it lets you run something less overweight. Both railroads need it, since both run locomotive-hauled, narrow-door cars and commuter service needs wide-door EMUs to reduce the time penalty of a station stop. With a top speed of 130 km/h, a late-model EMU with wide enough doors for 20-to-30-second dwells at minor stations loses about a minute to each stop. With a top speed of 200 km/h, make it about a minute and a half.

7. A modern RER/S-Bahn/Metro operation has crews operate back and forth, rather than do one roundtrip to the CBD and back per day. Caltrain improved its finances in the 2000s by requiring some crews to do two roundtrips a day (still only about 4 to 6 revenue hours a day, hardly overworking), which the union fought bitterly; together with the introduction of the faster Baby Bullet, this allowed Caltrain to provide more service for the same operating cost. In addition, as CBD space is the most expensive, trains should be parked near the outer termini as much as possible rather than at near-downtown yards. It's possible technically, though very difficult politically, to get commuter rail operating costs per hour or per km down to the same level of Metro. This makes things like a 2 tph baseline service on each line all day 7 days a week feasible.

by Alon Levy on Aug 24, 2012 10:10 am • linkreport

@Alon Levy

Some double-track projects in the US I've researched come in at about $3.1 million per kilometer, though that doesn't include electrification, right-of-way acquisition, and assumes few or no bridges. I've also seen it go as high as $5.6 million per kilometer in California, but haven't seen it higher. However, I'm very surprised Berlin costs are more expensive than this, so something may be off with one of our numbers.

by OctaviusIII on Aug 24, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

Using Alon's numbers, VRE would cost $735.4 million to upgrade entirely to an electric, level-boarding, EMU system. I can't find stats on low-platform stations for MARC, so excluding that cost it would be another $698.8 million to upgrade it to the same standard. Total cost for this gold-standard system is $1.4 billion. This also excludes any additional tracks, which could another $200 million.

by OctaviusIII on Aug 24, 2012 12:28 pm • linkreport

Beginning way back with the Eisenhower administration, the Federal government in the USA has given huge concessions and support for the large-hunk-o-steel-with-one-occupant model of transportation, including the construction of the interstate highway system and several bail-outs of the automobile manufacturers, while constricting ever-more-tightly the railroads. I was told by Skinner Postem that in 1955 a resident of Summit Point, WV could take a passenger train in to Union Station on a saturday morning, shop all day, and return home that evening. the main line west from DC should have had a third rail built alongside 30 years ago, when it still could have been done, but since then the addition of more buildings and low bridges have made that impossible. Our children and grandchildrenwill all pay the cost of our foolishness.

by john l tucker on Aug 26, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

It would be worth pointing out that the government did bail out the railroads, twice: Conrail and Amtrak.

And they are even less tightly constricting them now than they did in the 1950s. The rate structures were heavily controlled by the government. Pre-Staggers railroading after the 1930s was a money losing venture. For instance, in the early 50s, they developed containerization, but the ICC said that it was a special service and that you had to charge extra. Thirty years later, Staggers declares that concept dead and we get the surge in piggyback traffic that turned into today's intermodal system.

by Another Nick on Aug 27, 2012 1:00 pm • linkreport

Having been out of town, I am coming to this conversation late. Among my questions:
1. what is the weight of freight (when coal is in hopper cars, or cargo is double-stacked) compared to the heaviest passenger cars on conventional rails?
2. Could a low-platform track be added at New Carrollton to allow VRE to go there with existing equipment as the proposed Federal center there develops?
3. What is the cost, in dollars, travel time, and inconvenience that would be among the calculations for allowing MARC to get to L'Enfant such that the costs of adding transfer capacity from WMATA's Red Line to its Green/Yellow (and v/v) at Gallery Place would not have to be "given" to WMATA and its funders to "accommodate"?

by Lindsley Williams on Aug 28, 2012 9:55 pm • linkreport

Basically, we need two passenger-priority tracks from Union Station all the way to the junction between the Manassass (NS) and Richmond (CSX) routes in the Alexandria area.

Those tracks should simply be owned by a public agency, or Amtrak, keeping CSX on the "other" tracks.

The hardest part of this is the Long Bridge. L'Enfant Plaza is relatively easy except that CSX is causing trouble.

by Nathanael on Aug 31, 2012 11:21 pm • linkreport

Please note that if there were two passenger-priority tracks all the way to Alexandria, they could be electrified for MARC reverse-peak trains. And for Amtrak, which could move its engine-change point southward.

by Nathanael on Aug 31, 2012 11:23 pm • linkreport

FYI, there are giant abandoned railyards between Alexandria and the Long Bridge, which would be most suitable for layovers.

by Nathanael on Aug 31, 2012 11:27 pm • linkreport

To answer someone else's question, the reason Amtrak doesn't stop many trains at L'Enfant or Alexandria is the same as the reason MARC doesn't -- lack of capacity across the Long Bridge, single platform at L'Enfant, low platforms at L'Enfant and Alexandria, no layover location between Union Station DC and Fredricksburg (or Manassas)

Top priority should be getting two passenger-priority tracks from Union Station to Alexandria.

by Nathanael on Aug 31, 2012 11:30 pm • linkreport

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