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VRE's future could include off-peak and weekend service

Faced with growing ridership but limited capacity, VRE has released a plan to significantly expand commuter rail service in Northern Virginia, including reverse-commute, off-peak, and weekend services and an extension to Gainesville and Haymarket.


Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

The $2.68 billion, 25-year capital improvement plan is split into three phases with modest capacity improvements through 2020. By 2030, it proposes major infrastructure projects including a new Long Bridge over the Potomac River, with further improvements in its last decade through 2040. It is the first new strategic plan for the railroad since 2004.

VRE planners say their vision is delivers a lot for a relatively low cost. "Significant capacity increases can take place almost entirely within the existing right of way, at a cost, and in a time frame competitive with highway and heavy rail construction projects in the region," the plan says.

Expansion is sorely needed. CSX and Norfolk-Southern own the tracks VRE's two lines use, and provide few slots for the commuter rail, limiting its schedule. Chokepoints in the region's rail network, most notably the Long Bridge, restrict the number of trains VRE can run. They also share track with Amtrak regional and long-distance trains.

During the railroad's 2013 fiscal year, which ended in June, VRE's average daily ridership was 18,878, though it regularly spikes above 20,000, according to recent comments by VRE Chief Executive Doug Allen. Capacity is about 19,000 passengers per day.

Under the plan, capacity on the commuter railroad would increase to about 43,000 passengers per day on weekdays, a 24,000 passenger increase. It also allows for about 6,000 passengers per day on weekends.

VRE would not cover the entire cost of the plan. The railroad, local, and regional jurisdictions would only be on the hook for about $1.19 billion under the plan, with the rest coming from project partners, for example CSX or Amtrak, and the federal government.

The VRE operations board unanimously approved the plan during its meeting January 17.

Plan proposes new Long Bridge, through-running with MARC

The first phase of VRE's plan, between 2015 and 2020, includes longer trains, an additional round-trip on both the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines, expanded parking at stations, and improved station facilities. These would cost the railroad $285 million. VRE says that these are cost-effective plans that can occur under its existing agreements with CSX and Norfolk-Southern.

The second phase, between 2021 and 2030, includes arguably the largest, and most important, project in VRE's plan: the Long Bridge replacement. Budgeted at about $1.1 billion, this could involve replacing the existing two-track structure with a new four-track bridge, as well as adding new tracks for four from L'Enfant Plaza to Alexandria.

VRE is participating in the Long Bridge replacement study, which the DC Department of Transportation is leading. The commuter railroad estimates that it would only need to contribute up to $111 million to the project under the plan.

A new bridge and additional tracks would also enable through-running with MARC. According to the plan, VRE says that it would work with its Maryland sibling, which is planning to do the same thing.

Other projects during phase two include the $295 million extension to Gainesville and Haymarket, initial investments in a third tr

Edward Russell is an air transport reporter by day with a passion for all things transportation. He is a resident of NoMa and tweets frequently about planes and trains. 

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It all sounds good, but a plan without funding isn't much more than a wish.

by Steve Dunham on Jan 30, 2014 1:35 pm • linkreport

The Long Bridge Replacement the key component of VRE's plans, but it's likely not enough.

Alternatives not only include a replacement 4-track bridge but also a tunnel under the Potomac. According to documents shown at the recent Long Bridge Study presentation in the District, even if the current bridge is replaced with a 4-track span, that bridge would be near capacity during peak travel in the year 2040 (Page 7 of the linked presentation).

http://longbridgeproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/pm3_1252013_presentation_boards.pdf

by Randall M. on Jan 30, 2014 1:36 pm • linkreport

It certainly is in VRE's future. The question is whether it is in it's near or distant future.

When ever I get depressed about MARC lagging behind its investment and development goals I only have to think of VRE to remind me it could be worse.

by Richard on Jan 30, 2014 1:56 pm • linkreport

$1.1 billion for Long Bridge? Ouch.

by orulz on Jan 30, 2014 2:02 pm • linkreport

I can only say: Yeay!

by Jasper on Jan 30, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

$1.1 billion for Long Bridge? Ouch.

Seems a bargain compared to unblocking Baltimore's bottlenecks.

Wish they could have kept the Shepards Crossing B&O bridge from WWII near Alexandria. That would have been wonderful to route freight over.

by Richard on Jan 30, 2014 2:20 pm • linkreport

Couldn't Metro do a tunnel under the Potomac (to meet up with a new station at Jefferson Memorial) and VRE run trains on the now-Yellow Line bridge?

by nbluth on Jan 30, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

Re: orulz.

$1.1 billion is about the middle of potential costs for most alternatives 2-5. Costs are based on the type of bridge (or tunnel) and the number of uses and width. The least expensive option is basically a new version of what exists now with 4 track ($424M - 556M) to the bells and whistles with a road, streetcars and ped\bike access ($1.104B - $1.410B) Alternative 6 is a tunnel, that's where costs explode to as high as $2.6B, depending on method.

by Randall M. on Jan 30, 2014 2:35 pm • linkreport

Couldn't Metro do a tunnel under the Potomac (to meet up with a new station at Jefferson Memorial) and VRE run trains on the now-Yellow Line bridge?

Would certainly cost more than $1.1 billion.

by Richard on Jan 30, 2014 2:38 pm • linkreport

Fairfax County has recommended partially funding a Third Rail between Springfield and Woodbridge for the NVTA FY2014-FY2016 call for projects.

by mcs on Jan 30, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

@ nbluth - Yellow bridge likely was not built to carry weight of freight trains, or VRE trains fully loaded. Also, Yellow bridge is only 2 tracks, so that wouldn't help this issue.

by JDC on Jan 30, 2014 2:52 pm • linkreport

Glad to see VRE's new System Plan getting some attention on here. I've been a huge supporter of a Gainesville-Haymarket extension as it's been in the planning stages for years. Definitely would like to see it come sooner but like with Metro, it seems that capacity and river crossing challenges need to be addressed before further expansion.

Like others have stated though, without dedicated funding I think even an early 2020s goal for Long Bridge and Gainesville work starting up might be too idealistic. The extension is getting meager funds from NVTA, I believe $5 million or so to continue environmental studies and such.

With that said, the near-term goals of newer and additional cars and reverse/weekend trains is something to be happy about.

by Joe on Jan 30, 2014 3:03 pm • linkreport

Sign me up as in favor of the Long Bridge alternative that basically rebuilds the bridge as-is, in a 4-track configuration. $500 million seems more reasonable, given that it includes quad tracking all the way to Alexandria as well as improvements to the Alexandria, L'Enfant Plaza, and Crystal City stations.

Electrification at least as far as Alexandria would be nice too, so that MARC Penn Line trains could stop at those three stations as well. This should not be too difficult, since historically, electrification went as far south as Potomac Yards. Build the new bridge to accommodate it, but maybe count the actual electrification as a separate project.

Whatever benefits gained by a monstrously expensive tunnel are almost certainly not worth the 5-6x increase in costs. What are those supposed benefits anyway?

by orulz on Jan 30, 2014 3:23 pm • linkreport

Is there any way to get CSX to pay part of the construction costs of the Long Bridge as part of the conditions of Virginia Ave tunnel construction?

Also, how would the various proposals to re-route the CSX trains in the District affect VRE service?

by 202_cyclist on Jan 30, 2014 3:36 pm • linkreport

I would gladly take the VRE on a day trip to Fredericksburg, and maybe even Manassas.
As for the $1+ billion alternate for a rail+highway+streetcar+ped/bike bridge, I wonder why they bothered when there's already 8 highway lanes, Metro and a ped/bike path on the adjacent bridges.

by John H on Jan 30, 2014 3:55 pm • linkreport

I like this news. I hope they include a pedestrian/bicycle lane on the new Long Bridge.

by likedrypavement on Jan 30, 2014 4:02 pm • linkreport

Is there any way to get CSX to pay part of the construction costs of the Long Bridge as part of the conditions of Virginia Ave tunnel construction?
Also, how would the various proposals to re-route the CSX trains in the District affect VRE service?

CSX owns the current long bridge. They will certainly pay for part of the upgrade. The problem is that currently they are less incentivied to do so as they can make use of the capacity outside of rush hour. Increasing capacity, speed, safety and reducing congestion all interest them, but there are a lot of other places they would rather spend their money so they will not be shouldering the burden alone. The expansion/replacement is mostly to expand transit services and that is going to be who ends up paying most of it.

The various pies in the sky to reroute freight traffic outside DC all suggest building a parallel line for freight, either just around downtown or all the way to the south. Massively expensive as they are, CSX is not going to undertake them without public funding. Any deal would probably involve the purchase of the current long bridge from CSX though. If it didn't, CSX would probably be interested in selling the infrastructure cheap, to get the maintenance costs off it's books. If this were to come to pass, Amtrak is the likely buyer. Amtrak might be more agreeable to renting space to VRE than CSX, but you can see with MARC around Baltimore that sharing track with Amtrak is little better than CSX.

by Richard on Jan 30, 2014 4:05 pm • linkreport

Will the third rail threaten the viability of extending the Blue Line along the same ROW?

by BTA on Jan 30, 2014 4:32 pm • linkreport

Will the third rail threaten the viability of extending the Blue Line along the same ROW?

South of Springfield down to Lorton?

Probably not physically, there are not that many bridges on the route and the ROW is probably rather wide in most parts.

Now if VRE became wonderful, with hourly service all day and on weekends and 15 minute headways during rush hour, then that would probably kill the idea of extending the blue line next to it for a long while.

by Richard on Jan 30, 2014 4:44 pm • linkreport

Long Bridge would be an excellent candidate for a pedestrian/bicycle component. I think it would quickly become the preferred crossing point in the city.

by NikolasM on Jan 30, 2014 4:44 pm • linkreport

Long bridge alternatives: I think the planners often put in several really expensive alternatives in studies like this, just so they can eliminate the most expensive ones in the down-select to help sell the mid-priced reasonable alternative in the political process. See, we are cutting the price!

There is absolutely no reason to have a road on the replacement for the Long bridge. I expect the cost review process will end up choosing a 4 track bridge with a ped/bike lane on the side. The debate will be over whether the new bridge should have a 2 track streetcar line as well, which will be driven by whether DC and Arlington/Alexandria are ready to commit to a connecting streetcar system. The result may be to not build to streetcar platform, but to design the new bridge and ROW to reserve space and have support structures for adding a 2 track streetcar platform in the (distant) future. If that selected alternative has a $500 to $600 million price tag, should be able to put together a joint funding package with contributions from VA, MD, CSX, DC, and FTA, FRA grants.

by AlanF on Jan 30, 2014 5:26 pm • linkreport

@John H:

And with Gainesville-Haymarket service, a day trip out there doesn't sound so crazy either. Haymarket is currently in the middle of a streetscape project that extends sidewalks and is putting in on-street bike lanes, while the Atlas Walk and Promenade sections of the VA Gateway center are very pedestrian friendly. Gainesville has wanted a theater and good restaurants for years and finally got some starting this past fall. Not saying a ton of people would take the opportunity to do it but I'm sure some from the Manassas/Manassas Park area would.

by Joe on Jan 30, 2014 5:42 pm • linkreport

You know where else it would be nice to make day trips to on a train? Frederick. But we don't see MARC doing much about making that a reality.

by Ned on Jan 30, 2014 5:49 pm • linkreport

@Richard
I've wondered why the Shepards crossing couldn't be put back in place.
After all the "alexandria branch" was built with that crossing in mind.

by scratchy on Jan 30, 2014 8:17 pm • linkreport

"Alternatives not only include a replacement 4-track bridge but also a tunnel under the Potomac. According to documents shown at the recent Long Bridge Study presentation in the District, even if the current bridge is replaced with a 4-track span, that bridge would be near capacity during peak travel in the year 2040 (Page 7 of the linked presentation)."

Honestly, I'm completely flabbergasted as to how they can consider a bridge with 7 trains per direction per hour at capacity.

by comradefrana on Jan 31, 2014 7:31 am • linkreport

Another problem with the Long Bridge isn't just capacity, but that with CSX being its owner they reserve the right to give priority for passage to their freight trains. Any new bridge would hopefully involve dedicated tracks for passenger service.

by Joe on Jan 31, 2014 8:14 am • linkreport

According to the January Board minutes, A college student in VA has started a petition to get VRE to offer weekend service. He stated that other commuter rails in the country offer weekend service, such as Boston, Chicago & New York. IT would benefit Virginia residents. You can read it here: http://www.vre.org/about/Ops_board_items/2014/January/VRE%20Minutes%2001-17-14.pdf

VRE has always focused on weekday rush hour service

by Davin Peterson on Jan 31, 2014 8:22 am • linkreport

@ Richard:Will the third rail threaten the viability of extending the Blue Line along the same ROW?

South of Springfield down to Lorton?

Probably not physically, there are not that many bridges on the route and the ROW is probably rather wide in most parts.

I certainly hope so. The Blue Line should not go further south. That should be the Yellow Line (along US-1 to Potomac Hell to start). The Blue Line should be continued along the Fairfax County Parkway, VA123, GMU, Fairfax City, cross the extended Orange Line at Oakton and finish at Wolf Trap or even Great Falls.

by Jasper on Jan 31, 2014 8:56 am • linkreport

@Richard @Jasper

And of all the lines we've got, the Blue is without a doubt the one most in need of core expansion (e.g. new Potomac crossing) before line extension. Have you seen the crush loads on those trains as it is?!

by LowHeadways on Jan 31, 2014 9:37 am • linkreport

Well Metro has already said that any further extensions would need to be predicated upon building a new seperated blue line downtown, so I just assumed that that was a given. And if that were the case it would essentially double capacity on the blue making it a pretty good fit for extending. For the record Orange and Red have higher ridership than Blue, the problem is the shared track and not enough frequency (which will only be slightly fixed by adding more 8 car trains). It's also one of the system extensions they specifically reference in Momentum, probably because of the existing ROW.

by BTA on Jan 31, 2014 9:57 am • linkreport

@Richard/scratchy:

The problem with reinstitution of a Shepards crossing is that, on the DC side, the old tracks go THROUGH Blue Plains, Bolling AFB, and are now occupied in part by the Anacostia streetcar track. Meanwhile, on the Alexandria side, you have Tide Lock Park and a couple high-rises along the former rail path, nevermind that there's no way to restore a "Wye" on the Virginia side without demolishing part of Potomac Green.

by Froggie on Jan 31, 2014 10:11 am • linkreport

Honestly, I'm completely flabbergasted as to how they can consider a bridge with 7 trains per direction per hour at capacity.

pretty easily actually. If you let MARC across the river... you are going to have 2 VRE, 2 MARC, 2 Amtrak right now. Ideally during rush hour it would be 4 VRE, 4 MARC and 2 Amtrak.

by Richard on Jan 31, 2014 10:16 am • linkreport

Right, but I think the issue is, how can the bridge be considered "at capacity" with one train rumbling by every eight and a half minutes? Can't they run more often than that?

by MLD on Jan 31, 2014 11:48 am • linkreport

I'm assuming that CSX is in control of the signals, and knowing that freight railroads prefer to have longer singal blocks, the capacity limit seems reasonable. You can shorten signal blocks to increase train frequency and capacity, but that's not something that a freight railroad will be interested in.

The key with the Long Bridge replacement won't just be to 4-track the span, but to essentially make 2 tracks dedicated for CSX freight and 2 dedicated for Amtrak and Commuter Rail. Allow the passenger tracks to be signaled more tightly, electrified, and maintained to higher speed standards while making use of the same right of way that already exists.

by Alex B. on Jan 31, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

"The key with the Long Bridge replacement won't just be to 4-track the span, but to essentially make 2 tracks dedicated for CSX freight and 2 dedicated for Amtrak and Commuter Rail. Allow the passenger tracks to be signaled more tightly, electrified, and maintained to higher speed standards while making use of the same right of way that already exists."

Even if we assume 2 dedicated tracks for freight and 2 dedicated tracks for passengers, the study's expected capacity of 62 passenger trains throughout the peak translate to less than 11 trains/h/direction.

With the speed differential of trains being limited by: a)there being only one station between Union station and the Arlington side of Potomac (L'Enfant plaza) b) the very sharp curve the station is near, which has little potential of straightening and c) commuter rolling stock generally having better acceleration than intercity trains, the capacity should really be much bigger than that.

by comradefrana on Jan 31, 2014 5:00 pm • linkreport

the capacity should really be much bigger than that.

I don't disagree, but I don't know how much we can infer from one slide of a presentation without much context.

What does seem clear, however, is that the current 2-track bridge is insufficient.

by Alex B. on Jan 31, 2014 5:12 pm • linkreport

Hi everyone! If you are interested in having "reverse-flow" and weekend VRE service, please sign the petition I started on MoveOn.org! I presented at the Board Meeting mentioned in this article right before they approved the plan (January 17th). The Board Members told me that the more support they have from the community, the better chances they have of funding VRE to run on weekends/reverse-flow! Here is the link: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/nvtc-and-rptc-add-rush

by Maxime Devilliers on Feb 1, 2014 4:24 pm • linkreport

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