Greater Greater Washington

Maryland's MARC and Virginia's VRE talk about integrating commuter rail service

Officials from the MARC and VRE commuter rail systems started discussing how to run trains from one state to the other through DC, instead of stopping all trains at Union Station, NBC reports. This is an important step on a long road (or track?) toward a better regional transit system.


Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

In the segment, reporter Adam Tuss explains that while there are a lot of obstacles, there are also big benefits. "Those improvements could mean as much as two lanes of rush hour traffic on Interstate 95 or 66 could be shifted to the rails," he says.

Commuters from Maryland could ride past Union Station to Crystal City, Alexandria, Fort Belvoir, or other job centers. Or they could transfer at L'Enfant Plaza to the Orange, Blue, Yellow, and Green lines to reach jobs in many parts of Virginia, DC, and Maryland. Meanwhile, Virginia commuters could ride to Rockville, Fort Meade, Baltimore, and more.

As Tuss also notes, a lot of obstacles remain. Matt Johnson outlined some of the hurdles in two posts. They include:

The railcars and platforms aren't compatible. VRE uses low platforms and its cars can only access low platforms. MARC has a lot of high platforms and cars that can access both. Over time, VRE could buy compatible equipment, but until then, the only through-running possible is for MARC to send trains to Virginia, and maybe VRE could run on the Brunswick Line. Which is a good start.

The tracks don't line up. The problem with VRE on the Brunswick Line (the one that goes to Frederick) is that the Brunswick Line tracks come into Union Station on the west end, while the tunnel to Virginia is on the east end. Trains can cross over, but they would block all of the other lines as they do, delaying other trains.

There aren't enough tracks. There are 2 tracks on the Long Bridge across the Potomac, and 3 through L'Enfant Plaza. CSX controls the tracks, and lets VRE use some space on them, but only a limited amount. Except for one reverse-direction VRE train and a few Amtrak trains, all of the passenger trains go north in the morning on one track, and south in the evening. There are plans to add tracks (and platforms) at L'Enfant and a study going on for the Long Bridge, but more tracks are years and many dollars away.

There aren't enough platforms. The L'Enfant and Crystal City stations have just one platform, on one side of the tracks. These stations would have to be rebuilt with platforms for both directions for MARC trains to usefully go to Virginia.

But all of these are engineering obstacles which just require some time and money to solve. If the project can substitute for widening I-95 or I-66 and one or more Potomac River bridges by two lanes, that's a huge gain, and the equivalent highway project would be very expensive as well.

With through-running and more trains on MARC and VRE lines, the commuter rail lines could even act as a sort of express train alternative for Metro. Add in some of the new transit projects being proposed, the region's heavy rail system could conceivably one day look something like this map I made five years ago:

While it might take years, it's worth starting now. MARC and VRE (and DC, and Amtrak, and the federal government) should be talking regularly to develop a comprehensive plan for how to make this happen. Then the jurisdictions can start working to fund and design them piece by piece.

MARC and VRE are now stepping up. DC Councilmember Mary Cheh also put $500,000 from the District budget to help develop a regional commuter rail plan. This is a good time, because CSX wants permission to enlarge its Virginia Avenue tunnel through DC; that gives the public leverage to demand CSX also cooperate with projects to add commuter rail service.

It can be extremely hard to get multiple states to coordinate transit plans, but if officials in the various jurisdictions can agree on a way forward, we can all start pushing to make an intergrated commuter rail system a reality.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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This is a no brainer if the private companies can agree. Its win win for riders for sure and brings a more holistic approach to boosting alternatives to vehicle driving. Now, its time to start making VRE/MARC more reliable and more frequent.

by Navid Roshan on May 16, 2014 10:41 am • linkreport

The hurdles are gonna be tough, but I think potential benefit far outweighs the logistics

by Navid Roshan on May 16, 2014 10:42 am • linkreport

Please, please, please?

But, to that. Much like we need to make our bus/train transfers more rational we should look into making fares between WMATA and MARC/VRE more compatible. Even if it's just the small step of making it smarttrip compatible somehow.

Maybe you just tap/add at the validating machine and it spits out a validated ticket?

by drumz on May 16, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

Bout time we started thinking about this. I especially like the pink line. Talk about low hanging fruit.

by Thayer-D on May 16, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

MARC has been planning through-running to Alexandria for about 7 years now, but the only serious obstacle to implementing it (besides $$$) are the capacity issues mentioned above, both on the Long Bridge and CSX ROW in general. Electrified Penn Line trains also wouldn't be able to travel south of WAS, but MARC will be switching to all-diesel service in the future (unfortunately). However, according to the Growth & Investment Plan the Penn Line extension to Elkton and Newark, DE will prior to the MARC extension to NoVa.

As for VRE using MARC trackage that probably won't happen for a very, very long time (if ever). As stated above, VRE (like most smaller commuter railroads) uses exclusively low-platforms, and their current equipment cannot be used on the Penn Line, Camden Line, or Frederick Branch of the Brunswick Line. Since VRE's gallery cars are practically brand new , it'll be at least two decades before they consider replacing them, and frankly the current configuration is more efficient for their railroad than a car-type that can serve high-platforms as well. VRE used to railcars that could serve high-platforms, but they sold them to CDOT and MARC respectively.

In addition to the platform incompatibility, the VRE gallery cars also can't fit into the B&P tunnel in Baltimore (which at this point looks like it will remain in service another 10+ years) anyways.

Finally, the demand for running VRE trains through is tepid at best currently. Besides Silver Spring (the most viable destination by far), which is a single Red Line trip away from Union Station, the commuter rail accessible employment centers are pretty small compared to Alexandria/the Pentagon. As for Baltimore and Fort Meade, I just don't see that many commuters working that far away from home. The point about trains crossing over to the Brunswick Line should be a minor scheduling issue. VRE trains already do it to get to the storage yard anyway (which is adjacent to the CSX Metro. Sub/MARC Brunswick Line access track).

by King Terrapin on May 16, 2014 11:08 am • linkreport

King Terrapin:

To your last point - a thought. BWI is also on MARC. Which means that concievably someone who uses VRE could take a train all the way to the airport, which would be huge. (All that remains is to expand service hours to the BWI stop...but that would certainly be a viable option. no?)

Also, a little quibble - you mention Fort Belvoir in the post. I don't think there's a VRE station that serves the Fort - or am I missing something?

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on May 16, 2014 11:11 am • linkreport

As we discussed earlier the low hanging fruit is MARC Penn line to L'Enfant, Crystal City, and Alexandria. With the Long Bridge study moving ahead, it absolutely makes sense for MARC and VRE to start discussing the issues now, Through running MARC Penn onto VRE is a logical way to leverage the investment in Long Bridge. Hopefully the other issues can be resolved by the time the new Long Bridge is open. If they can also get Franconia-Springfield and Fort Bevoir, so much the better.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 16, 2014 11:14 am • linkreport

by Adam L on May 16, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

VRE could use the Brunswick and Camden lines without too much trouble. Greenbelt and Camden would need low platforms, but they both have room for this.

by Richard on May 16, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity: How would they do Belvoir, do you think? I should think there would be security issues, more so than with a transit line. More to the point, though...I'm not sure the VRE line even runs near there - they might need to build out an entire line.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on May 16, 2014 11:25 am • linkreport

Perhaps the best news is that this really is just a technical issue. Compare with New York City where there actually are no technical issues whatsoever; in fact, they already run through trains for football games. The only thing there that keeps it from happening are the separate political fiefdoms of NJT, LIRR, and Metro North.

It seems there probably should be enough space to construct a flyover that would allow trains from the Brunswick Line to enter on the opposite side of Union Station?

by orulz on May 16, 2014 11:27 am • linkreport

Another problem is that MARC would not be able to use it's electric locomotives in Virginia, as there are no electric lines above the tracks in Virginia.

It's been talked about MARC stopping at VRE's L'Enfant Plaza station.

by Davin Peterson on May 16, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

Also, MARC's Kawasaki railcars can be used in Virginia, as VRE used to have them. All they would have to do is reconfigure the trap door. MARC has the same locomotives as VRE

by Davin Peterson on May 16, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

It seems there probably should be enough space to construct a flyover that would allow trains from the Brunswick Line to enter on the opposite side of Union Station?

Perhaps around Noma? There are a lot of plans for decking over large parts of the approaches to Union station

by Richard on May 16, 2014 11:35 am • linkreport

@orulz
Compare with New York City where there actually are no technical issues whatsoever; in fact, they already run through trains for football games.

1. There is only through service on one line - the Metro North Line whose trains can run on catenary (overhead wires) and third rail power.
2. There are plenty of technical issues - NJT uses catenary, LIRR and Metro-North both use third rail but their systems are incompatible. LIRR uses top-riding contact shoes and Metro-North uses a wacky contact shoe on the bottom of the rail system that only a couple other places uses. It is stupid.

by MLD on May 16, 2014 11:41 am • linkreport

@ Ser Amantio di Nicolao

Running through trains to BWI would be a good idea, but there's still plenty of technical challenges.

@ Richard

There's little demand for commuters travelling past Silver Spring (or Rockville) on the Brunswick Line. The Camden Line has very little reverse flow demand as well. When I reverse commuted to College Park there were just 1 or 2 people who would take advantage of the free MARC-VRE cross-honoring agreement.

It wouldn't make any sense to build low platforms at either Greenbelt or Camden Station since that would be a step backwards in efficiency and accessibility for MARC (not to mention it would probably violate ADA requirements).

by King Terrapin on May 16, 2014 11:41 am • linkreport

It wouldn't make any sense to build low platforms at either Greenbelt or Camden Station since that would be a step backwards in efficiency and accessibility for MARC (not to mention it would probably violate ADA requirements).

MARCs long term plans seem to be high platforms on the Penn and low platforms on camden and Brunswick.

Camden has 3-4 tracks, making one of them low wouldn't affect anything. Greenbelt is a mess, solution dont have any VRE trains stop at Greenbelt(which will be sad as there is so much demand there)

by Richard on May 16, 2014 11:48 am • linkreport

Overdue. We need to think like the megalopolis we are and get over these pesky state boundaries. Maybe it's time NoVa and MD start thinking about forming a single state.

by Redline SOS on May 16, 2014 11:50 am • linkreport

About time...While the following idea will probably never happen, it might be wise to combine MARC and VRE into a single capitol region commuter rail agency to combine resources and avoid any cooperation issues between the two. 'All diesel' service seems like a step backward. While it would make all equipment available for use on any line, it undermines the high speed, high frequency service that MARC has the opportunity to provide on the electrified Penn line, especially way down the road when infrastructure improvements allow for higher capacity. Also, would there really be any savings when all the long rush hours trains require two diesels to pull them?

While a SEPTA Regional Rail comparison may be 'apples to oranges', it's one worth making: one agency that provides service to three states, and running through downtown Philadelphia between all of its lines. It's far from perfect, but very convenient, and I think DC area residents could benefit even more from through running between MD and VA.

by northeast transplant on May 16, 2014 11:50 am • linkreport

@ Davin Peterson

MARC will be retiring their 10 electric locomotives over the next few years which is, imho, actually a step backwards

@ orulz

Through running commuter rail in this nation (among the relatively few large jurisdictions where it would be feasible in the first place) is pretty rare, even when it doesn't involve different jurisdictions. Only SEPTA seems to manage to do it well although the original PRR and Reading lines remained separate.

Take Boston for instance, where the need for through running is most obvious. Despite years and years of talking and planning, there is still no (commuter rail) connection between North and South station. New York, as you mentioned, is another perfect example. Besides the handful of Sunday-only football trains, there is no through running at all (unless you count NJT running MNR's two lines to Hoboken). The East Side Access project will help somewhat though.

Because of all the political, technical, and cost/benefit challenges, I doubt through-running will happen in the DC Area on the large scale that others are hoping for. The most likely extension will be MARC service to Alexandria when capacity issues are resolved, which will take at least 5+ years.

by King Terrapin on May 16, 2014 11:58 am • linkreport

East Side Access is probably the poster child for how short-sighted and parochial these railroads can be. Grand Central has more platforms than any other rail station in the world, and yet ESA is building an entire NEW station under it just for the LIRR trains instead of figuring out how to share GCT's huge capacity.

by MLD on May 16, 2014 12:04 pm • linkreport

@Richard

"Camden has 3-4 tracks, making one of them low wouldn't affect anything. Greenbelt is a mess, solution dont have any VRE trains stop at Greenbelt(which will be sad as there is so much demand there)"

MARC has 3 platforms at Camden station all of which are in use. Converting a high platform to a low platform affects boarding and alighting times dramatically, especially at a busy terminal station like Camden, and reduces accessibility for the disabled. Theoretically, you might be able to fit an additional low platform on the far western side of the station, but it would be very narrow.

by King Terrapin on May 16, 2014 12:07 pm • linkreport

Instead of investing many millions (billions?) for a very much long-run project in creating one ridiculously long train ride, would it make more sense to invest money in seriously improving service for both MARC and VRE service now and going forward?

If trains run often enough and there is a convenient transfer in Union Station or L'Enfant Plaza, you could probably service anyone interested in traveling between Laurel, Columbia or Baltimore and Alexandria.

While there are a lot of people traveling to and fro on the Beltway and 95, I don't know that the major obstacle to commuting by train is the transfers. I am sure a direct train ride would be more attractive, but is the return worth the considerable extra investment? Both VRE and MARC are very disappointing services that would be extremely valuable pieces if they could be improved. Having said that, if there is relatively small marginal difference in the cost of such upgrades and the investment in unifying the ride at the same time, then I'd be for the latter. I just wouldn't want that to delay or derail efforts to improve each service individually.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on May 16, 2014 12:12 pm • linkreport

Instead of investing many millions (billions?) for a very much long-run project in creating one ridiculously long train ride, would it make more sense to invest money in seriously improving service for both MARC and VRE service now and going forward?

The point isn't that people want to take a ridiculously long train ride, it's that through-running would allow people to go beyond Union Station, and would improve operational efficiency and capacity.

The big benefit to commuters would be connecting MARC riders to the other 4 Metro lines @ L'Enfant Plaza. The benefit to the rail agencies is that they can turn trains in less-crowded places which is faster. And Union Station will have more capacity since trains are running through it rather than taking up a platform stopping and turning.

by MLD on May 16, 2014 12:20 pm • linkreport

The future for all of these railroads will be high platforms. Amtrak's Union Station master plan calls for all tracks but three to have high platforms. VRE's rolling stock can easily be retrofitted or sold to another operator in the US with low-platform operations.

The future for all of these passenger operations ought to be high platform, electrified, frequent transit service, not just peak-heavy commuter rail.

None of the technical hurdles are insurmountable. And they won't matter at all unless there is agreement on the broader objectives from the operators, which is why this is such good news to hear.

The next steps would be to bring other railroads on board. Amtrak can be a partner in electrification, the freight railroads must be on board for infrastructure improvements as well.

by Alex B. on May 16, 2014 12:23 pm • linkreport

MLD and Fischy: Also, VRE needs the added capacity to run 2-way service anyway; if they do that, then that gets you a long way toward letting MARC trains continue to L'Enfant, Crystal City, and Alexandra. And yes, that is the most obvious goal and a win for Maryland, Virginia, and DC (since Virginians can use the MARC trains, and it will help boost jobs in places like Crystal City; everyone will also benefit from less crowding on the Red Line and fewer transfers at Gallery Place and Metro Center when people can ride MARC to L'Enfant.)

by David Alpert on May 16, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

Fischy makes a good point. It seems like VRE/MARC's bigger issue is lack of frequency than the lack of a single site ride from MD to VA. VRE needs Saturday service and both systems need better frequencies.

While there is a huge need for additional transportation capacity between MD and VA, that needs is more along the SS/Bethesda to Tysons route than the route that MARC to VRE will take. Transferring at Union Station doesn't take MARC/VRE riders out of their way. Transferring at Metro Center to go from SS/Bethesda to Tysons is so far out of the way that it's impractical for many people.

Also, the transfer at Union Station wouldn't be so bad if frequencies were greater (which should be the priority for additional funding). Maybe schedules could be adjusted to make the transfer easier too.

by Falls Church on May 16, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

@MLD -- I heartily agree about extending MARC to L'Enfant. As it is now, Union Station is a cluster-youknowwhat for commuters trying to transfer to/from MARC and the Red Line. I know folks who take the Dillon Bus just to avoid that. It seems reasonable to assume that adding in a connection at L'Enfant would make MARC more attractive to some number of commuters. It doesn't follow that there's a great call to have the lines continue beyond that. If there is efficiency to be gained by having the trains turn around outside of the city, that's another matter though...and might justify the additional costs involved in new equipment and the total overhauls needed to make the systems compatible.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on May 16, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

MLD, Metro-North's third-rail system (whose trains' contact shoes run on the bottom surface of a suspended third rail) is more reliable in ice and snow since the rail's contact surface is much more likely to remain clean.

by Tom D on May 16, 2014 12:38 pm • linkreport

Political cooperation is probably the single biggest hurdle here though obviously the $ is far from nothing. Hopefully a combined rail master plan will be a definitive document and not just shelved until expedient. It's crazy that the combined Baltimore Washington CSA has 9+ million people but such weak transportation links.

by BTA on May 16, 2014 12:46 pm • linkreport

If the project can substitute for widening I-95 or I-66 and one or more Potomac River bridges by two lanes, that's a huge gain

Yeah, but you can move cars over a railroad, so VDOT won't count it as traffic.

by Jasper on May 16, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

It seems like VRE/MARC's bigger issue is lack of frequency than the lack of a single site ride from MD to VA. VRE needs Saturday service and both systems need better frequencies.

Don't think about the benefits of this from a rider's perspective, think about it from the operator's perspective.

Current commuter rail services are usually a) unidirectional - to downtown in the am, from downtown in the pm, and b) peak-oriented. This means both operators have to park their trains mid-day at the terminus (Union Station in this case). It's not really efficient to do so. This takes up a lot of space.

Unifying the operations of the two railroads is a key step towards improving operations. Through-running serivce makes more efficient use of the Union Station infrastructure. It's not that transferring is a pain for riders (though I would argue it's a much bigger pain than some here have implied), but that through-running will allow for more efficient operations. More efficient operations means it is easier to expand service, increase frequencies, etc.

Imagine what an operational nightmare it would be for Metro to terminate Red Line trains from both Shady Grove and Glenmont at Union Station, and then reverse them back out. It's much more efficient to keep running them through.

by Alex B. on May 16, 2014 12:54 pm • linkreport

"It seems reasonable to assume that adding in a connection at L'Enfant would make MARC more attractive to some number of commuters. It doesn't follow that there's a great call to have the lines continue beyond that. "

As we have discussed in the past, there isn't space for the turn around at L'Enfant. If you are going to run MARC to L'Enfant, you have to run to Va. So you might as well go to Crystal City, which is a major employment center and has lots of commuters from Maryland, if not so many as Tysons has. And if you are doing that how much more does it cost to go Alexandria, also an important employment center.

Its too bad this doesn't help Tysons. Tysons was terribly located for transit access, in constrast to Crystal City and Alexandria. We are already spending billions to retrofit transit into Tysons, to retrofit Tysons for transit. Maybe someday we will add rail from MoCo to Tysons, but thats a long way off, and it does not IMO make sense to delay this relatively low hanging fruit for that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 16, 2014 12:55 pm • linkreport

Alex B, so what you're saying is that it's not really possible to increase frequencies without through-running because otherwise Union Station is a bottleneck? If through-running is the best way to eventually get to increased frequency, then I guess it makes sense.

AWITC, I'd say the lowest hanging fruit is Saturday service for VRE. Saturday service has proved popular for MARC and considering that Saturday road traffic is worse in VA (especially on 95), I imagine it would be popular in VA. VRE already has the trains and track. They just need some extra people to run Saturday service.

by Falls Church on May 16, 2014 1:09 pm • linkreport

Well, actually extending MARC rail to an expanded L'Enfant station would help Tyson's in that it would facilitate an easy transfer to the Silver Line outbound. This would add passengers going against the main flow of commuters on the Silver Line, which means better utilization of an expensive line. There are many Maryland residents who could benefit from the improved access to Tysons and Reston this would permit. And I agree that this is the time, while CSX is asking for something, to extract something in return..agreement to add lines and electrification and assist with a new wider Long Bridge.

by Roe B. on May 16, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

Do people ride the MARC on Saturdays to avoid traffic (or to avoid parking hassles in DC?) My impression was that the main market for weekend MARC service was carfree folks in Baltimore City. There are not many carfree folks in the VRE corridors.

Anyway, if there is such a market, there's no problem with VRE pursuing that as well.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 16, 2014 1:20 pm • linkreport

How about reducing the demand on the long bridge by building a freight bypass along the route 301 corridor. The right of way is there, except the bridge.

by Jason on May 16, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

so what you're saying is that it's not really possible to increase frequencies without through-running because otherwise Union Station is a bottleneck? If through-running is the best way to eventually get to increased frequency, then I guess it makes sense.

No, it's possible to increase frequencies without through-running, but it's a much larger operational challenge and there are significant drawbacks to doing so.

The larger point is that the reason to merge operations isn't just about offering a longer one-seat ride.

by Alex B. on May 16, 2014 1:38 pm • linkreport

People probably ride MARC on Saturdays both to avoid traffic and avoid parking hassles. Those same reasons would apply to VRE riders.

VRE doesn't have the benefit of connecting to a major city like Baltimore at the other end of the line but Saturday traffic on 95 in VA is a lot worse than in MD.

Maybe Saturday service doesn't make sense but it's worth looking into the demand for something like that.

by Falls Church on May 16, 2014 1:41 pm • linkreport

The focus should be on a four track system (2 pass/2 freight) between the 1st street tunnel and just south of Alexandria. with expanded stations at L'Enfant and Crystal City. All other issues hinge on this being completed.

http://longbridgeproject.com/
Final Report - Winter 2014

by mcs on May 16, 2014 1:58 pm • linkreport

it might be wise to combine MARC and VRE into a single capitol region commuter rail agency
If only there were a transit authority for the Washington metropolitan area...!

But seriously. There are about 100 good ideas in this comment thread. Is there any plan where they all live?

If not, let's use the $500K that Councilmember Cheh is proposing to facilitate a conversation, similar to WMATA's Momentum process, among all the players - MARC, VRE, Amtrak, DC, WMATA, travelers, employers, destinations (like BWI), and communities (like BIDs) - and come up with a 30-year plan for the whole network. I know MARC has its plan, so does VRE, but is there a regional plan?

by Gavin on May 16, 2014 2:54 pm • linkreport

And I agree that this is the time, while CSX is asking for something, to extract something in return..agreement to add lines and electrification and assist with a new wider Long Bridge.

Just a reminder to all that the pesky 5th Amendment does not allow DC to extract (or exact) a wider Long Bridge in return for a permit to rebuild a tunnel. But there would no constitutional problem with forcing CSX to cooperate with a government-funded expansion.

by JimT on May 16, 2014 2:56 pm • linkreport

How about reducing the demand on the long bridge by building a freight bypass along the route 301 corridor. The right of way is there, except the bridge.

The ROW is currently single tracked and had 35+ at grade crossing on the MD side. On the VA side the ROW is currently the King George bike trail and would need to be repossessed, regraded, and retracked.
The bridge would need to be twice as long as the Long Bridge in DC and more complex to allow it to open for shipping.

Together that is many billions of dollars above and beyond what it would cost to replace the long bridge and make the whole CSX line through DC 4 tracks wide. I'm sure if the DC area ever came up with the money for either, CSX would be happy to allow more commuter service on it's track.

by Richard on May 16, 2014 2:56 pm • linkreport

Isn't the Virginia Ave tunnel specifically so CSX can run double stacks? Because if so, then you're never getting CSX to put wire on the Long Bridge. Double stacks are taller than anyone's pantographs can reach and there's stability problems with tall pantographs anyhow.

by Another Nick on May 16, 2014 3:25 pm • linkreport

There's no reason double-stacks and catenary wire can't coexist. It's not optimal for railway electrification and may require more clearance in spots, but it absolutely can work.

Here's a nice picture of CSX and SEPTA sharing track under wire:

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-1BbF3QiAd-0/Ui9YbpGk-8I/AAAAAAAACC4/Skzmp1iCK5Q/s1600/container+clear+elec+lines.jpg

by Alex B. on May 16, 2014 3:37 pm • linkreport

As King Terrapin and others point out MD demand to go into Virginia is probably higher than VA demand to go to Maryland (especially to places accessible via the Camden or Brunswick lines).

Let MARC go into VRE, let VRE riders transfer to MARC trains at low cost.

But yes, there are many issues wrt movement south of Union Station.

Ideally the CSX planning wrt the Virginia Tunnel could be leveraged to move this along.

2. wrt Alex B's comments, too bad when VRE was being developed, they didn't approach MARC then about just having one system.

I have written about this over the years, but my thoughts on the matter were shaped by Dan Malouff's earlier writings.

3. The big thing here is Amtrak and the plan to expand Union Station. That process should be used to also plan for substantive expansion and integration of regional railroad transportation.

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2012/08/dual-powered-diesel-electric-locomotive.html

the DC planning to expand L'Enfant Plaza and the Long Branch bridge planning is equally key.

by Richard Layman on May 16, 2014 3:47 pm • linkreport

If the tunnel modification increases the tonnage and as a result to emissions from diesel engines, probably could legally exact some electrification to cause an offsetting reduction in diesel emissions.

by JimT on May 16, 2014 3:53 pm • linkreport

Sorry:

If the tunnel modification increases the tonnage and, as a result, the emissions from diesel engines then DC probably could legally exact some electrification to cause an offsetting reduction in diesel emissions.

by JimT on May 16, 2014 3:53 pm • linkreport

With the current configuration of Union Station's lower-level platforms + First Street tunnel, what's the maximum number of trains per hour that could operate through Union Station's lower-level platforms during peak times? (I'd love to see a concrete number if anyone has one handy.)

Through-running MARC/VRE commuter trains makes sense, but with the expansion of Amtrak Northeast Corridor service to points south in Virginia and Amtrak's existing long-distance trains to Chicago, New Orleans, Florida, the lower-level platforms and the concourse gate areas that serve them are facing more and more commuter congestion.

Expanded regional commuter rail service and and expanded capacity for Union Station + First Street Tunnel + Long Bridge are very much related issues.

by Michael_G on May 16, 2014 4:25 pm • linkreport

@Michael_G

I don't know what the max capacity is per hour, but I count up to 12 Amtrak trains and 7 VRE trains going southbound on weekdays. The first leaves Union Station at 7:30 AM and the last one at 7:30 PM. So, currently, 19 trains go from Union Station to Alexandria in a 12 hour period. 13 of those 19 leave Union Station between 3:00 PM and 7:30 PM. That's approximately a train every 20 minutes in the evening rush.

by jh on May 16, 2014 4:49 pm • linkreport

@Michael_G:

[i]With the current configuration of Union Station's lower-level platforms + First Street tunnel, what's the maximum number of trains per hour that could operate through Union Station's lower-level platforms during peak times?[/i]

Probably about 15 in each direction - since the tunnels are pretty slow (I think it's 30 mph until the south portal, I might be wrong), it takes a couple minutes for trains to get through. Both tracks are signalled in both directions, so in theory you could push a few more peak direction trains out in exchange for forcing 15-20 minute gaps between opposing direction trains.

[i]Trains can cross over, but they would block all of the other lines as they do, delaying other trains.[/i]

This is an imaginary problem - any train going through a switch point fouls the whole switch, not just a crossing movement. There's little real difference because all trains go through the interlocking plant at the same speed regardless of the specific path through the switch points. Amtrak moves locomotives through here all the time in order to move diesels over to Ivy City Yard from the lower level tracks.

by Aaron Z. on May 16, 2014 5:35 pm • linkreport

Isn't the Virginia Ave tunnel specifically so CSX can run double stacks?

(I got italics right that time!)

Anyways, I'm pretty sure they also want to widen to two tracks. The current single-track tunnel is a huge bottleneck for CSX.

It's about making the tunnel wider and taller.

by Aaron Z. on May 16, 2014 5:52 pm • linkreport

@Aaron Z, @jh: Thanks. Another complicating variable is the idling time Amtrak trains going to/from Virginia/points south and the NEC need to switch locomotives to/from electric. That's usually a 25-30 minute turnaround, I think. It'd be great to electrify the CSX tracks south so that necrssary locomotive change won't impact Amtrak + MARC/VRE through-running operations at Union Station and lay the foundation for SE HSR between Richmond and Washington.

by Michael_G on May 16, 2014 5:55 pm • linkreport

Isn't the Virginia Ave tunnel specifically so CSX can run double stacks?
(I got italics right that time!)

Anyways, I'm pretty sure they also want to widen to two tracks. The current single-track tunnel is a huge bottleneck for CSX.

It's about making the tunnel wider and taller.

It's also about making it safer and cheaper to maintain

by Richard B on May 16, 2014 6:22 pm • linkreport

Thanks. Another complicating variable is the idling time Amtrak trains going to/from Virginia/points south and the NEC need to switch locomotives to/from electric. That's usually a 25-30 minute turnaround, I think. It'd be great to electrify the CSX tracks south so that necrssary locomotive change won't impact Amtrak + MARC/VRE through-running operations at Union Station and lay the foundation for SE HSR between Richmond and Washington.

It would be nice, but then how far to take the electrification. The only option I see is taking it all the way down to Richmond or Norfolk. Even then the trains heading to Charlottesville points west would still have to change at union station.

by Richard B on May 16, 2014 6:25 pm • linkreport

Another complicating variable is the idling time Amtrak trains going to/from Virginia/points south and the NEC need to switch locomotives to/from electric. That's usually a 25-30 minute turnaround, I think. It'd be great to electrify the CSX tracks south so that necrssary locomotive change won't impact Amtrak + MARC/VRE through-running operations at Union Station and lay the foundation for SE HSR between Richmond and Washington.

There are 8 lower level tracks - technically 9, but the far east track is a terminal track and doesn't go south. In general, Amtrak uses the west lower level track to store P42's that it's putting on the day's southbound trains. That leaves 7 available tracks on the lower level. Even if every train were to sit for 30 minutes at the platform, you'd still be able to keep trains going through at a rate of one every 10-15 minutes in each direction (one direction would have slightly better frequency at any given time since it's an odd number of tracks). That's not exactly perfect, but it's pretty good. In reality, the VRE trains usually sit for only 15, maybe 20 minutes.

If anything, the lower-level tracks actually see lower utilization than the upper level tracks, particularly at the AM peak when many Penn Line trains are arriving to the upper platforms.

As for electrification south of DC, it used to exist down to Potomac Yard (catenary supports are still there most of the way). The big barrier to better service south of DC is capacity on the CSX RF&P subdivision - even if the track speed is 150 mph, that means nothing if you're following a 50-60 mph (at best) freight train. Fortunately CSX has been investing in some capacity, but not nearly enough that passenger trains can avoid all freight interference.

by Aaron Z. on May 16, 2014 7:25 pm • linkreport

With the whole Union Station west and east tracks and the Long Bridge; has there ever been talk about adding a new Intercity/Commuter rail station or line/path in DC ?

Suchas the route CSX takes from Maryland to NE Washington to SE Washington near DC General & RFK to SW Washington to Virginia. If L'Enfant could get a hell of an upgrade you could skip Union Station. It would be a better transfer point with Five Lines (with Silver) instead of one at Union Station.

Why not build unified stations for all trains at Silver Spring, New Carrolton, Crystal City, Rockville, Alexandria/King Street & L' Enfant Plaza other major cities around the planet do.

Restructure the fare system; for example make all fares from Union Station to Rockville, New Carrolton, Silver Spring, College Park, Greenbelt, L'Enfant Plaza, Crystal City & King Street/Alexandria the same if its Metrorail, VRE or Marc.

Also how about renaming King Street/Old Town to just Alexandria to match the Amtrak/VRE station; New Carrolton Metro Station isn't called Lanham Metro after all.

by kk on May 17, 2014 1:56 am • linkreport

With the whole Union Station west and east tracks and the Long Bridge; has there ever been talk about adding a new Intercity/Commuter rail station or line/path in DC ?

Suchas the route CSX takes from Maryland to NE Washington to SE Washington near DC General & RFK to SW Washington to Virginia. If L'Enfant could get a hell of an upgrade you could skip Union Station. It would be a better transfer point with Five Lines (with Silver) instead of one at Union Station.

Any trains heading from VA to DC/MD have to take the long bridge

Any trains coming from Rockville/Silverspring have to come in on the west tracks into Union station, from there they could cross all the tracks, and get to the 1st street tunnel, but bypassing union station wouldn't really help matters.

The Camden line could skip union station, if took the hyattsville branch around and then into CSX's Virginia ave tunnel,assuming it gets upgraded, but currently it's a single track poorly maintained tunnel that is beyond capacity.

The Penn line comes in on the east tracks of union station and could continue to L'enfant through the 1st street tunnel easily.

But then why byepass union station? It has all the Amtrak connections, is already set up with all commuter trains coming there, and it has the red line. Soon it will have the H street car. Union station needs some improvements, but it's a fabulous piece of infrastructure and needs to be utilized.

by Richard B on May 17, 2014 10:42 am • linkreport

@ Richard B

Union Station is not a fabulous piece of infrastructure; it is a poor excuse for a train station when compared to stations in UK, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain even stations in Egypt and South Africa are better.

L'Enfant Plaza is at a better location overall than Union Station; it is near a highway, 5 lines of cities mass transit and more accessible to all parts of the city via a combination of car, bus and rail.

Almost every single major city (not American cities) have mutiple rail stations why not DC. If it was possible there should be stations at the following locations downtown (underground), one at L'Enfant Plaza, Ft Totten and one along CSX tracks East of the River in DC. Not because of development but because of accessibility. Union Station is quite hard to reach from some parts of DC.

It was nice when it was built but that was over 100 yrs ago and this stations needs to function more as a train station and less as a mall.

Also when it comes to Union Station and Amtrak so what many many stations around the planet don't serve intercity and commuter rail and function fine. Yes having some that serve all is nice but there is no requirement I didn't say replace all trains and divert them just ones that would not end at Union Station.

As I have said before Union Station needs to be gutted keep the facade but upgrade the hell out of the station. There is a lot of wasted space within the building that could be put to better use.

by kk on May 17, 2014 1:32 pm • linkreport

While it's true VRE's existing rolling stock isn't compatible with high platforms, this hardly seems like a major problem in anything but the shortest term. Through turning over the older cars in the fleet and growth, new cars could make up half the fleet in short-order, and alternating car types on each train would give plenty of access to both platform types with appropriate boarding procedures at the vast majority of platforms in a through-running system

by Mike on May 19, 2014 9:23 am • linkreport

Almost every single major city (not American cities) have mutiple rail stations why not DC. If it was possible there should be stations at the following locations downtown (underground), one at L'Enfant Plaza, Ft Totten and one along CSX tracks East of the River in DC. Not because of development but because of accessibility. Union Station is quite hard to reach from some parts of DC.

L'Enfant Plaza is not a terminal station. That's not to say that it can't be upgraded at that station, but it would be difficult if not impossible for it to become a real alternative or complement to Union Station. Not every station can be a major throughput. For all of its faults, Union Station will continue to be the primary rail station in the region because of its connectivity and facilities. A large passenger station is more than just platforms and tracks. You need railcar storage and shops, fuel facilities, Maintenance of Way (MoW) equipment, and other things. Without those things, you're a regular old passenger station. That's not to say it can't have frequent service and solid facilities, but it's not going to be a true "alternative" to Union Station. For better or worse, all DC-area passenger trains will go through Union Station.

The specific locations you mentioned mostly have transit access - L'Enfant Plaza needs to be expanded, but Fort Totten has a Red Line station and the Brunswick Line stops at Silver Spring. As for the other location, it would be difficult to add another VRE station west of L'Enfant Plaza, since the CSX tracks descend to cross under Maryland Ave. There's no room for a station there, and even then, lack of access to a Metro transfer (or at least one as convenient as at L'Enfant Plaza) would render it redundant from day one.

by Aaron Z. on May 19, 2014 10:29 am • linkreport

Union Station is not a fabulous piece of infrastructure; it is a poor excuse for a train station when compared to stations in UK, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain even stations in Egypt and South Africa are better.

L'Enfant Plaza is at a better location overall than Union Station; it is near a highway, 5 lines of cities mass transit and more accessible to all parts of the city via a combination of car, bus and rail.

Almost every single major city (not American cities) have mutiple rail stations why not DC. If it was possible there should be stations at the following locations downtown (underground), one at L'Enfant Plaza, Ft Totten and one along CSX tracks East of the River in DC. Not because of development but because of accessibility. Union Station is quite hard to reach from some parts of DC.

It was nice when it was built but that was over 100 yrs ago and this stations needs to function more as a train station and less as a mall.

Also when it comes to Union Station and Amtrak so what many many stations around the planet don't serve intercity and commuter rail and function fine. Yes having some that serve all is nice but there is no requirement I didn't say replace all trains and divert them just ones that would not end at Union Station.

As I have said before Union Station needs to be gutted keep the facade but upgrade the hell out of the station. There is a lot of wasted space within the building that could be put to better use.

L'enfant doesnt have the room to be a major rail hub. Yes it needs to be a stop on the commuter rail, but the main train station, you would have to put it entirely underground. And sure it is near a highway, but it's not like you can park there so what of it? Just for kiss and ride?

The cost of putting a major rail station under L'enfant to take advantage of the 2 metro lines(5 colors 2 tunnels) there could afford to add another metro line through the city that connects to union station.

Yes union station is aging, poorly planned, and in major need of upgrading. But it would cost far less to upgrade it than to build something new.

by Richard on May 19, 2014 10:30 am • linkreport

one other problem not mentioned is that VRE and MARC use different systems to comply with the Americans with Disabilites Act. while VRE could probably use the MARC tracks the MARC system would not work on VRE and would be out of compliance. this would also apply to MARC Brunswick line trains, they also would not comply at VRE stations.

by Bob on May 20, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

" There is a lot of wasted space within the building that could be put to better use."

There's a lot of wasted space on the mall. I mean...all that grass, just sitting there? You could fit at least 3 hotels, 2 malls, and a resort complex between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. How 'bout a roller coaster that would swoop down from 1/2 way up the monument to the WWII memorial?

by Davester on Aug 20, 2014 2:15 pm • linkreport

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