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Washington's rails, part 4: the long way 'round

In the earlier installments of this three-part series, I discussed Washington and Baltimore's rail networks, CSX's plans for upgrading their infrastructure in the region to handle taller trains, and projects for which Maryland has requested stimulus funding. Many of the comments referenced a study on detouring freight trains around Washington which completed by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in 2007.

NCPC views the presence of freight rail in downtown Washington as problematic for several reasons. Transporting hazardous materials by rail through the core of the city poses a security risk. Infrastructure constraints limit the movement of goods. And using historic street rights-of-way for railroads disrupts the urban fabric.The study looked at the feasibility of relocating freight rail to other corridors. The study team developed alternatives that would to mitigate the security concerns, eliminate impediments to the public's access to the Anacostia River, accommodate state-of-the-art railroad infrastructure, and enable expansion of freight and passenger rail capacity in the Washington region.

Because 99% of rail freight using tracks in the District is passing through, NCPC looked at ways to reroute trains around the District. The primary focus of the NCPC study was the northeast-south CSX freight line running from Baltimore (and points north) to Fredericksburg (and points south). While impacts to the line running toward Cumberland (and points west) were considered, that line was not the focus of the study. The report looked at a multitude of corridors, but excluded most as infeasible. The team narrowed the study to three finalists:

Each of the scenarios includes removing the CSX track between the Amtrak connection at 2nd Street SW and the Maryland border, including the Benning Rail Yard on the east shore of the Anacostia. All rail traffic going across the Long Bridge over the Potomac would use the First Street Tunnel and would pass through Union Station. All freight traffic would take the new bypass except for service to the Capitol Power plant, which would retain a spur. Here is a map showing the freight routes through DC in more detail.

DC Tunnel Alternative: This alternative represents the shortest detour for freight trains. It would construct a nine mile long twin-bore tunnel, with each bore capable of handling double-stack intermodal trains. The tunnel would start near where the CSX RF&P Subdivision crosses Four Mile Run at the Alexandria/Arlington border. It would cross under the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and would emerge where the CSX Alexandria Extension crosses the District/Maryland border. Trains would continue up the Alexandria Extension as they do today diverging at the wye at Hyattsville for trips to the Northeast or Mid-West. The Alexandria Extension, which is currently single-tracked, would need to be double-tracked under this alternative.

Indian Head Alternative: Under this alternative, a new 2.5 mile long bridge over the Potomac would be constructed between Arkendale, Virginia and the Maryland shore. In Maryland, the line would turn north and run parallel to the Potomac to the east of Indian Head. This new facility would connect the existing RF&P Subdivision just south of the Marine Corps base at Quantico to the formerly US Government-owned branch line between Indian Head and Waldorf.

At Waldorf, a new connection would be built to the Pope's Creek Secondary allowing trains to turn north toward Upper Marlboro. The Pope's Creek Secondary would need to be double-tracked all the way from Waldorf to old Bowie. From Bowie to Odenton, a new line would be constructed adjacent to the Amtrak Northeast Corridor (NEC). A connector to CSX's Capital Subdivision would be constructed parallel to and between the Patuxent River and Maryland Route 32. At it's intersection with the Capital Subdivision, a wye would allow trains to turn north toward Baltimore or south toward Washington, Cumberland, Pittsburgh, and points west.

Dahlgren Alternative: This proposal would require a new connection between the RF&P Subdivision south of Fredericksburg to the Dahlgren Branch. It would also require a reactivation of part of the abandoned section of the Dahlgren Branch in King George County, which is now a rail trail. Much of the alignment in King George would be a new alignment parallel to US Route 301. At Dahlgren, a new two-mile long railway drawbridge would be constructed near the US 301 Potomac Bridge. On the eastern shore of the Potomac, the new line would meet the Pope's Creek Secondary. From Morgantown to Bowie, the Pope's Creek Secondary would be double-tracked. The Dahlgren Alternative would follow the same Waldorf-Jessup alignment as the Indian Head route.

The DC Tunnel alignment has the highest cost of the three alternatives, likely costing between $4.7 and 5.3 billion. However, it yields the largest time savings. For general merchandise freight, trains would save 40 minutes in the Washington region. The Dahlgren alternative would cost $3.5 to 4.7 billion, and save 23 minutes, giving this alternative the smallest trip time benefit. The Indian Head route is cheapest, at an estimated $3.2 to 4.3 billion, and would save around 31 minutes. These trip times reflect trains moving along the east coast, not those traveling from south to northwest or from northeast to northwest.

For trains headed from the northeast to the northwest, little would change. With the Washington bottleneck removed, trains would face less delay approaching Washington, but they would still travel to within sight of Union Station before turning northwest. Trains coming from the south and turning to the northwest would follow a similar path to today's under the DC Tunnel alternative. Now, trains coming from the south and heading toward the midwest are saddled with a winding trip through the city (Alexandria to Capitol Hill to Deanwood to Hyattsville to Ivy City to Silver Spring). The other two alternatives increase the distance that trains must travel to make that trip. Instead of heading north as far as Hyattsville before turning south, south-northeast trains would have to head all the way to Jessup before turning toward Washington and the midwest.

Added by Matt
NCPC's plans are not funded, nor has an alternative been selected. It is unlikely that any of the bypasses would be operating before 2017 at the earliest.

<--Read last part | Read next part-->

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


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Just to clarify:
With the removal of the CSX track between the Amtrak Connection and the Maryland border, no freight trains would be crossing the Long Bridge except for those serving the Capitol Power Plant. No freight service would pass through the First Street Tunnel.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 9, 2009 11:43 am • linkreport

To me, the Dahlgren alternative seems like it would be the best when you consider all forms of rail transportation, rather than just the impact on freight rail. This would give the RF&P almost entirely over to passenger rail (VRE and Amtrak) from DC to Fredericksburg.

by orulz on Sep 9, 2009 12:19 pm • linkreport

Excellent post, with one notable omission: trains using the Norfolk Southern tracks coming up from Manassas and points west (B Line) or southwest (Piedmont Line, IIRC) would still have to use the Long Bridge and cross the Anacostia (NS has trackage rights on the CSX tracks between DC and Baltimore), so removing the CSX tracks between 2nd St and the Maryland line would crimp this.

by Froggie on Sep 9, 2009 12:23 pm • linkreport

Hmmm. Throwing an idea out there: What about a commuter service using those tracks from Waldorf up to Upper Marlboro, through Bowie, and into Union Station?

With track upgrades, you could still have freight and passenger rail intermixing, but that would offer some sort of commuter service to southern Maryland.

I'd be curious to see what kind of time that routing would take and if it would be fast enough to make sense, given the indirect routing. Even if routing all the way to DC isn't fast enough, it might make sense for, say, Waldorf to New Carrolton.

by Alex B. on Sep 9, 2009 12:28 pm • linkreport

You are correct that NS has trackage rights over the Long Bridge. Their trackage rights are actually on the NEC, but Amtrak restricts freight trains speeds and the time of day they can travel. That's why most NS freight goes around the really long way (up the B Line and then through Hagerstown and Harrisburg).

However, the NCPC plan calls for the removal of tracks through Capitol Hill, period. NS trains would be expected to use the freight bypass as well.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 9, 2009 12:28 pm • linkreport

What about retaining the use of those Capitol Hill tracks for some sort of passenger service? Hell, even if it's a storage yard for MARC and VRE trains during the day - we know they're short on space at Union Station. The Benning Yard might be a good location.

by Alex B. on Sep 9, 2009 12:38 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.
NCPC is of the opinion that railroads are "an industrial land use which is incompatible" with urban Washington. As far as they're concerned, we can't get rid of the Benning Yard fast enough.

They want to use the land currently occupied by tracks for redevelopment and they want to remove impediments to public access to the Anacostia.

Honestly, however, I'll be surprised if we really ever see the back end of the Alexandria Extension. If nothing else, it's a relief valve for a blockage of the bypass, and it presents a shorter route for some trains. The railroads aren't going to give up these tracks without a fight, even if they get the shiny new bypass.

Besides, CSX's National Gateway will remove most of the Washington Bottlenecks anyway. With improvements to the Virginia Avenue Tunnel and the Alexandria Extension, they have less incentive to route trains through Waldorf.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 9, 2009 12:44 pm • linkreport

this is all very fascinating. who would pay for the improvements?

by charlie on Sep 9, 2009 12:47 pm • linkreport

That was exactly my thought. If CSX ponies up the money to increase the clearance on the VA Ave tunnel and adds another track, why would they then abandon that for a longer bypass? I can't see that coming to pass.

I could see them shifting most traffic on that new bypass if a good portion of the tab were picked up by the government - in exchange for space in the Benning Yard, etc.

The NCPC is right that railroads are industrial, but removing those tracks won't remove the barriers that separate River Terrace from the rest of the East of the River neighborhoods, or Capitol Hill from Near Southeast - not unless they have the money to tear out the SE/SW and Anacostia Freeways, too.

Anyway - my basic premise is that we shouldn't give up any rail resources or ROWs unless we're absolutely sure they won't serve a purpose in future transportation needs...

by Alex B. on Sep 9, 2009 12:54 pm • linkreport

Good point Alex, we should hold on to all our our rail right of ways. It makes future transit decisions much easier and affortable. Think of all the routes we could have now if we did not give up so many of them over the last century.

by matt on Sep 9, 2009 2:37 pm • linkreport

Matt and Alex, by "we" do you mean "the rail companies"? Rail ROWs are owned by rail companies. If they stop using them they may revert to the underlying property owners, not to the government (US/state/local).

by ah on Sep 9, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

If the rail companies stop using their property, the government can purchase the land, as has been done with plenty of rails to trails programs.

I'm not sure who the land would revert to. Most ROWs are owned free and clear. Neighboring owners might try to claim adverse possession on parts of the ROW, but that wouldn't stop the government from simply taking the land via eminent domain proceedings.

by Alex B. on Sep 9, 2009 3:15 pm • linkreport

Now for the reaction from people along the new route.

We need to find a solution so that we would not have to ship the chemicals all over the damn place; if a train derails or crash in DC it will f**k up DC and if it derails in MD it will f**k up MD neither is good and others getting a rail line placed somewhere near them whether it be upon new tracks or old tracks that haven't been used in 40, 50 or 100 years is still bad there is nothing good about it moving the tracks anywhere your just pushing the problem onto someone else.

It doesn't matter where the train goes it will eventually derail or crash and there will be some type of spill, people and property will get hurt which should not be the case.

by kk on Sep 9, 2009 3:48 pm • linkreport


A chemical spill would be a mess regardless of the location. The whole point in moving those cargoes away from the Capitol and DC is that a chemical spill in Maryland is a Maryland issue, while a chemical spill within shouting distance of the Capitol is a national issue.

by Alex B. on Sep 9, 2009 3:55 pm • linkreport

Alex, many ROWs are not owned free and clear. They are more typically easements. That may not be true in DC, but is the case in much of the country. The rails to trails program has raised issues regularly on this, because converting the railbed to a trail means that the government has "taken" the property and compensation is owed. Yes, it can be done, but there are more hoops to jump through. And more money to be spent.

by ah on Sep 9, 2009 4:29 pm • linkreport

Well, it's a moot point, since I don't think CSX will be giving up that ROW anytime soon - especially if they invest money in it to allow double-stack containers.

The legal issues aren't the point - the point was merely that while the NCPC plan would have these ROW's disappear once a bypass is in place, I'd rather see them maintained and used as passenger rail assets in the event that they are no longer needed for freight.

by Alex B. on Sep 9, 2009 4:45 pm • linkreport

Matt and Alex, by "we" do you mean "the rail companies"? Rail ROWs are owned by rail companies. If they stop using them they may revert to the underlying property owners, not to the government (US/state/local).

The short answer is: it depends. Some rights-of-way are owned outright, others have reversionary rights if the line is abandoned, still others are held under a perpetual easement. No one back in the 19th and early 20th centuries really "thought it through" very much--they assumed railroads would be around forever. So, it's a hodgepodge. Under the railbanking and "interim trail use" provisions of federal law, the rights-of-way are never formally abandoned so that reversionary rights to the adjacent or underlying owners is largely moot. There's a lot of case law surrounding this, and Rails-to-Trails has prevailed. But, if no trail sponsor (usually a local government) steps up, the STB (Surface Transportation Board--the successor to the ICC) can formally abandon the railroad line, then the reversion happens.

The W&OD is somewhat of a unique case because it pre-dated the federal rails-to-trails statutes. There several owners sued to get "their" property back and lost in the Virginia Supreme Court, if memory serves.

by Paul on Sep 9, 2009 4:54 pm • linkreport

What about a different route; one that goes in-between or adjacent the Woodrow Wilson Bridge? It would then connect with the Alexandria Extension. And just to be on the safe side, the Alexandria Extension could either be moved off the base, so the trains won't go through Bolling Air Force Base.


by Zac on Sep 9, 2009 10:40 pm • linkreport

They are planning to rebuild the Harry Nice Bridge in Dahlgen.(see link) Why not build two rail tracks along with the 4 road lanes and bike lane? This would be a cost savings to the project and make the Pope Creek route more viable and promote freight and passenger rail on both routes

Public Hearings - 9/17/09 & 9/24/09

by MCS on Sep 9, 2009 11:58 pm • linkreport


Combining rail on the Harry Nice Bridge is not practical. The approach grades for the highway are far to great for freight trains. 3.00%. To get the grades down to 1.00% the total length of the bridge along with the approaches would have to be more then 3 time longer.

by Sand Box John on Sep 10, 2009 1:07 am • linkreport

Sand Box:

Good Comment. I was not indicating building the rail tracks at the same grade as the highway, but doing the projects together. If they are managed together, a cost savings can be realized.

by MCS on Sep 10, 2009 9:33 am • linkreport

You can pretty much scratch off the Indian Head route because it will eventually become a rail-trail:


by Zac on Oct 7, 2009 11:15 am • linkreport

A railroad bypass next to the Nice Bridge would be a good idea they had a program on the news about the toxic chemincals that are shipped though downtwon DC. If the fright trains go across the river by the Nice Bridge it would be better and safer. It would also remove the temptation for some wacko to try to attack the trains as they go though the Virginia Ave Tunnel. If the toxic trains are going though rural areas it would get rid of the reason why they would go after it. Also there is a rail line that goes from Richmond up to around Doswell that they could build they bypass up to and then let Amtrack buy up the rail line from Richmond to Washingtion and devote it comepletly to passanger rail The piedmontsub comes up from Richmond and crosses over at Doswell but a thrid or forth mainline track along the RFP Mainline could link this up to the Washingtion Rail bypass.

by Ocean Railroader on Oct 27, 2009 12:13 pm • linkreport

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