Could Virginia reactivate the W&OD?
Last week, Spencer Lepler called for reactivating the Washington & Old Dominion rail line, currently used as a hiker/biker trail. He posits that the W&OD would make an excellent airport-express-type link between Dulles and downtown Washington. He also argues that it would be an excellent addition to our commuter rail system, ferrying Loudounites to their center-city jobs. Is it physically possible to restore some rail service on the W&OD?
Transforming the trail into a railroad faces several challenges. Even if trail users don't object to reactivation as they are currently doing with the Purple Line, physical hurdles remain.
Between East Falls Church Metro and Leesburg, much of the right-of-way is intact. A few new bridges would be needed, including one over I-66 just east of its intersection with the Beltway. However, reconstruction of the line to either of its former terminals in Alexandria or Rosslyn would be difficult at best.
In Arlington, the line's route to Rosslyn was used for the construction of Interstate 66. With the interstate blocking the direct route toward Downtown Washington, a rail link would have to use the trail alignment parallel to Four Mile Run to Alexandria. There, a connection would be required to CSX's RF&P Subdivision in order for trains to continue to Union Station.
Alexandria Connection: Spencer himself says that a connection to the rail network at Alexandria is absolutely essential. Not only would passengers be unable to have a one-seat ride without it, but rolling stock could not be brought to the line by rail.
Unfortunately, the redevelopment of Potomac Yard presents a barrier to this connection. While it's never too late to build a right-of-way, doing so can be destructive, disruptive, and most importantly, expensive. Alexandria has major plans for Potomac Yard, including the provision of a new Metro stop to serve development. It is unlikely that the city will be in favor of a rail connection that does not serve the city, but jeopardizes redevelopment plans.
Del Ray Encroachment: In Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood, several structures have been built on the ROW. The structures on the south side of Sanborn Place (off Mt Vernon Ave) and adjacent to the trail between Mount Vernon Ave and Commonwealth Ave are now located where the tracks used to be. The could certainly be purchased and torn down, but that makes the process longer and harder.
Additionally, the railroad grade crossed over Russell Road on a bridge. It appears that this grading has been removed, which could make the grade change too steep for rail. There is more encroachment of structures along Glebe Road west of Russell.
Shirley Highway: When Shirley Highway opened, it was limited access but included a railroad grade crossing in the Shirlington area. This highway eventually became Interstate 95 (and later I-395). In the 1960s drivers traveling 60 miles per hour down the freeway would sometimes encounter a line of freight cars trundling across the highway, even at the height of rush hour. In 1968, trains stopped using the crossing, and the highway has since been widened and the crossing removed. But grade separation was not provided for a railroad unlikely ever to reappear.
And while some of us wouldn't object too loudly to severing the Interstate to rebuild a rail line, many would. Raising the Interstate or constructing a grade change for trains would be disruptive and costly. This is likely the most insurmountable barrier in the corridor.
Leesburg and west: While much of the line between East Falls Church and Leesburg remains without major obstacles, a barrier does exist near Leesburg. The Leesburg Bypass on the east side of town did not include a bridge over the WOD right of way. The freeway would need to be raised. (Or the railroad raised, but that would require a longer incline).
On the west side of town, it looks like the grade is acceptable for a new bridge to be constructed over the Leesburg Bypass. However, at Paeonian Springs, an interchange was constructed between Routes 7 and 9 right where the WOD crosses the freeway right of way. The interchange would need to be removed or reconfigured for commuter rail to operate. And the same scenario plays out again just outside Purcellville. An interchange was constructed where the W&OD crosses the freeway right of way at Berlin Turnpike. It would also need to be removed or reconfigured.
Conclusions: While this line could probably be reopened if political palatability and expense were not considerations, those factors exist in the real world, and make difficult a whole-sale reopening of the line.
It would be easier to construct the line merely between Purcellville or Leesburg and East Falls Church. However, by forcing riders to transfer to the Orange Line at East Falls Church, much of the advantage of the system is lost. After all, the Silver Line, with its multitude of stops still takes travelers all the way downtown. And to add to the disadvantages of that alternative, the line would be entirely disconnected from the rest of America's rail network.
If an airport express to Dulles were a high priority of the region, one could theoretically build a new alignment for trains between East Falls Church and downtown. But a tunnel through Arlington and under the Potomac would not come cheap.
And with our limited transportation dollars, one must wonder whether an airport express along the W&OD is the best use of transit funding. After all, air travelers who are in a hurry don't fly into Dulles if they can help it. National Airport is only 3 miles from the Capitol. Even a fast rail link from Dulles can't compete with time savings of landing within sight of the Washington Monument.
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