The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Amtrak

Transit


I'm thankful for train service

On Wednesday, traveling from my office at Farragut North to the Ashland, Virginia train station near my mom's house was a breeze, and it was all via public trains. I'm thankful for that.


A view of the Potomac from Amtrak's Northeast Regional train, taken on a trip home the day before Thanksgiving. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

I paid $59 for my ticket on the Northeast Regional 95, departing out of Union Station at 2:30, when I bought it a week into November. The same trip is usually only $34, but considering I waited until just a few weeks prior this time, I don't think that price was too bad.

Greater Greater Washington's offices officially closed at 2 pm the day before Thanksgiving, but I ducked out five minutes early so I could get to Union Station in time. I walked downstairs and caught the Red Line and was at the station before 2:15. It was pretty clear that I wasn't the only one headed out of town for the holiday.


Union Station on Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Dennis Jaffe.

I've made this trip a few years in a row now, and I remembered Union Station being packed, with barely any room to walk without bumping into someone. This year it was definitely crowded, but it didn't feel anything like the sardine can I was anticipating. Part of the reason is that there were extra workers in the Amtrak concourse asking people what train they were taking and directing them on where to wait so that lines didn't sprawl all over the place.


Union Station was busy, but not out of control.

At 2:25, the door to the tracks opened up and the line started moving down toward the train. A few minutes later, I was in my seat and ready to roll. I took a few minutes to enjoy views of the Potomac as we departed, and once we hit Alexandria, I had opened my laptop and logged onto the free WiFi (to make up for those last five minutes of work, of course!).


Check out the sign on the right. You can go to a lot of places on Amtrak.


Our quick stop in Alexandria.

It was smooth sailing from there. The train waited an extra few minutes here and there at the stops we made along the way, but there weren't any serious delays. There was, however, plenty of scenery to take in. Whenever I make this trip, I love taking in views of my home state.

I was scheduled to get to Ashland at 4:22 and wound up getting in closer to 5, but given the alternative, I was pretty happy to have traveled the way I did.

I also know that Amtrak did have issues on Wednesday. And, going back to the start of my trip, as GGWash's staff editor, I'm certainly no stranger to Metro's woes. But still, overall, my trip was easy, fast, and relatively cheap, and a network of train systems and the people who run them are largely to thank for that.


Home, sweet home.

Making this trip is one of my favorite parts of the holiday season. I'm looking forward to doing it again at the end of December.

Transit


Self-driving cars, payment via smart phone, and more will change transportation. Is our region ready?

Picture a DC region with autonomous vehicles, crowdsourced buses, and a single payment system for all forms of transit. These things could very well be on the horizon, but according to a group of transportation experts, they'll mean new challenges when it comes to cybersecurity, safety, and accountability.


From left to right, panel moderator Marisa Kashino, Uber's Annaliese Rosenthal, WMATA's Shyam Kanaan, and Amtrak's David Zaidan. Photo by Joanne Pierce.

Planning to deploy tomorrow's transportation technology requires advance effort even though the problems these technologies aim to solve are acute today. WMATA planner Shyam Kanaan, Uber DC General Manager Annaliese Rosenthal, and Amtrak's David Zaidain discussed tomorrow's technology and today's problems at last month's Urban Ideas Forum.

We (Joanne and Sam) attended the event and later discussed our thoughts in a chat format, and the notes are below. We've also added in subheaders for when we moved from one panel subject to another.

JP: I think given that it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about short-term challenges, the moderators did well to at least draw out interesting points. Of course, "short-term challenges" might be a misnomer since WMATA has had these kinds of challenges for years. We're focused on short-term referring to the next 2-5 years, and long-term being longer than that, it seems.

One of the first things the panel talked about was how lifestyles are changing across the region. I thought it was interesting that Shyam Kannan, the head of planning for WMATA, emphasized SelectPass, a prepaid pass which allows unlimited rides at or less than a user selected price, as a way to link trips. He talked about it in a way I hadn't necessarily thought of before, but have since observed in my own life. People want to make multiple stops without having to pay multiple times. I could go to a restaurant, a movie, pick up library books, go to some bookstores, and not have to pay for each trip since it's all built into my SelectPass.

SW: Shyam called SelectPass "Netflix for transit," with the goal of mitigating people from pay-as-you-go. Though Shyam clearly had bigger visions in mind. Eventually allowing for all modes of transit under a single payment. To use your example - we would be able to go to take Amtrak into DC, take Metro from Union Station, then Uber to a final destination with one simple payment. A cool idea, though not in our near or even long-term future.

JP: This is purely anecdotal, but I had a conversation recently about Charlotte's transit system using multiple forms of payment. If you took rail and bus, you could be paying separately and still use paper fare. Charlotte's CATS system does offer passes like SmarTrip. But you still have a proof of purchase ticket that you show.

Metro has a sea of problems. An ocean of troubles. But SmarTrip to pay for Metrobus, Metrorail, Alexandria's DASH bus, REX bus, Fairfax Connector, etc. is one nice thing about how it functions.

SW: It is, and even better that the SmarTrip cards are readable through your wallet! Shyam spoke of having all payment eventually being made via smartphone or "preferably smart watch." He got some push back from the moderators for that comment, given many who need and deserve to use the system probably don't have access to that technology. What do you see as the future of payment methods?

JP: The future of payment is going to be more mobile options, whether we like it or not. Single payment across transit systems no matter where you are in the DC area, to include Uber and others. The problem is, like the moderators said, this technology is inaccessible for some people.

So obviously, SmartTrip has to stay in some way because not everyone will want mobile payment. When WMATA finally phased out all paper fare, more than 90% of riders were already using SmarTrip. The relatively low cost of entry to get a SmarTrip card ($2) is drastically different from the cost of a smartphone and data plan. Even though lots of people have smartphones, many don't or are uncomfortable with paying with them.

As we move toward more complex and mobile payment systems, we have to be concerned about securing our data

JP: There's also a cybersecurity component that the panel didn't go into, but is going to be an increasing concern as we move more towards connecting our financial systems with mobile technology.

SW: Agreed. It's often thought of with Uber, but Metro also has plenty of data on us - our daily routine and habits. The SmarTrip swipes give them a glimpse into our travel patterns, which can be greatly useful as WMATA plans routes and scheduling.

Having to swipe twice, once for entry then again for exit, can be annoying, but is immensely valuable (I think) to helping them understand how we ride, and accommodate accordingly. With Metrobus, a noticeable difference is only swiping upon entry. Shyam spoke of the future of transit being crowdsourced buses. It seems for this to be feasible, entry and exit data would eventually be needed.

Ride hailing is a promising industry, but questions on passenger safety and accountability are still legit

JP: New Jersey is testing crowdsourced busing, or bus on demand. Related to a single payment option, should Uber be in the same category as WMATA? Uber is a private company and its goals can't be the same as WMATA's goals, and WMATA is beholden to certain government regulations to ensure a degree of equity in its service, particularly if it wants to cut service. There have been studies and articles about whether Uber is equitable with its clientele and neighborhoods it serves, but it's not the same. Are we also trusting that Uber will stick around for the next 10 years? Is this company and this field of ride sharing mature enough to be stable?

SW: I'm not sure. Uber is a very different organization of course. Annaliese Rosenthal, General Manager of Uber in DC, was excited about UberPOOL and spoke of it often throughout the night - its ability to take multiple drivers off the road and into a single car by matching people going the same direction. But at the most, this allows for 3 to 4 people in a single vehicle, which is just not comparable to Metro. It seems Uber is needed at the moment, but maybe not part of a longer term future.

JP: Personally, Uber hasn't replaced anything for me. I still take bus and rail (or walk) more than I take Uber. Part of that is that traffic in DC can be
terrible, but also that I have to gauge risk with getting into a car with a stranger. The audience joked a bit about how the MyMTPD text message number [to contact Metro police] is too long and hard to remember, but at the same time, there's no police department for Uber. So safety and risk for passengers is going to be an ongoing discussion as Uber or any other competitors emerge on the scene.

SW: Yup, safety is very (the most) important. Annaliese brought up Uber's rating system as their immediate feedback security system, I hadn't thought of it being it. It's the backbone of their company, but maybe not capable of dealing with immediate security risks. Do you feel safe on Metro?

JP: I usually feel safe on the Metro system. I also tend to ride during busier times so there are always people around.

SW: I feel safe too, though unfortunately the crowd during rush tends to bring out the worst of people; but a little pushing here and there isn't so bad I guess. Plus the riders aren't to blame for the overcrowding.

JP: There's an aspect of control that Uber doesn't allow. With Metro, if there's some disturbance on my train I can hop off and get on another car or I can alert the operator (if the intercom works). But with Uber, I'm not about to leap out and tuck and roll my way out of a potential problem.

SW: LOL please don't. In a much more immediate way you're trusting your life with the driver, and who knows if he's gotten enough sleep, if he has road rage, etc. (Hopefully) there is less room for human error with the rail system.

JP: I think, statistically, car travel is still riskier.

Autonomous vehicles may be the future, but how do they integrate into traditional infrastructure, and will they create more problems than they solve?

SW: Do you think driverless cars can solve this safety issue?

JP: Not at the moment. The technology is untested and there are larger policy implications. For instance, if a driverless car hits my car, that's a bigger risk for me than it is for Uber. Do you think driverless cars will encroach on public transit?

SW: I don't think so, particularly after hearing Shyam's skepticism stemming from what he called the "geometry problem." Because after it drops someone off, where does it go? If it returns to a staging area, that requires a lot a space and infrastructure be built; if it hangs around downtown waiting for the next rider, that greatly increases congestion; and if it returns to the roads or highways, that's just more traffic. So ideally, for healthy urban (and suburban) living, it seems public transit is a more viable option.

However, Uber is and can be a useful and important complement. The three panelists, particularly for Metro and Uber, spoke of the importance of their relationship in serving the public. It's tempting to see Uber and Metro as competitors, but they understand they're complements.

JP: I thought that was interesting as well. WMATA might understandably think it's too big and too integrated into the city for Uber to encroach too much. But beyond that, I think the fundamental problem with driverless cars is that we are not decreasing our dependence on cars. They're still polluting whether there are drivers or passengers.

Amtrak focuses on transit-oriented development around a renovated Union Station

SW: Agreed. More surprising for me was how David Zaidain of Amtrak drew a clear distinction between his market, and that of the city-to-city buses.
Amtrak is focused on transit-oriented development and making Union Station a destination

JP: Poor Amtrak. We haven't talked about it all so far.

SW: Ha, what did you think of his vision for Union Station, having the feel of an Apple store, with employees walking around with iPads ready to help?


Union Station. The planned renovations for Union Station include removing information booths and ticketing kiosks, so employees can carry mobile devices and help passengers with check-in and ticketing. Photo by Amaury Laporte on Flickr.

JP: I haven't been in Union Station in years, so I'm not sure whether that's a better option than having more kiosks or even mobile ticketing.

SW: Years?!

JP: Yeah, I don't ride Amtrak that often. The last time was 2014, probably. One thing that David brought up was how Amtrak wanted to drive development around Union Station and around transit, and namely affordable housing. Do you think that's the right direction, given that Amtrak is sort of a niche? Metro, I see driving that. But this was in the context of Amtrak.

SW: I think Amtrak would like there to be development around Union Station. And there has been plenty, though not necessarily driven by Amtrak. David was asked at one point if he thought the ability to provide a relatively cheap and quick commute between say Baltimore and DC would aid affordable housing, allowing folks to live in Baltimore and commute into DC. He answered optimistically to that scenario, though it clearly isn't Amtrak's goal to allow for and encourage affordable housing.

He was honest about Amtrak's desire and need to operate with a business mindset, focusing on services they can get a return on - Which are the higher end, pricier and more luxuries commutes. His vision of the future was offering better wine and food on trains, not bad, just very different than the focus Metro.

JP: Yeah, and I can see how Amtrak can be a good option for the DC to Baltimore commute, though the lowest fare is $26 round trip. We know we need more housing, and more affordable housing, and building it near transit is ideal.

Metro wants to change hearts and minds about buses

JP: What do you think about Shyam and David's point about using infrastructure that already exists. Is this a good strategy?

SW: I think it's practical. Shyam made a good point about how everyone is a closet urban planner, and how fun and exciting it is to think about adding a station here and there, but how difficult it is in the end to get the funding and support. Metro talks a lot about Transit Oriented Development and would love to see the neighborhoods around their stations (notably in Prince George's County) densify.

They want us to come to them, and we want them to come to us. This is a big reason why Shyam was pushing regional bus systems as the future - So much more flexible.

JP: I like the Potomac Yard BRT and I'm happy that Fairfax County is going to invest in BRT as well. It was disappointing to see WMATA hint at dropping it to save money, or to suggest that not providing full funding would lead to BRT getting the chop, though it seems to be spared from service cuts in the FY 2018 budget. Shyam talked about how if/when we achieve maintenance and safety reliability we would be turning back from a dark period in our transit history. I think the audience found that a little surprising, the notion that we will eventually be happy with how much we've achieved once we start pulling out of Metro's dark time.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

SW: Yes, I think he was honest about the issues at hand, but encouragingly optimistic as well. Emphasizing that if we can make smart, tough decisions today, unreliable service will be in the rearview. Do you think WMATA could get more people to ride buses, as Shyam suggested should be heavily featured in the future of DC transit?

JP: Absolutely. Bus has a reputation as being inefficient or confusing to ride. It can be both, but it can all improve if WMATA invests some effort into making better signs that tell people how to navigate the system. Clarify the difference between Metrobus and Circulator (or other regional lines), put up better signs that give people more specific information about bus routes, and not just one big map. Apps can help as well. People who can give directions on which bus to take. I think more tourists can use the bus. I don't have the numbers on hand, but I think more tourists ride rail than bus. If it can spread out a little more, we could handle the congestion better.

SW: I agree; I often avoid buses just out of confusion.

JP: I didn't really enjoy riding the bus until I started riding the Alexandria City DASH bus. It's a small system, so it's not comparable to Metrobus, but the routes are very easy to understand and there are a lot of connecting points so you can transfer between routes or Metro stations easily, or at least hop off and walk the rest of the way.

SW: Given the extensiveness of Metrobus (which is a good thing!) it would be cool if WMATA could provide maps essentially filtered to your potential commutes, like in New York City. This would make the system a lot less intimidating to me because it is nice to stay above ground :)

Transit


So you've got a friend in town and they're really into trains. Here's where to take them.

Last year, we published lists of toys you could give to a young train buff and places you could take them to visit. But what about the railfans who are all grown up? Where are the best places to take adult friends to hang out, do some train spotting, and learn some rail history?


The Dew Drop Inn. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Restaurants and bars are a good start

Payton Chung suggests a few places in DC to check out. The Dew Drop Inn, located in the Edgewood neighborhood near Brookland, is named for a number of "Dew Drop Inns" across America. Housed in a rustic stone industrial building that was used as a workspace for stonemasons and metal workers, you can get a great view of the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks on the Red Line between the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland stations when you're hanging out on the porch.

Along the H Street corridor, there's Maketto, a communal marketplace that's made up of two buildings with a courtyard, roof deck, and a catwalk that connects the spaces together. The catwalk has retail, a Cambodian/Taiwanese restaurant, and a cafť and bakery on the second floor where you can get a great view of the DC Streetcar.

In Maryland, Julie Lawson says to check out Lotus Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant located in Downtown Silver Spring at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Sligo Avenue that overlooks the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks as they cross over Georgia Avenue. She says her son "loves to watch the trains there so I would assume grownup railfans might enjoy it for dinner too."


The view from Lotus Cafe. Image from Google Maps.

A short walk from Lotus Cafe, there's Denizens Brewing Company, located on East-West Highway on the opposite side of Georgia Avenue near the rail overpass. Dan Reed mentions that the place as an appropriately-named beer called "Trainspotting".

Walk around and explore

If you live near a rail line and feel like doing a little bit of exploring, a simple walk around is always a best bet.

Jonathan Neeley says there's plenty to see in his neighborhood, Brookland:

I like going on walks, and a lot of my friends do too, so I'd probably go with something simple like being sure to walk over the Michigan Avenue and Taylor Street bridges by my house, where you can watch trains come and go from far away. I'd probably also take them on a ride on the Red Line between Rhode Island Ave and Silver Spring just to see the graffiti.

Looking south from the Taylor Street bridge. Photo by Jonathan Neeley

The Washington DC Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society has a list of "railfan hotspots" located within two hours of the beltway that have a lot of rail activity and history.

One of these hotspots is Long Bridge Park in Arlington, which has an extensive railroad history and a name that's a reference to the railroad bridge connecting Washington with Northern Virginia. Chris Slatt mentions that the esplanade is a "top notch spot for viewing CSX freight trains, Amtrak trains, and VRE trains."


The esplanade at Long Bridge Park in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Chris Slatt.

Another hotspot, this one suggested by Canaan Merchant, is Burke Lake Park in Fairfax County. The park has an attraction that young railfans, and even some grown ups, can enjoy. The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine is a new version of the original one-third scale replica that makes the rounds on its own narrow gauge 1.75 mile track.


The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine at Burke Lake Park. Photo by Fairfax County Department of Parks.

David Cranor adds "there are several rail trails in the area, but the W&OD really does the best job of celebrating that. There are old train cars set up along it and lots of historical information/markers about the railroad too." Payton also mentions that "a ride along the Metropolitan Branch Trail is also a good option; it even parallels the Acela tracks for a bit."

Our region also has quite a few museums and other attractions around that are good bets for taking train aficionados or folks who just want to learn more.

Canaan points us to the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum in its namesake location in Fairfax County. This museum has displays, activities, and events that help preserve local history and promote railroading—even "a couple of cars you can go inside." The station itself played a critical role in the American Civil War as an important supply and medical evacuation site where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, assisted in relief and evacuation efforts during the Battle of Bull Run in 1862.

The National Museum of American History in DC and the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville in Montgomery County are also great options for railfans who want to learn more history.

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture will have an exhibit dedicated to transportation and race, exploring how Jim Crow laws affected streetcar and railroad travel, as well as the history of Pullman porters and railroaders behind the scenes.

Are there any other places in the area you know of that would be good spots to take a railfan? Let us know in the comments.

Transit


Union Station's concourse could get a big facelift

Union Station's concourse, which serves Amtrak, MARC, and VRE passengers, can get very crowded. Plans to renovate the concourse aim to use the space more efficiently, providing larger waiting areas and giving riders much more room to move around.


Union Station's concourse could look like this. All photos by the author, all renderings by KGP design studio/Grimshaw unless otherwise noted.

Union Station will soon begin construction on the "Passenger Concourse Modernization Project," an effort to relieve crowding and give customers a better experience in Claytor Concourse (the concourse's official name). The renovations are part of the station's larger 2nd Century Plan which aims to double train and passenger capacities over the next twenty years.

As it exists now, the concourse is a crowded space with waiting areas inadequately sized for the explosive growth that intercity and commuter rail ridership has seen in the last few years, reflecting the fact that the terminal is operating far beyond it's capacity and outgrowing the major renovations that were completed in 1988.


Claytor Concourse as it exists today, crowded and constrained.

The Concourse Modernization Project will make way for expanded passenger waiting areas by eliminating many structures that currently stand between the station concourse and the tracks, such as the Amtrak information desk and the Starlight Room (the MARC waiting room that encompasses Gates B, C, and D).


The Amtrak desk invites people to stand in line in the same place where others need to walk through the concourse.

Club Acela, a waiting room for Amtrak's first class passengers and premium rewards club members, will be relocated to a new, glass-enclosed second-floor location above the new waiting areas, and the women's bathroom at Gate G will be moved to the east end of the concourse. The men's bathroom and the retail space currently occupied by Sbarro and McDonalds will remain, according to a proposed concourse floor plan.

These changes will expand the floor space of the concourse by 20,000 square feet, ensuring that passengers waiting to board their trains will no longer come into conflict with foot traffic moving through the station or frequenting the numerous shops located between the trains and the main hall. The new arrangement will eliminate the fences that currently corral passengers into waiting areas in front of each gate.

These separated waiting areas fill up quickly once a train departure gate is announced, and boarding lines often spill over into the constrained walkway in front of the concourse shops. Of course, this problem may still persist if, after the renovations are complete, Amtrak retains its current inefficient boarding proceduresright now, instead of boarding by track number and allowing passengers to wait on the train platforms, the "gate" process at Union Station includes an unnecessary ticket-checking step before passengers are allowed to board their train, causing long lines to form in the crowded concourse area.

Amtrak has emphasized Union Station's status as a major multimodal hub when discussing the planned renovations. The adjacent Metro station serves over 30,000 passengers a day, making it WMATA's busiest station. Long-term WMATA plans include relocating the station's First Street NE entrance and adding extra escalators and elevators to the passenger concourse.

Union Station also ranks highly in intercity and commuter rail passenger numbers: the station annually serves 1 million VRE customers (the third-busiest in that system), 5 million Amtrak passengers (second in the nation), and 8.5 million MARC customers (the busiest in that system). Amtrak claims that 75% of Capitol Hill employees pass through the station each day. A renovation of Claytor Concourse will be enormously beneficial to the tens of thousands of passengers who pass through the station daily.

Preliminary construction and relocation work for the project is expected to start before the end of this year, while full construction will begin in Winter 2017/2018. Amtrak expects the work to be completed in 2020.

What do you think of the Passenger Concourse Modernization Project? Do you think it improve your experience using Amtrak, MARC, and VRE?


Development


This vacant tower could become your favorite new bar

There's an old rail control tower on 2nd Street SW, a few blocks from where CSX is rebuilding the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, and CSX has agreed to do major work on the tower as part of the rail project. Could it become a museum or a bar? Could someone live there? There are great possibilities, but also unique challenges.


Image from DC's Historic Preservation Office.

The Control Point Virginia Tower, which sits at 2nd Street and Virginia Avenue SW next to the railroad tracks that take VRE and Amtrak passengers between Union Station and CSX's rails that run along the east coast. It's an interlocking tower, which is where a leverman used to manually switch which railroad tracks a train was using.

The Virginia Tower was built between 1904 and 1906 along with the First Street Tunnel, and around the same time as seven other such towers in Washington, DC.

Though a marvel of the late 19th century, by the 1930's CP towers started to be replaced by centralized traffic control from remote control centers. By the late 1980's almost all such towers were closed.

Of those eight DC towers, only Virginia and "K", so named because it is just south of K Street on the approach to Union Station, still stand. CSX stopped using the Virginia Tower in 1989, and according to a 2007 article in Trains magazine, there were plans at the time to demolish it (which is what the agency did with the Anacostia Tower in 2008).


Base image from Google Maps.

CSX is fixing up the Virginia Tower on the outside...

The Virginia Tower, however, has dodged the wrecking ball, and under the terms of the 2015 Memorandum of Agreement for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project, CSX has agreed to preserve the tower.

Moreover, the agency has filed the necessary paperwork to add the tower to the National Register of Historic Places and the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, and it has agreed to rehabilitate the tower.

The rehabilitation will improve the appearance, repair the structure and provide added security. CSX will remove all exterior additions that are no longer needed such as antennas, steel window mesh, utility connections, and cabinets, along with the graffiti and cover-up paint. The agency will repair, replace or restore all of the floors, roof, windows, doors, and walls. Finally, CSX will add security features such as fencing, gates, and cameras.

...the inside is a different story, but think of the possibilities

The plan is to only rehabilitate the exterior of the tower and leave the interior alone. According to CSX the tower "will remain an active building to support CSX operations" as it "is still a vital part of the railroad infrastructure."

It's hard to see how that's the case since CSX was planning to demolish it only nine years ago. Interlocking towers such as this one have been reused at other sites, but almost exclusively as small railroad museums. And while there are several serious and likely insurmountable barriers to any adaptive reuse—CSX resistance, the location between an active railroad track and a secure congressional office building, and its unusual size and location—below are some ideas for what could be done with it if those barriers weren't there.

Museum

As I mentioned above, other such towers have been turned into museums or rail fan club houses. A museum run by volunteers with infrequent tours could better address security concerns by leaving it closed and locked at most times. The museum in Bradford, Ohio, for example, is only open six hours a week for nine months of the year.

Restaurant or bar

The building itself wouldn't hold many patrons, but the courtyard could support an outdoor beer garden like the Brig at 8th and L SE. The building could could serve as a kitchen and storage. The idea is not totally crazy. K Tower, the other remaining interlocking tower in DC, is still used by Amtrak. According to one source it is the only such tower in use south of Philadelphia, but in the 2012 Union Station Master Plan, Amtrak envisioned turning it into restaurant or bar.


The reconstructed K Tower as a destination bar/restaurant in the air rights development. Image from Akridge/SBA.

Canal Quarters

It would be the most unique hotel in DC, but the tower could be turned into a small, rustic rental similar to what the C&O Canal has done with its lockhouses as part of its Canal Quarters program. It would be cramped, but you can't beat the steps-from-the-Mall location (assuming you can sleep through train noise). Maybe the Canal Trust would even manage it for a cut of the profits.

Housing

Before the Canal Quarters rental program, the C&O Canal park attempted to lease its Lockhouses. Micro-units are the hot thing in real estate, and this cozy condominium might be a step up for a Congressmember currently sleeping in her office. It's only a three block walk to the Rayburn Building. Perhaps it could even become the Official Residence of the Speaker of the House?

Transit


Here's a closer look at what's in store for Union Station

Plans for renovating and rebuilding parts of Union Station are well underway, the aim being to better connect train, bus, pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle traffic to accommodate a surge in ridership over the next 25 years and beyond. On Wednesday, the public got a closer look at some of the possibilities.


Photo by David Jones on Flickr.

Union Station houses DC's busiest Metro station, is the hub for both of the region's commuter rail systems, MARC and VRE, and is both the second-busiest intercity train station in the country and the second-busiest station in Amtrak's system. In anticipation of rising demand, planning started last year for a $10 billion, four-year expansion project that could triple station capacity.

Several hundred people attended a Wednesday night meeting to hear what the Federal Railroad Administration, which owns Union Station, has in mind for the overhaul. While plans for expanding the area where passengers wait to board trains surfaced Wednesday morning, this meeting was about telling the public about the need for renovating and rebuilding virtually the entire complex, from parking areas, bus terminals, taxi stands, and train platforms to the original station building and the space above the tracks just north of the station.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

With Union Station being in its 109th year of service, some of the project's literature refers to the project as the "Second Century Plan."

Here are some of the functional features the project team said it's looking to bring to Union Station:

  • A more efficient way for taxis and car services (including ridesharing programs) to pick up and drop off passengers. Taxi drivers typically have a 30-45 minute wait in the taxi queue at the station today.

  • A more bike-friendly environment. There's currently too little capacity for both bicycle parking and bike sharing to meet even current demand.

  • Wider train platforms, as the ones there now aren't compliant with ADA standards, and also do not meet standards for an emergency evacuation. Widening the platforms will actually mean a decrease in the number of tracks at the station, from 20 to 19. But planners also emphasized that intercity rail capacity will increase because the platforms will be significantly longer-- nearly a quarter mile in some cases.

  • Larger, more open concourses that can handle the expected tripling of passenger demand by 2040.

  • A safer bus terminal, where there's less of a chance that people and buses will need to use the same space. Also, a more visually appealing bus terminal.

  • A complex that meshes well with the H Street Bridge, which will be rebuilt in the next several years.

Architecture, parking, and air space

One thing the FRA is putting significant emphasis on is the aesthetic appeal of the new station. The current building is on both the National and Washington DC Register of Historical Places, and its key features, such as the great hall, will remain unchanged. Presenter Paul Moyer reviewed examples of other stations around the world that are both functional and attractive, to use as an example.

While demand is maxing out for just about every mode of transportation that passes through Union Station, there's one mode where it's not: driving. Usually, only 70-90% of the parking spaces Union Station's garage are full at peak times, and nearly a quarter of those are leased out on a monthly basis, meaning they're likely used by workers in surrounding offices not directly tied to the station.

Rather than increasing the number of parking spaces, the planners are simply looking to make a more visually appealing parking facility. An architecturally renowned garage in Miami was cited as a possible inspiration.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Also, having empty railyard just blocks from the US Capitol is not the most economically stimulating use of space. Therefore, the air rights over the tracks were sold to Akridge, who will develop a project called Burnham Place, a mix of offices, retail, hotel, and residential that will sit above the tracks. Because the air rights begin at the current height of the H Street Bridge, designers will not be limited to a claustrophobic experience like what travelers experience at New York's Penn Station.

As you can see in the graphic above, the Federal Railroad Administration (and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation), Amtrak, Akridge, DDOT, WMATA, and the National Park Service all own different portions of the affected site, and will need to sign off on the plan, as will various historical review boards and federal interests.

Community engagement

While at least some of what was presented is very likely to happen, nothing is a done deal yet. The official purpose of the meeting was to solicit input from the community before developing formal proposals.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Community members were shown a scale map of the study area (roughly, the current station footprint, including the parking garage, plus the tracks as far north as L Street), and asked to place cardboard templates representing possible concourses, bus terminals, and other features in various places on the map, to gather feedback on possibilities.


Photo by the author.

The strongest sentiments at both this meeting and the last one, which was in December, were about how the Union Station project will affect surrounding neighborhoods.

The business community is looking for better intermodal connections (between Metro, Amtrak, bus, and streetcar), and local residents is looking for better connections to the neighborhood itself, such as through the long neglected entrance off of H Street, and to have many of the nearby Metrobus routes actually stop at the station, rather than blocks away.

Because the projects are dependent on one another, both local residents and the business community asked that the required environmental reviews for Burnham Place and the rest of Union Station will be done at the same time. This is not guaranteed, because the process for each project is different.

If you would like to view the presentation from the FRA, it is posted here, and comments are still being accepted on the site. The next public meeting, where project alternatives will be presented, is scheduled for this summer. Once the project is approved, construction is expected to last about four years.

Bicycling


Union Station expansion plans will help train riders, cyclists, and many more

Union Station and the surrounding area is in line for a huge renovation. Amtrak just announced a design to add new space to wait for trains. Other changes in the works could extend the Metropolitan Branch Trail and make Columbus Circle more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.


Image from KGP Design Studio/Grimshaw.

On Tuesday, Amtrak released designs of the most immediate next step in its vision. It will push back the wall facing the trains, so that instead of waiting in too-small, uncomfortable pens for trains, people will have a more expansive space including a large glass wall looking out at the tracks.

But that's just the start. In the longer run, Amtrak is looking to add new entrances, lower-level concourses, and retail, and make existing platforms wider. Developer Akridge is also working on a project called Burnham Place, which would bring new office space, residential units, hotels, and retail atop the tracks directly north of Union Station.


The Metropolitan Branch Trail could one day look like this where it connects to Union Station. Renderings from Akridge.

Burnham Place would include "a green linear park connecting pedestrians and bikers north to Montgomery County in Maryland"—otherwise known as the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The trail would be built above the metro tracks, as a separated alternative to the existing protected bikeway that runs along First Street NE.

In the renderings below, the elevated park runs north behind the Union Station Bike Station on the building's west side, continuing as a tree-lined, elevated strip to the current trail just north of L Street.


Burnham Place with the MBT, looking from the south.


View of Burnham Place with the MBT, looking from the north.

The project, as rendered, would also create new connections to the trail. A pedestrian connection between the trail and 2nd Street NE would be added at K Street NE. A new segment of I Street built through Burnham Place would connect the trail to the new north-south roads in the developments as well as the new road built between Union Station and the buildings that front 2nd Street NE, such as the SEC building.

The DC Bicycle Advisory Council (BAC) has submitted comments asking for more secure bike parking. There's currently bike parking in the Bike Station at Union Station's southwest corner and at some outside racks in the same area. But sometimes there isn't enough, and what's there is notoriously theft-prone. Also, it's all in one place even though Union Station has multiple entrances—there doesn't even appear to be any bike parking in the existing parking garage.

One particular area the BAC recommended was on the north side of Columbus Circle near the existing flag poles across from Union Station.

In addition to these changes, the BAC has also discussed a complimentary idea to redesign Columbus Circle for better use, in light of Delaware Avenue and First Street NE south of D Street being closed for security reasons after September 11th.

If Delaware and First's connections to Columbus Circle were closed to automobile traffic, the roads could be narrowed, parking could move off of Massachusetts Avenue, and there'd be more space for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.


Image from Google Maps.

Delaware Avenue could become a woonerf, used by cyclists going to or from the Circle and by drivers, accessing it only from D Street, for parking. First Street could be narrowed to two lanes with angled parking on one or both sides, while leaving a space for protected bikeways.

The addition of parking to First Street would allow for the removal of curbside parking on Massachusetts Avenue between First and Second Streets NE. This block is confusing, as it features two lanes wide enough for side-by-side traffic and curbside parking. Removing the parking would allow this block to feature three or four traffic lanes and a continuation of the bike lanes from Columbus Circle. For pedestrians, the south side of the circle would feature shorter bike facility crossings at New Jersey and First, instead of the current road crossings.

The Federal Railroad Administration will host a meeting on Wednesday, March 30th to give the public a chance to review the drafted project elements for Union Station's expansion.

Transit


The Northeast Corridor carries more rail passengers than anywhere else in the country. What could it look like in 2040?

The Federal Railroad Administration recently unveiled their draft plans to improve rail travel across the northeast, from Washington to Boston. The plan will help set the stage for a potential transformation of train service in the mega region.


Acela at New Carrollton. Photo by the author.

Today, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are linked by a busy rail line known as the Northeast Corridor (NEC). The 457-mile line is the busiest passenger railway in the nation, carrying over 750,000 passengers each day on more than 2,200 trains.

But the corridor is desperately in need of investment just to bring it to a state of good repair. Several chokepoints mean that the line is currently operating near capacity, which means it can't support expected growth in population, employment, or intercity travel.

The plan is what's known as a "Tier 1 EIS." That means that it is an environmental analysis that looks at the broader issues. Detailed study of specific elements will require "Tier 2" EIS studies and those will be conducted as projects work their way through the planning process.

The plan sets out three options

The analysis looks at three main scenarios for investment in the Northeast Corridor. Each of the options has the same core objectives: making rail more reliable, dependable, durable and environmentally sustainable, increasing both the number of passengers it can carry and the places it goes, and contributing to economic growth. But some of the plans are more ambitious than others.

Alternative 1 would make fixes to existing rail and other infrastructure, but would otherwise leave things alone. Its investments in the corridor would mainly involve fixing chokepoints, with limited areas of additional track. It allows for an increase in service which would keep pace with employment and population growth.


Alternative 1. All maps from NEC Future.

The second alternative would build more rail, allowing an expansion of capacity faster than population or employment growth. Work will involve getting rid of chokepoints, widening most of the corridor to four tracks, and building a few new segments outside the current alignment.


Alternative 2.

The third option would build a lot more rail, the goal being to "transform" rail into the dominant mode in the northeast. In addition to upgrading the existing corridor with new track and chokepoint relief, this alternative adds a new independent high-speed line parallel to the corridor. Between Washington and New York, it's very close to the existing route. However, between New York and Boston, there are three possible routings, including one via Long Island and two through inland Connecticut.


Alternative 3.

There's also a "no action" alternative, which assumes the corridor won't be upgraded, in which case, capacity and travel times won't be changed by 2040.

Each option has different ridership projections and capacity increases...

More people will certainly ride on the corridor by 2040, and taking no action would mean doing little to accommodate that growth. Even now, tunnels under the Hudson River are completely full during rush hour; the current 24 trains per hour in each direction is the maximum.

Alternative 1 would allow for a 75% increase over the no action alternative for inter-city trips and a 13% increase for commuter trains, to 33.7 million and 474.5 million trips, respectively. This scenario would add two new tunnels under the Hudson and allow for 37 trains per hour.

Alternative 2, which expands the role of rail, would allow for a 92% increase in inter-city and an 18% increase in commuter trips on the corridor, to 37.1 million and 495.4 million, respectively. The second alternative also adds two new Hudson tunnels, which, in conjunction with other projects, would allow for up to 52 trains per hour in each direction.

The third alternative, which transforms the role of rail, more than doubles intercity ridership to 39 million trips and increases commuter rail ridership to 545.5 million, a 30% increase. This option adds four tunnels under the Hudson, for a total of six. It would allow up to 70 trains per hour to cross under the river.

...as well as a different effect on travel time

Each of the alternatives would reduce travel time over the no action option. Without the proposed improvements, an express could cover the distance between Washington and New York in 2:47. It would be 6:33 to Boston.

Alternative 1 would reduce the Washington to New York express time to 2:43 and Washington to Boston to 5:45. Alternative 2 does even better, reducing the New York trip to 2:26 and the Boston trip to 5:07. But Alternative 3 is the fastest, with a completely new high-speed corridor reducing travel time to New York to 1:48 and to Boston in 3:57.

For corridor trains (roughly equivalent to today's Northeast Regional), there are also time savings. The no action alternative would have Washington to New York trips in 3:23 and Washington to Boston in 8:02.

Alternative 1 would allow corridor trains to cover the distance to New York and Boston in 3:08 and 6:57, respectively. Under the second alternative, DC to New York would come in at 3:01 and to Boston in 6:22. The major investment alternative would bring times down to 2:51 to New York and 5:47 to Boston.

Details for each alternative
Even the no action alternative costs $19.9 billion. That's because it includes the costs of funded projects, funded and unfunded mandates, and over $10 billion in projects that are necessary to keep the corridor operating but which are currently unfunded.

Alternative 1
Alternative 1 is the cheapest alternative, with an estimated price tag of $64-66 billion.

There are a few notable projects included in this option. Locally, it calls for rebuilding New Carrollton station so that it has four tracks, each with access to a platform. It also includes a project to widen the corridor to four tracks from Odenton to Halethorpe, along with a new BWI station with four tracks.


Alternative 1 in Baltimore.

Importantly, the plans call for replacing the B&P Tunnels in Baltimore, which are near the end of their useful life. The plan also includes two new tunnels under the Hudson, bringing the total to four.

One realigned section of track is part of this alternative, a 50-mile bypass of the shore line in Connecticut and Rhode Island, between Old Saybrook and Kenyon. Slower trains would continue to use the curvy line, but faster trains would run on the new line, which would avoid several drawbridges.

Alternative 2
Alternative 2 comes in at around $131-136 billion.

Like the first alternative, it includes four tracks at New Carrollton and between Odenton and Halethorpe, along with a new BWI station. It also calls for a third track between Washington and New Carrollton.

The B&P Tunnel replacement in Baltimore and two new Hudson tunnels are included in this option as well. But the plan also adds two new tunnels under the East River (for a total of six), which was not part of the first alternative.


Alternative 2 in northeastern Maryland.

Several new segments are also part of this project, bypassing slower sections of the line with straighter bypasses. A new line between Aberdeen, Maryland and Newark, Delaware, a bypass of Wilmington, and a straightened section in north Philadelphia allow for faster trains. The plan also includes running a more direct route into Philadelphia 30th Street station via a station at Philadelphia Airport.

Alternative 3
Alterative 3 is the most expensive, since it's building two railway corridors. The estimate for that option ranges from $267 to $308 billion, depending on which route is chosen.

This option upgrades the existing corridor significantly, including many of the projects from the other alternatives. Under this plan, the existing corridor would be widened to four tracks for most of its length south of New York. This aspect would include four platform tracks at New Carrollton and BWI Airport.

Like the other proposals, this alternative replaces the B&P Tunnels. It also adds two new tubes under the Hudson for the corridor and two more Hudson Tunnels (for a total of six) for the high-speed line. The East River would also get two new tunnels (for a total of six).

The existing corridor wouldn't get very many straightenings under this plan, since the second spine would be far more direct and faster. The high-speed line would include tunnels under downtown Baltimore and Philadelphia, with center city stations there.


Alternative 3 in Baltimore.

North of New York, the second spine would be on a completely new route. There are a couple of options for the new routing.


Options for a new high-speed routing north of New York.

Between New York and Hartford, the new line could either run east across Long Island to Ronkonkoma and turn north to cross the existing line at New Haven before continuing to Hartford or it could turn north via White Plains and Danbury before reaching Hartford.

From Hartford to Boston, the line could either run east to Providence and then along the existing line to Boston or northeast to Worcester and then east to Boston.

These new lines are expensive, but have the possibility of opening up new markets, especially on Long Island.

Conclusion
Each of the options outlined in the FRA study is expensive. But an upgrade to the corridor is necessary. The current infrastructure is aging and overburdened. Chokepoints like the Hudson tunnels severely constrain capacity, and will prevent Amtrak and commuter agencies from meeting growing demand.

And the cost of doing nothing is not zero. Without this investment, the northeastern mega region won't be able to move efficiently or grow. And that will have dramatic economic consequences.

But not investing in rail will mean that we'll have to spend even more enlarging highways and airports. And even with that, we'll still have to spend money just keeping the existing Northeast Corridor infrastructure in a state of good repair.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC