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The shutdown is coming! The shutdown is coming! (On the Red Line)

SafeTrack's biggest shutdown is just about here: for 25 days, from October 29th through November 22nd, Red Line trains won't run between the NoMa-Gallaudet and Fort Totten stations. If you use the Red Line at all, regardless of where in the system, you can expect fewer trains, delays on the ones that come, and lots of crowding.

If you use the Red Line on the parts that are staying open, this might be your life for the next few weeks. Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

Be prepared for significant service impacts

This is the tenth of SafeTrack's "surges," which just means it's the tenth area where Metro is doing a deep dive on maintenence work. Trains coming from Grosvenor or Shady Grove will not (!) go all the way to Silver Spring or Glenmont—they'll all turn back around at NoMa. Similarly, trains from Glenmont and Silver Spring will turn around at Fort Totten. Anybody needing to go farther than those two points will need to find a bus, or transfer to the Green/Yellow Lines at Gallery Place or Fort Totten to bridge the gap.

Since NoMa and Fort Totten weren't designed to be terminal stations which might allow trains to turn around quickly, and accounting for the various speed restrictions along the Red Line, trains will only run every six minutes between Shady Grove and NoMa, and every 10 minutes from Glenmont to Fort Totten.

Impact of the SafeTrack Surge 10 shutdown. Image from WMATA.

If you usually rely on Metro to travel in these areas, here are your options

Metro's SafeTrack advisory page lists a number of Metrobus, Ride On, MARC, bike, and carpool routes and options that might be able to help to get around the 25-day shutdown, or provide alternate routes when traffic or a breakdown inevitably snarls your commute during the surge.

Metro's bus shuttles will operate between NoMa, Rhode Island Avenue, Brookland, and Fort Totten stations from system opening to closing. Ride On is offering its own free shuttles between the Silver Spring, Takoma, and Fort Totten stations, and Montgomery County will be giving out some free round-trip MARC tickets through Friday the 28th.

Other buses available for passengers to get around the shutdown are the 80 which connects Fort Totten and Brookland to Union Station, Gallery Place, and Metro Center, the S9 directly from Silver Spring to to Columbia Heights and McPherson Square, and the P9P6 connecting Anacostia to Metro Center up to Rhode Island Avenue.

Last but certainly not least, Montgomery County has an interactive map showing park-and-ride lots, and there are also bike maps for how to traverse the area on bike along with the SafeTrack-specific detour signs

What work will Metro do during the shutdown? It's not saying so we have to guess.

Unfortunately, there's no information posted on Metro's website about what specific work is being performed. Communication about the specific work being done is one of the big sticking points between Metro and passengers, and it has been since SafeTrack started and well before even for Metro employees.

It'd be nice for customers to know what work is being done to repair the tracks so they can see what kind of tangible benefits the present headaches might yield; without that kind of information, it's hard to continue to support the system.

In the absence of a planned work schedule, I can look at previous surges and take my best couple guesses at what Metro will be doing during the 25 days.

  • Likely, there again will be four main sections of work that they will try to get done: track, structures, automatic train control, and traction power.
  • Track work being done between NoMa and Fort Totten will likely again include major rail tie replacements numbering in the hundreds or thousands. Depending on the status of the ballast—the gravel that the rail ties rest on—crews may need to place more under the track, or replace some of what is already there if it's not in good condition.
  • As with the other surges, power cables will be checked and replaced, the intrusion detection warning system will be refurbished where needed, emergency trip station lights will be repaired, and any signals in the area should be converted to LED lights if they aren't already.
But apart from these generic work summaries, there's no real way to know exactly what's scheduled to get done during this surge. Even if there were, though, the agency itself still doesn't have metrics to determine if SafeTrack was a "success."

Hopefully, at very least, the speed restriction near Rhode Island Ave which was put in place to "minimize structural deterioration" is addressed, and trains can resume going normal speeds through the station without fear of concrete falling from the ceiling.


Why is this MARC train parked in Denver?

If you were in Denver this weekend, you might've seen an unusual sight: A MARC commuter rail train parked behind Denver Union Station.

MARC in Denver. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

What gives?

Turns out the train was in Colorado as part of the testing for MARC's new locomotives. Officials wanted to test the new locomotives with actual MARC rolling stock, to evaluate how the locomotives performed in real-life conditions.

The Federal Railroad Administration has a test track in Pueblo, CO, so off this train went.

The train was in Denver because Amtrak carries the equipment on a regularly scheduled train from Denver to Chicago (#5, the California Zephyr) and then from Chicago to DC (#29, the Capitol Limited).

Thanks to Matt Johnson and Twitter user @kencon06 for helping to solve this mystery.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


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 café 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.


Sorry, Metro. I’ve been seeing someone else.

I broke up with Metro last month.

Photo by Jeannette E. Spaghetti on Flickr.

I used to commute from Montgomery County to the Navy Yard area every day, typically by the Red and Green lines with a transfer at Fort Totten. SafeTrack work on my section of the Red Line sent me looking around for alternatives. Driving was never an option, so I landed on MARC's Brunswick Line plus Capital Bikeshare.

I realize I'm not comparing apples to apples and that every commuter's situation is very different. But I've found a more comfortable, less stressful, and less expensive way to get to work and back. So I decided to stick with it instead of going back to Metro after the surge is over. (Apparently, I'm not alone.)

The MARC Kensington station is a bit closer to my house by bike than Metro's Forest Glen station, which is where I used to start my commute. There's an easily legible electronic sign with train status and the current time, facing in both directions. The trains are clean, comfortable and quiet. They're nearly always on time. The conductors stop to answer questions. And I've always gotten a seat facing in the direction of travel, even though I get on just two stops before the end of the line. There's even an online lost and found service! The monthly pass is slightly cheaper than the daily Metro fare, even if I only use it four times a week.

I've added a touch of grandeur to the daily experience, arriving and departing Daniel Burnham's classic working monument to transportation, Union Station, and biking past the Capitol too. I'm also getting an extra four miles of exercise a day, which is a blessing even on the sweatiest of DC days.

I realize I'm having what amounts to a boutique travel experience. The Brunswick line draws only about 8,000 commuters on a typical weekday. That's every single train from every single station. On Metro, about that many people get on trains every day just at the Archives station. So one form of mass transit is definitely more "mass" than the other.

And not that the new commuting reality is a perfect one.

I had multiple equipment failures, bike shortages, and dock blocking on Bikeshare in just three weeks of daily commutes, and bought a new foldable bike as a result. I'm adjusting to the reality of a small number of trains that leave at fixed times, and how that affects when I come and go. The MARC train departs on a different track every day from Union Station, resulting in a large clump of people staring at a monitor and then bolting for the doors. I don't understand why this happens. Likewise, you can't count on using the same train doors to get off every day. And my bike ride home from the station is nearly all uphill. But these are little things, compared to the big things I started to notice after nearly a year of riding Metro every day.

My relationship with Metro began nearly three decades ago, and I was smitten.

I remember coming to DC as an 8th-grader and marveling at how clean, modern, and quiet the subway system was. It left an imprint on my young mind at least as great as any monument or museum we visited. Knowing nothing at the time about transit operations or the populations they served, I held Metro up as the standard for judging all others.

Nearly three decades later, having lived in and around DC since 2000, I was a daily commuter at several points in my career. I silently saluted the public-sector employees who keep the system running, unrecognized until something goes wrong. I read the excellent Great Society Subway history of Metro, now a decade old. I continued to thank my lucky stars every day to be off the roads, free to read or send email or even take a nap. But I'd also grown weary of the frequent service interruptions, unexplained delays and general lack of communication with customers.

There was the evening a year ago when a few dozen of my fellow passengers and I were literally held against our will by Metro. We arrived by train at Forest Glen only to find the elevators disabled because of a fire alarm. There are no escalators because of the station's depth. We stood in the mezzanine between platforms, hearing nothing from the lone Metro employee behind a nearby glass door. Every train after ours was bypassing the station.

That time when I couldn't use the Forest Glen elevators, nor the stairs... it wasn't one of the good ones. Photo by Dan Malouff.

A good 15 minutes later, I finally asked him if I could take the stairs and go home. (The emergency exit door was marked with a warning that a 20-story climb lay ahead, but I am a reasonably fit person who runs the occasional half marathon.) He told me no, but declined to explain why. There was nowhere we could go, no explanation about what was happening, no sense of when it would end.

Finally, another 10 minutes or so later, we were all shepherded onto a train in the other direction and told to get off at Silver Spring for a shuttle. Nobody seemed to know where the shuttle was when we got there. We found it, more than a block away, and got on a bus with a driver who seemed more annoyed than we were. We arrived at the front entrance to Forest Glen a good 45 minutes after we'd gotten off the train in the first place. No apologies, no explanations.

I lost track of the number of times I've sat or stood on a train for minutes on end, abruptly stopped in a tunnel with no cell phone service, with no idea why. Sometimes there was no explanation. Sometimes the PA system is inaudible. And sometimes it was the equally useless "train moving momentarily" announcement. Even the fantastic and comfortable new 7000-series cars have an automated announcement that there is a train on the next platform, and we'll be moving when the train clears. Why does this happen so often that we need a pre-programmed script for it?

When there were station announcements, they seemed geared toward people who work at Metro and speak the lingo, not ordinary customers. As a regular rider, transit buff, resident of the DC area and native English speaker, I still failed to understand how and why some messages went out. "We are currently experiencing residual delays in the direction of..." First of all, "currently" is nothing but a redundant word. Secondly, what is a residual delay anyway? Nobody cares if the train that's supposed to arrive at 5:03 is arriving at 5:07, if they can just get on the one before it instead. Is there going to be crowding? More time between trains? Then say it that way. With elevator outages, customers don't care that there's one set out of service for short-term repairs and another for long-term capital reconstruction. That's for the WMATA planners and budgeters to worry about. Customers just want to know that the elevator's out today and where to go instead. So why make two sets of announcements?

There were the overcrowded cars, hot cars, cars that were dark and empty because they were out of service. The trains that seemed to go missing. The lurching forward, stopping and starting multiple times on the way into multiple stations. Some trips took many, many minutes longer than others of the same distance, a variation that seemed to have nothing to do with how long we stopped at each station. It was all still orders of magnitude better than driving, but Metro was often a jarring, sweaty, unpredictable experience.

I do see signs of hope.

New general manager Paul Wiedefeld's decision to close the entire rail system for a day on short notice got the region's attention. WMATA's communication about SafeTrack has been effective, from ads in newspapers and free media outreach to the woman who stood outside my home station leafleting and announcing the next week's service reduction. The administration seems more open to conversations with the public and the press, which is a very good thing. It's a tough line to walk when you're trying to get support for improvements but also trying to convince people that you know what you're doing. I've been impressed so far.

I'm hoping instead of having a permanent breakup, Metro and I will still be able to see each other once in awhile. In fact, I took the Red Line to meet up with my wife in Dupont Circle after work just the other day. But I'll stick to MARC for my daily trips to the office and back, and will continue peddling away on my new folding bike for the first and last miles.


When a train pass gets you rides on more than just trains, it's good for the region

Did you know that a weekly or monthly ticket for MARC commuter rail and certain types of tickets for VRE commuter rail, during the time when they are valid, are also good for unlimited rides on every many other transit systems in the DC and Baltimore region except for Metrorail? It's a well-kept secret, and an example of a partnership across agencies that should happen more often.

Photo by Ryan Stavely on Flickr.

MARC, or Maryland Area Rail Commuter, is a service of the Maryland Transit Administration that operates daily between DC's Union Station Baltimore Penn Station via New Carrollton throughout the day in both directions (the Penn Line), as well as rush-hour trains on weekdays between DC and Baltimore Camden Yards via Greenbelt (the Camden Line) and DC and Frederick, Maryland/Martinsburg, West Virginia via Montgomery County (the Brunswick Line).

Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is a service of two Northern Virginia regional transit commissions that runs weekday rush-hour trains, in the peak direction of travel, between DC's Union Station and Fredericksburg and Manassas/Broad Run.

You can buy single ride, weekly, and monthly MARC passes, all for a flat fee. That obviously gets you onto a MARC train, but if you show your ticket to the driver, you owe no additional fare on all many of greater Washington's bus services, including Metrobus and RideOn DC Circulator RideOn. Your MARC ticket is also an unlimited pass to all of Baltimore's transit system, including the subway, light rail, and buses. Simply show it to the station agent when entering the subway or to a fare inspector on light rail.

Similarly, a paper VRE ticket (single ride, weekly or monthly) is valid for rides on any bus service that connects with a VRE station (including Metrobus, ART, DASH, Fairfax Connector, FRED (Fredericksburg) and PRTC/OmniLink buses) at no additional fare. VRE riders can also purchase monthly Transit Link Cards, which are like SmarTrip cards, but are good for unlimited rides on both Metrorail and VRE during the month.

These features make MARC and VRE passes a great deal not only for those who travel regularly between DC and Baltimore, but also for commuters who come into DC from places like Rockville, Gaithersburg, Kensington, College Park, Greenbelt, New Carrollton, Alexandria, Crystal City, and Franconia/Springfield. MARC and VRE riders can use buses (and VRE riders with Transit Link Cards can use Metrorail) to cover the first or last mile at either end of their train trip as well as to get around on evenings and weekends, all for no additional cost.

Photo by JanetandPhil on Flickr.

There are precious few other examples of similar interagency cooperation in our region. One notable one is the interchangeability between DC's SmarTrip (administered by WMATA) and Baltimore's Charm Card (administered by the Maryland Transit Administration); either card works on all the greater DC jurisdictions' bus systems (including regional bus passes loaded onto a SmarTrip). However, you can't use a SmarTrip or Charm Card to pay commuter rail fare on MARC or VRE, except for Transit Link Cards (many other regions' contactless fare cards can be used on commuter rail as well as local transit), and you also must have separate form of payment to use Capital Bikeshare, commuter buses, taxis, etc.

Only recently has WMATA introduced a pass that works on both rail and bus (the SelectPass), but it still costs significantly more to add a bus pass to a rail pass and vice versa. WMATA could entice more riders to buy passes and not lose significant revenue by allowing monthly Metrorail passes to also include unlimited bus rides.

VRE should offer its weekly and monthly ticket holders the same connectivity benefits as MARC does—at least for Metrobus and northern Virginia local buses, if not also for Maryland buses. MTA, Loudoun County Transit, PRTC, and other commuter bus riders could also give their monthly pass holders the same benefits as MARC and VRE.

Eventually, there should be one card that pays fare on all the DC-Baltimore region's public conveyances—Metro, local bus, commuter bus, commuter rail, ferries, taxis, bikeshare, and special buses like Washington Flyer and the YTS New Carrollton-Annapolis bus—to which weekly and monthly passes could be added that could include all these modes, either at no additional charge or at a discount, or as many of them as the user wishes to add.

The simpler it is to determine and pay the fare on transit, and the more people feel like they are getting a good deal by "buying in bulk," the more people will be attracted to use all of these forms of travel and to think of and experience them as one interconnected system. MTA and VRE obviously overcame the hurdle of administrative siloing when it made deals with WMATA and other agencies for MARC and VRE pass holders. There's no reason other agencies can't do the same.

Correction: This article originally said that MARC passes work for the DC Circulator, and omitted facts about VRE tickets working on other transit systems. It has been updated to for accuracy.


VRE's map keeps getting more diagrammatic

Last year, when Virginia's VRE commuter rail system opened a new extension to Spotyslvania, the agency completely redesigned its map. The new version follows a trend for VRE: Every iteration gets more and more like a subway diagram, and less like a true geographic map.

VRE's system map over time. Original images by VRE, compilation by the author.

The new map is at least the third completely different version VRE has tried since its launch in the 1990s. The original map was purely geographic, and oh-so '90s. The second map was a hybrid with simplified geography. The newest is a pure diagram, with equally-spaced station symbols and only the barest nods to geographic context.

It generally makes a lot of sense for transit agencies, and particularly rail providers, to use diagrams instead of geographic maps. Features like the Potomac River's many inlets, or minor curves on the rail lines, aren't information that riders need to know, but they clutter the original map, making it hard to discern the information that does matter. On the other hand, it's useful to know that the Fredericksburg line roughly parallels I-95 and that the Manassas line roughly parallels I-66.

Image from VRE.

Cameron Booth, the internet's foremost expert on transit maps and author of, reviewed VRE's new map in December, calling it a "solid" but "unremarkable" effort.

Across the river in Maryland, the MARC commuter rail map remains completely geographic.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


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?


Friday is Bike to Work Day. Here's where to find a pit stop.

Friday is the DC region's 16th annual Bike to Work Day. It's a great opportunity to build a few extra minutes into your commute to stop at one of over 80 commuting "pit stops" on your way to (or from) work.

An interactive map of the Bike to Work Day 2016 pit stops.

The pit stops offer refreshments, raffles, and free t-shirts to those who register. Each pit stop has something a little different: elected officials and entertainment will be at some, and some will be open in the afternoon for your commute home.

Bike to Work Day also encompasses commuter convoys, biking buddies, and other resources for first-time riders. Plus, MARC will be running its bike car for commuters that day.

BtWD 2009. Photo by Transportation for America on Flickr.

Last year's Bike to Work Day in our region attracted over 17,000 participants. With Metro's SafeTrack starting soon, bicycling will be an important commuting alternative for some people. If you'll be impacted by SafeTrack and are considering bicycling as an alternative, Friday is a great day to get out there and test your route!

Will you be joining this year? If so, don't forget to snap a photo or two and add them to the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, and the official Bike to Work Day Flickr pool, too.


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.

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