Posts about MARC
Today, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed the transportation funding bill that passed the legislature this year. The governor also announced a list of projects that would get some of the money, including MARC expansion and studies for the Purple Line and Baltimore Red Line.
The tax will start this summer, and will help fund transportation projects across the state. The increased tax was a key part of O'Malley's 2013 legislative agenda, and is expected to generate $800 million more for transportation each year.
After the governor signed the bill, his office released a list of "first round" projects that will get some of the increased revenues. This list totals $1.2 billion, but over the first 6 years, the tax should generate $4.4 billion.
Of the $1.2 billion, $650 million (54%) will go to transit. However, a large portion of that funds studies rather than actual construction. Money will go to MARC to add weekend service on the Penn Line and 2 new weekday roundtrips on the Camden Line, and to purchase new locomotives.
Here is the full list.
- $100 million for MARC enhancements, including Penn Line weekend service, 2 new Camden Line weekday roundtrips, and new locomotives.
- $280 million for final design for the Purple Line.
- $170 million for final design for the Red Line in Baltimore.
- $100 million for final design for the Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County.
- $125 million for construction of an interchange between I-270 and Watkins Mill Road in Montgomery County.
- $100 million for construction of an interchange at Kerby Hill Road and Indian Head Highway in Prince George's.
- $49 million for widening US 29 to three lanes from Seneca Drive to MD 175 in Howard County.
- $82 million for construction of an interchange on US 15 at Monocacy Boulevard in Frederick.
- $20 million for design of a new Thomas Johnson Bridge between Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
- $60 million for reconstruction of in interchange at I-695 and Leeds Avenue in Baltimore County.
- $44 million for BRAC-related construction near Aberdeen Proving Ground.
- $54 million for construction of a new interchage on US 301 at MD 304 on the Eastern Shore.
MTA also has a wish list of projects to fund with money from Maryland's recently-passed gas tax increase. David Johnson, chief customer communications officer for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), briefed the MARC Riders' Advisory Council last Thursday.
MTA would like to overhaul the Penn Line station at West Baltimore, similar to the Halethorpe overhaul. This would be in conjunction with the future Baltimore Red Line. Other items on the wish list include 10 new diesel locomotives and weekend service on the Penn Line.
At Halethorpe, where MTA reported 1,209 boardings on March 13, 2013, the southbound high platform is complete and will open this week, Johnson said. The high platform will reduce the time each train spends at the station (dwell time), because the floor of the train cars will be at the same level as the platform. Passengers will no longer have to use stairs to get on and off the train. In addition, passengers will be able to use all doors of the train to get on and off.
However, Johnson said that MTA does not expect to adjust the Penn Line schedule to account for the reduced dwell time until the northbound high platform and the footbridge connecting the two platforms are completed in June.
When the overhaul is finished, people who use wheelchairs will be able to ride the train from Halethorpe, because of the high platforms and elevators in the new bridge. All stations on the Penn Line between Washington Union Station and Baltimore Penn Station will be wheelchair-accessible, except West Baltimore.
After this, the next step at Halethorpe might be an $18 million parking garage, said Johnson. Many people who drive to the station park their cars on Southwestern Boulevard (US Route 1) and on nearby neighborhood streets.
As for the 54 new bi-level cars, MTA expects the first of the cars to be in service in November. The cars were delayed by a strike at the factory in Quebec and Federal Railroad Administration-required modifications to the brake rotors. They will be certified to run at 90 mph, but MTA would like to get them certified to run at 125 mph.
MTA will use the first cars to replace the 4 40-year-old Pullman gallery cars currently in service on the Brunswick Line. In the meantime, MTA plans a light overhaul of the air conditioning systems on the gallery cars, to get them through one more summer.
In the DC region we have Metro and commuter rail trains, with light rail, streetcars, and BRT all in the works. And of course, regular buses. But one common mode we don't have is DMU trains, which bridge the gap between light rail and commuter rail.
DMU stands for Diesel Multiple Unit. DMU trains are intended to operate on routes that look like commuter rail, but at almost light rail frequency. They go over long distances, with infrequent stations, usually on or adjacent to freight tracks. But instead of coming only at rush hour, trains come all day long, as often as every 15-20 minutes.
That's a great service model for suburban corridors that need something better than rush-hour MARC or VRE service, but are too far away for light rail and don't have the density to justify the costs of Metrorail.
One big advantage of DMUs over traditional commuter trains is that DMUs can operate on-street, like light rail. That makes integrating them with downtown areas much easier, because it frees DMUs to go anywhere, rather than only to a city's main rail hub.
All MARC and VRE trains to DC must go to Union Station, because all the long distance tracks through DC go to Union Station. Not only does that constrain route planning, it's also a limit on capacity, because there are only so many platforms at Union Station. But a DMU could go anywhere.
There are not currently any plans for DMU lines in the DC region, but there could be. DMU would be a great solution for Maryland's proposed Charles County corridor or Fairfax's Route 28. Officials are looking at light rail for those corridors, but they're far out in the suburbs and wouldn't have very frequent stops, so DMU might be more appropriate.
In the long term it might also make sense to convert some of MARC and VRE's existing lines to DMU, or to supplement them with more DMU trains. That would give them more operational flexibility, and could increase service. But MARC and VRE are established as traditional commuter rail, and may be uncomfortable with anything else.
MARC and VRE also have to use tracks owned by freight companies. DMUs can be used in mixed company with freight, although that requires federal approval. But if the freight lines are already using their tracks to capacity, which is common in the DC area, then there's no room for more trains no matter what they look like.
DMU isn't Metro, and it isn't light rail. DMU trains can't do all the things those modes can do. It's not an appropriate mode where frequent stops are necessary. But for long corridors with infrequent stops and moderate capacity needs, it's ideal. We should keep in mind as we continue to advocate for new transit lines.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Maryland and Virginia will both enact major new transportation funding bills this year. Neither bill says exactly which projects will be funded, but here are the top 10 projects in Maryland and Virginia that most deserve to get some of the funds.
1. 8-car Metro trains: Metrorail is near capacity, especially in Virginia. More Metro railcars and the infrastructure they need (like power systems and yard space) would mean more 8-car trains on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.
2. Tysons grid of streets: Tysons Corner has more office space than downtown Baltimore and Richmond put together. Converting it to a functional urban place is a huge priority.
3. Purple Line: Bethesda, Silver Spring, Langley Park, College Park, New Carrollton. That's a serious string of transit-friendly pearls. The Purple Line will be one of America's best light rail lines on the day it opens.
4. Baltimore Red Line: Baltimore has a subway line and a light rail line, but they don't work together very well as a system. The Red Line will greatly improve the reach of Baltimore's rail system.
5. Silver Line Phase 2: The Silver Line extension from Reston to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County is one of the few projects that was earmarked in Virginia's bill, to the tune of $300 million.
6. Arlington streetcars: The Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars both have funding plans already, but could potentially be accelerated.
7. Route 7 transit. Leesburg Pike is the next Rosslyn-Ballston corridor waiting to happen. Virginia is just beginning to study either a light rail or BRT line along it.
8. Corridor Cities Transitway: Gaithersburg has been waiting decades for a quality transit line to build around. BRT will finally connect the many New Urbanist communities there, which are internally walkable but rely on cars for long-range connections.
9. MARC enhancements: MARC is a decent commuter rail, but it could be so much more. Some day it could be more like New York's Metro North or Philadelphia's SEPTA regional rail, with hourly trains all day long, even on weekends.
10. Alexandria BRT network: This will make nearly all of Alexandria accessible via high-quality transit.
Honorable mentions: Montgomery County BRT network, Potomac Yard Metro station, Virginia Beach light rail, Southern Maryland light rail, and VRE platform extensions.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
DC Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie tweeted yesterday that he wants the city to look into either a Metro or MARC station at the corner of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. MARC could work, though streetcar might do more to bring transit-oriented development to the area.
That corner is easily the most suburban place west of the Anacostia River in DC, and maybe in the entire District, so it could certainly use a transit investment to help it develop a more urban character. But what sort of transit would make sense?
Metrorail is not a sensible solution, because there's not a Metro line anywhere nearby. WMATA's Brentwood rail yard is very close, so adding a new station at Bladensburg and NY Ave wouldn't require all that much new track construction. But that would result in a 1-station spur of the Red Line, which would have limited usefulness.
A bigger problem is that a new spur would decrease the capacity of the Red Line's existing Silver Spring leg. Operationally it just wouldn't make sense. And even if it did, a new Metro station would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
MARC could be a good solution, because MARC's Penn Line (the best one) does pass by just 1 block north of New York Avenue. An infill station there would be easy to build, and would provide about 60 trains per day. MARC stations are extremely simple, so this is something that could be accomplished relatively easily.
But 60 trains a day isn't actually very many, if your goal is to induce transit-oriented development. The relative simplicity of a MARC station makes it an attractive short-term goal, but in the long term a better solution may be needed.
One mode McDuffie didn't mention, but that maybe should be considered, is streetcar. None of DDOT's proposed streetcar lines pass through here, but the H Street line and the Florida Avenue / 8th Street line are both close. It wouldn't cost very much to add a spur from those lines that goes up West Virginia Avenue and ends at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road, like this:
Potential new streetcar route, using portions of the H Street and 8th Street lines, with a spur up West Virginia Avenue.
Another option for a streetcar spur would be to go up Bladensburg Road itself, breaking off from H Street at the Starburst intersection. That would better serve the Carver Langston neighborhood and National Arboretum, but wouldn't be as good for Ivy City.
A third permutation could spur off of the Rhode Island Avenue streetcar, using Montana Avenue to cut south to New York Avenue. This might be the cheapest streetcar option, but it would also probably be the least useful, since it wouldn't go to many new places.
DC has so many great transit projects in the works that anything will likely be hard to budget. Metro is probably not realistic at all, and a MARC station is the best bet for something soon. But a streetcar on West Virginia Avenue, Bladensburg Road, or Montana Avenue may well be something to shoot for.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Constantine Hannaher has made a hobby of using Legos to build models of DC-area buses and trains.
See more in Hannaher's Lego set on Flickr.
If MARC trains at Union Station became VRE trains to Virginia and vice versa, riders could reach more stations and we could use Union Station's limited tracks more efficiently. Unfortunately, there are several reasons this isn't as easy as it sounds. That doesn't mean trains can't run through, but a number of changes have to happen first, which cost money.
Previously, we talked about the biggest obstacle, high and low platforms. MARC has some high platforms and some low platforms, and wants one car type that can serve both, across all lines. But using those cars on VRE would slow down boarding considerably.
Still, is that a deal-breaker? The Brunswick Line has all low platforms today, which could accommodate VRE trains. What about just running VRE trains onto the Brunswick Line and vice versa to start with? Or just have some MARC trains go at least to Alexandria?
Unfortunately, the track layout at Union Station, insufficient space for reverse-direction trains on most lines, and limited platforms at L'Enfant and Crystal City all pose obstacles.
Union Station's tracks don't line up VRE and the Brunswick MARC
At Union Station, VRE trains coming from the south enter the station from the First Street Tunnel, at the far eastern end of the station. But the Brunswick Line's tracks come into the station at its far western end.
A Brunswick train crossing from the CSX Metropolitan Subdivision tracks on the west side of the station to the through tracks on the east side would have to cross all the tracks at Union Station, blocking trains on the other MARC, Amtrak and VRE lines.
That doesn't mean crossing over is impossible. It just makes scheduling more difficult. If in the future, for example, Acelas leave (and arrive) every 30 minutes and Regionals leave/arrive every 30 minutes, and MARC Penn trains leave and arrive every 20, there aren't many gaps for trains to cross over, and doing so can cause delays.
The Penn Line trains wouldn't face this problem, and as the highest-ridership line, that is the most logical one for through-running. But this is also the line with the most high platforms and thus the greatest incompatibility between MARC and VRE.
There isn't enough reverse-direction capacity
The Penn Line tracks do line up with the First Street tunnel; that's what Amtrak trains use to get to Virginia. Those trains could continue south to Alexandria, or even farther south. This could be a great asset for Penn Line riders, who could stay on the train to L'Enfant Plaza if they want the Metro Orange, Blue, Yellow or Green Lines, or ride to Crystal City or Alexandria if they work at jobs in Virginia.
Unfortunately, this would run into a second problem. There isn't enough track capacity south of Union Station. Right now, there are 2 tracks across the Potomac on the Long Bridge, and 3 through the L'Enfant Plaza area. CSX controls these tracks, and doesn't let VRE use all of the tracks.
Right now, VRE trains run almost entirely one-way. The trains head into DC on one track in the morning, and back out to Virginia on one track in the afternoon; in between, the trains sit at a yard near Ivy City in DC. The VRE schedule lists just one reverse-direction train, on the Manassas Line each morning and evening. Amtrak's trains go both ways all day, but there are only a few of those and mainly not at rush hours.
The bottom line is, if Virginia and Maryland wanted to have all or even some Penn Line trains continue past Union Station at least to Alexandria, there wouldn't be enough track space.
A similar problem applies to letting VRE trains continue north of Union Station. CSX has resisted letting Maryland's MTA add more MARC trains on the Brunswick and Camden Lines without also demanding Maryland invest some money into improvements along the route.
Stations are limited
Another issue with through-running is the design of the VRE stations at L'Enfant and Crystal City. These stations each have just one platform on one side of the tracks. That means trains can only serve the stations in one direction at a time.
This means the reverse peak direction trains on the Manassas Line each morning and afternoon can't stop at Crystal City or L'Enfant, because the trains running in the peak direction are using the platform track.
If Brunswick (or other MARC) trains could run south of Union Station today, they couldn't stop at L'Enfant or Crystal City, which is where most of the MARC riders would likely want to go.
Most of the other stops on the Manassas Line have the same configuration, with platforms only on one side as well. This will prove to be an obstacle for additional reverse peak direction trains, whether they're MARC or VRE.
Maryland Ave plan and Long Bridge study could fix this
There is hope on the horizon. The recent Maryland Avenue study recommended building a fourth track at L'Enfant Plaza. CSX could then let passenger trains travel in both directions at high frequency in that area. It would also transform the station from just one platform to 3, with a combination of high and low platforms for both types of trains.
The next bottleneck would be the 2-track Long Bridge across the Potomac, and there's another study going on for that. VRE's 2004 strategic plan recommended adding a 3rd track from the Long Bridge to Crystal City, where the line widens to 3 tracks, and giving the Crystal City station an island platform to serve trains in both directions.
Combined with needed improvements at Union Station, we might one day see a truly regional rail system, at least from Baltimore and maybe Frederick to Alexandria, alongside more frequent service from Fredericksburg and Manassas to DC. To make this happen, however, Maryland and Virginia will have to make it a priority. With an 8-year-old VRE plan and a 5-year-old MARC plan mostly collecting dust, riders will need to push their leaders to put resources into commuter rail.
It seems logical: MARC's trains all end at Union Station in the south. VRE's trains all end at Union Station in the north. Union Station has capacity constraints. Why not create one regional rail operator, where all trains continue through the core and out the other end?
This idea, often called through-running, comes up often. Unfortunately, several hurdles make it much more complicated and expensive than one would think at first glance. The platform heights and train systems are incompatible between MARC and VRE, the tracks at Union Station don't line up properly, and VRE does not right now have the track space.
The most technically difficult problem to resolve is platform height. MARC uses a combination of high platforms and low platforms, with their cars optimized for high platforms. VRE runs cars that can only use low platforms.
Unfortunately, just replacing all of the railcars in one of the two fleets would simply create another problem: inefficient boarding.
Why does VRE use low platforms?
VRE trains operate on two lines south of Washington that are owned by freight railroads. Because the freight railroads (CSX for the Fredericksburg Line and Norfolk Southern (NS) for the Manassas Line) own the tracks, they get to have a say about what types of platforms can be built. And that means low platforms.
Low platforms are typically placed at about the height of the top of the rail. The reason freight railroads want these types of platforms is because freight cars are wider than passenger cars, and high platforms could intrude into the dynamic envelope of a freight train.
As long as VRE operates on rail lines that are predominately freight railroad corridors, it will be stuck with using low platforms. There's not really anything wrong with that, except that in this case, it's an obstacle to through-running.
Railcar design matters
For passenger railroads using low platforms, there are 3 basic types of double-decker cars in use. Two of these offer access to the lower level with just one or two steps up from the platform, and can therefore be fairly efficient in boarding.
They're also much easier for mobility-impaired riders to board. Platforms can be designed to have a small area at the height of the floor, set back from the tracks. When necessary, a bridge plate is used for wheelchairs.
Left: A bi-level commuter coach with low-level boarding in Minneapolis. Photo by the author.
Right: An Amtrak California double-decker car. Photo by Wayan Vota.
Many cities outside of the Northeast use these cars, with the Amtrak California cars operating in Southern California and the Bay Area. The bi-levels are used in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and Miami.
VRE uses gallery cars, the third type. These cars have 2 levels, but passengers must climb 4 steps to board even just to the lower level. But the stairs are fairly wide and are not as steep as the stepwells on high-platform equipment. Gallery cars cannot use high platforms at all.
In order to speed boarding, VRE could easily move toward either the bi-level or Amtrak model. In fact, for a while, VRE was using a set of bi-levels leased from Seattle's Sound Transit.
What's wrong with using high-platform equipment on VRE?
If MARC can use high-platform equipment, why can't VRE? Well, VRE could use high-platform equipment, and in fact, they have done so in the past. But using high-platform equipment at low platform stops is inherently less efficient.
Using high-platform equipment means that conductors have to manually open each door (instead of automatic doors in the whole train) at low-platform stops. That generally means that only one or two doors aboard the train can open, as is the case with the MARC stops at places like College Park and West Baltimore.
Additionally, boarding a high-platform train from a low platform means ascending a narrow, steep staircase. That means it takes longer for passengers to board and alight.
What about MARC?
Like VRE, MARC runs 2 of its lines on tracks that are primarily used for freight. For that reason, most of the stations on the Camden Line and all of the stations on the Brunswick Line have low platforms.
But for MTA, the agency that operates the MARC commuter trains, it makes a lot of sense to have a fairly standard fleet because it can then move its cars between lines as necessary.
MARC's busiest line, the Penn Line, operates on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, and most of those stops have high platforms. This is due to the fact that Amtrak (and the previous operators) have long used single-level railcars for their services. For single-level cars, high platforms are the only way to have step-free access to trains.
On the Penn Line, south of Baltimore, only West Baltimore, Halethorpe, and some of the platforms at Union Station are still low. Halethorpe is currently undergoing conversion to high platforms, and Amtrak recently announced plans to convert most of the platforms at Union Station to high platforms.
On the Camden Line, Greenbelt and Camden stations have high platforms. The other stations all have low platforms. On the Brunswick Line, all stations have low platforms.
What does this mean for through-running?
The practical effect of this arrangement is that through-running trains from either MARC or VRE will be difficult.
The current fleet of VRE trains are not able to use high-platform stations, which means they can't operate on the Penn Line to Baltimore. VRE trains also can't operate on the Camden Line, because they would be unable to serve the terminal station in Baltimore, since it only has high platforms. And that leaves the Brunswick Line as the only viable line they could operate on.
But running VRE trains on the Brunswick Line presents some other challenges: the way tracks are laid out in DC. Tomorrow, we'll look at those issues.
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