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Car-free family trip idea: Baltimore

If you have young children and don't own a car or just don't like driving, you know what a pain weekend trips can be. With the new weekend MARC service to Baltimore, Charm City can be a fun family car-free trip, especially when the weather calls for indoor activities.


Photo by Kevin Labianco on Flickr.

I've taken my 5-year-old son to Baltimore for car-free weekends about 6 times, and he is always asking to go again. It's easily done without the hassle of a car, because most attractions are within easy walking distance of the Inner Harbor.

Getting there and back

You can take the Amtrak or MARC trains 7 days per week between Union Station and Baltimore's Penn Station. The Amtrak Northeast Regional runs between the two stations with tickets as low as $12 and takes 40 minutes. The MARC Penn Line does the same trip in an hour for only $7.00 and now runs 9 trains each way on Saturdays and 6 on Sundays. You can also spend $70 per ticket on the Acela and arrive in only 28 minutes.

My son and I either take an afternoon train on Friday afternoon in time to get him in bed in a hotel on time, or an early morning Saturday train. Kids love trains, of course, and it's wonderful to arrive without the stress of driving.

When you get to Penn Station, you need to take a bus to the Inner Harbor, which is probably where your hotel and activities are. Baltimore has a Circulator bus just like DC, but theirs is free, which is nice. It's called the Charm City Circulator, and the Purple Line runs between Penn Station and the harbor every 10-15 minutes.

The Circulator will take you down the west side of the Harbor. If you are headed to Harbor East, which is where we usually stay, you can either transfer onto the Orange Line or impress your family by taking the local Maryland Transit Administration bus directly from Penn Station to Harbor East. Check out bus directions on Google Maps on your phone and you'll find the next 11 bus running every 30 minutes between Penn Station and Harbor East. Have $1.60 ready per passenger, including kids.

Where to stay

Inner Harbor accommodations can get pricey, but we've found a fantastic hotel option. The Homewood Suites in Harbor East is situated in between all the kids' activities, and has a kiddie pool inside. A large, good breakfast is included.

It's an all-suite hotel, which is a nice perk allowing parents to relax after kids go to sleep. Advance reservations start at $170/night, while same-week reservations start at $189/night. If you're flexible, they drop prices the day before your trip when the hotel isn't filling up, and I've paid as little as $120 as a result.

What to do

There are three big things for kids to do in the Inner Harbor: the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Port Discovery Children's Museum. Here's our time-tested routine.

We arrive Saturday morning, and after taking the Purple Line Circulator bus to Pratt Street, we walk down to Miss Shirley's for lunch. Your kids will love the kids meals in giant bento boxes, and you'll love the crab cake fried green tomatoes eggs benedict.

It may seem like the only restaurants in the Inner Harbor are chains, but there are fantastic local restaurants as well. You just have to head to the east side of the Harbor to find them.

After lunch, we head to the Port Discovery Children's Museum, which is right behind Miss Shirley's. Port Discovery is awesome, and will help your kids get their wiggles out after sitting on the train and a bus.

After the Children's Museum we walk to the Homewood Suites Harbor East, which is an easy 10 minute walk. If we have time, we stop by Vaccaro's Italian Pastry in Little Italy for ice cream, which is right on the way.

We have a little resting time in the hotel, then walk back into Little Italy to get a pizza at Isabella's Pizza, the best pizza in Little Italy.

After a good night's sleep, we wake up Sunday morning and have breakfast in the hotel before headed to the hotel kiddie pool. The big decision to make is whether to then head to the Aquarium or the Science Museum.

The National Aquarium is a very pleasant walk over a couple wooden bridges from Harbor East, away from the tourists on the west and north sides of the harbor. At $35 for adults and $22 for kids under 12, it's a pricey attraction but worth the money if your kid is old enough to really take it in.

Don't head to the aquarium for dolphin shows, because those ended in 2012. By allowing all visitors to observe dolphins in an interactive space designed for dolphins, the Aquarium was able to ensure everyone can see them.

My son likes the Maryland Science Center more than the Aquarium, so we usually go there, which is nice because it costs just $19 for adults and $16 for kids under 13. He could spend hours in the interactive Kids Room.

And any trip across the harbor, like we take from Harbor East to the Science Center, is better taken on the Baltimore Water Taxi. After a long day at the museum, we hop on the Purple Line Circulator back to Penn Station to take the train back to Union Station.

People often tell me it must be great to raise a kid in DC with so many museums. But I've wondered why all neighboring East Coast cities like Philadelphia and Richmond have both a top-tier children's museum and science museum, and DC has neither. That's why it's great to have Baltimore within such an easy reach.

Know any other car-free family trip destinations? Mention them in the comments. You can also read about Harpers Ferry for a car-free family trip.

Transit


VRE's future could include off-peak and weekend service

Faced with growing ridership but limited capacity, VRE has released a plan to significantly expand commuter rail service in Northern Virginia, including reverse-commute, off-peak, and weekend services and an extension to Gainesville and Haymarket.


Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

The $2.68 billion, 25-year capital improvement plan is split into three phases with modest capacity improvements through 2020. By 2030, it proposes major infrastructure projects including a new Long Bridge over the Potomac River, with further improvements in its last decade through 2040. It is the first new strategic plan for the railroad since 2004.

VRE planners say their vision is delivers a lot for a relatively low cost. "Significant capacity increases can take place almost entirely within the existing right of way, at a cost, and in a time frame competitive with highway and heavy rail construction projects in the region," the plan says.

Expansion is sorely needed. CSX and Norfolk-Southern own the tracks VRE's two lines use, and provide few slots for the commuter rail, limiting its schedule. Chokepoints in the region's rail network, most notably the Long Bridge, restrict the number of trains VRE can run. They also share track with Amtrak regional and long-distance trains.

During the railroad's 2013 fiscal year, which ended in June, VRE's average daily ridership was 18,878, though it regularly spikes above 20,000, according to recent comments by VRE Chief Executive Doug Allen. Capacity is about 19,000 passengers per day.

Under the plan, capacity on the commuter railroad would increase to about 43,000 passengers per day on weekdays, a 24,000 passenger increase. It also allows for about 6,000 passengers per day on weekends.

VRE would not cover the entire cost of the plan. The railroad, local, and regional jurisdictions would only be on the hook for about $1.19 billion under the plan, with the rest coming from project partners, for example CSX or Amtrak, and the federal government.

The VRE operations board unanimously approved the plan during its meeting January 17.

Plan proposes new Long Bridge, through-running with MARC

The first phase of VRE's plan, between 2015 and 2020, includes longer trains, an additional round-trip on both the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines, expanded parking at stations, and improved station facilities. These would cost the railroad $285 million. VRE says that these are cost-effective plans that can occur under its existing agreements with CSX and Norfolk-Southern.

The second phase, between 2021 and 2030, includes arguably the largest, and most important, project in VRE's plan: the Long Bridge replacement. Budgeted at about $1.1 billion, this could involve replacing the existing two-track structure with a new four-track bridge, as well as adding new tracks for four from L'Enfant Plaza to Alexandria.

VRE is participating in the Long Bridge replacement study, which the DC Department of Transportation is leading. The commuter railroad estimates that it would only need to contribute up to $111 million to the project under the plan.

A new bridge and additional tracks would also enable through-running with MARC. According to the plan, VRE says that it would work with its Maryland sibling, which is planning to do the same thing.

Other projects during phase two include the $295 million extension to Gainesville and Haymarket, initial investments in a third tr

Transit


Can we build up around MARC stations?

It's not surprising that corporate offices and sprawling suburbs are consuming the green fields between DC's and Baltimore's beltways. What is surprising is there's no real alternative: no urban places are being built at all of the MARC stations in the same corridor.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

My wife and I live in Baltimore. Each morning, we splash cold water on our faces before heading to Penn Station in the dark. There, I drop my wife to catch the 5:50 MARC train to Union Station, where she will then transfer to the Metro and arrive at work by 7:30. This is a better choice than driving through morning and evening rush hour in two cities, which she has tried before.

I work in Baltimore, but have meetings in the suburbs between there and DC. By being in the middle, families and businesses can access the employment, cultural, airport, and other benefits of both regions. But the traffic is terrible, and there is pressure to use taxpayer dollars to widen roads or create new ones, like the Intercounty Connector.

The status quo development between Baltimore and DC is comprised of both commercial and residential sprawl, some of which is very close to MARC stations. But the way it's designed and sited makes it inaccessible to train passengers.

The US Green Building Council (USGBC) and its LEED rating system need to play a role. USGBC should not be giving isolated, land-gobbling sprawl producers green credentials for energy efficiency when these same buildings require inefficient commuting.

By contrast, all seven Penn Line stations, and most of the Camden Line stations between Baltimore and DC lie in a desert of surface parking lots (there's actually a garage at BWI Airport station). It's difficult to even get a cup of coffee at most of these outposts. But the train service offered there can deliver a passenger to the center of Washington or Baltimore roughly as fast and as comfortably as the Metro or a car.

Can we encourage transit-oriented development around MARC stations, the way we have around places like Arlington, Rockville, Bethesda, and Silver Spring, which have grown up around Metro stations? Kaid Benfield has covered Arlington's success in revitalizing neighborhoods without increasing traffic. And Chris Leinberger has described the growth of what he calls "WalkUP" development that is becoming so prevalent in the DC area.

While I advocate for infill development inside the beltways, there's still demand for development in between. It is time to start urban, mixed-use development along the MARC Penn and Camden lines.

The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) proclaims they are open for business partnerships at MARC stations, and have a transit-oriented development (TOD) underway at Odenton. Private sector developers have made lots of money building urban neighborhoods at Metro stations, particularly in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There is potential for similar opportunity adjacent to MARC stations.

So why has scattered growth continued between Baltimore and DC while MARC stations remain constellations of barren surface parking? I speculate the issue is the cost of structured parking, which frees up room for urban development. With cheap available greenfields to build lots on, why spend the money?

The frequency of MARC service also affects the prospects for development around stations. Headways on the Penn Line are close to an hour outside of rush hour, while the Camden Line is even less frequent, and offers no trains in the middle of the day or on weekends.

More frequent MARC trains help overcome one advantage the Metro has over Maryland's commuter lines. Increased service, like weekend service on the Penn Line that started this December, makes TOD more viable because the people who live and work there can rely on it.

There are an increasingly large number of people who travel between Baltimore and Washington that may prefer a hassle-free train ride to a drive in traffic. Especially if there's a cosmopolitan urban environment where they get on and off the train. There is a premium for this in Bethesda and Arlington, and there could be at MARC stations as well.

To get on a roll at MARC stations, the public sector may have to help build and finance structured parking to open up land adjacent to stations for development. Stu Sirota, principal of TND Planning Group, says there needs to be an overarching vision coupled with marketing. "A real regional planning effort or charrette will show how all these station areas could become cool transit villages (or bigger)," he says, "and what an incredible impact that could have on the Baltimore-Washington corridor."

Once there are a few hot spots along the Penn and Camden lines, the areas around MARC stations will become coveted real estate. It is time to get started.

Transit


MARC backs away from all-day service on Brunswick Line

In 2007, the Maryland Transit Administration proposed adding a third track to the MARC Brunswick Line, which could make it possible to have all-day, two-way service. With a recent plan update proposing less third track, it's unlikely that this will ever happen.


MARC's Brunswick Line in Dickerson. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The 2007 MARC Growth and Investment Plan proposed a third track from Georgetown Junction in Silver Spring, to Point of Rocks in Frederick County. It would have been built in three stages between now and 2035. In contrast, the 2013 draft update proposes one small portion of third track in Montgomery County and at unspecified locations elsewhere.

This reduces the chance that there will ever be all-day, two-way service. CSX owns the tracks that MARC trains use, and the agency will not allow MARC to run more service if there isn't a third track. If MARC doesn't say where they plan to put a third track, Montgomery County can't reserve the right-of-way for it, making it harder to build the third track later.

Current service on the Brunswick Line consists of 18 daily trains, peak-service headways of 40-75 minutes, one off-peak train on Fridays only, no reverse-peak service, and no weekend service. The Maryland Transit Administration's original plan for MARC called for bringing all-day, two-way service to the Brunswick Line in three stages.

In 2015, there were to be at least 6 additional peak-service trains, or 3 round trips. By 2020, there were to be shorter peak-service headways, plus some reverse-peak and off-peak service. And in 2035, there were to be reverse-commute and weekend service, as well as service to L'Enfant Plaza and Northern Virginia.

As for the third track, first, MTA would build near Rockville and along the Frederick branch of the Old Main Line. In 2020, there would be a third track on Barnesville Hill, roughly between the Monocacy River, west of Dickerson, and the Bucklodge interlocking, west of Boyds. In the long term, MTA would build the remaining sections of track between Georgetown Junction and Point of Rocks.

In comparison, the 3-stage expansion in the 2013 draft update builds up to only marginally more service. There would be no additional trains in the short term. During the 2020s, MARC would add 3 additional trains, including one reverse-peak train.

Between 2030 and 2050, there would be 6 additional peak-service trains (3 round trips), plus some off-peak service and some more reverse-peak service. The draft update only proposes building a short section of third track on Barnesville Hill in the 2020s, with "additional triple tracking" at unspecified locations in the long term.

Why is MTA's 2013 draft update so much less ambitious than its 2007 plan? Perhaps MTA is trying to hold down the costs of the plan. But unlike the 2007 plan, the 2013 draft update does not provide cost estimates for the long-term plans. So reducing the scope of the long-term plans does not affect the total cost in the 2013 draft update.

Or maybe MTA now believes that there will be insufficient demand for all-day, two-way service and weekend service on the Brunswick Line in the future. But this seems inconsistent with MTA's explicit recognition of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the 2013 draft update, including the creation of high-density, mixed-use TOD on existing surface parking lots within walking distance of MARC stations.

In Montgomery County, there are plans for MARC-related TOD at Kensington and White Flint, and construction is already underway at Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Metropolitan Grove. But will there be enough transit to support TOD at these stations, if even MARC's own Growth and Expansion Plan does not call for eventual all-day, two-way service?

And will these plans leave room for an eventual third track, if MARC's Growth and Expansion Plan does not call for one? Montgomery County's draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which proposes a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, also covers right-of-way for MARC. But it only includes a third track northwest of Metropolitan Grove.

All of these projects should maintain a reserved right-of-way for the third track that will make it easier to provide all-day, two-way service on the Brunswick Line. And for this to happen, MTA's final update of the Growth and Investment Plan must restore both all-day, two-way service and a third track between Georgetown Junction and Point of Rocks as long-term plans.

If you support all-day, two-way service on the Brunswick Line, please e-mail MTA at MGIP@mta.maryland.gov. MTA will accept public comments on the draft update through mid-November.

Transit


Itís going to be an exciting 6 months for DC area transit

When the new Rosslyn Metro entrance opened earlier this week, it became the first in what will be an exciting string of big transit projects opening in the DC region. Still to come: Metro, MARC, streetcars, and BRT.


From left to right: Alexandria's BRT, MARC, Silver Line, DC streetcar.
BRT and Metro photos from Alexandria and Fairfax County.
MARC and streetcar photos from BeyondDC.

The next big event will be on December 7, when MARC trains begin running on weekends between DC and Baltimore. MARC's transition from a commuter railroad to a more general-purpose transit system will open up Baltimore and other parts of Maryland like never before.

After that come streetcars. Sometime in late December, or possibly January, DDOT expects to start running streetcars along H Street. Then in February, the Silver Line will open, and begin carrying passengers to Tysons Corner and Wiehle Avenue.

Finally, sometime in the spring of 2014 Alexandria will open its Route 1 transitway, marking the beginning of the first bona fide bus rapid transit line in the region. All together, it's the most exciting time for transit openings in the DC area since the early 1980s, when Metrorail was opening new segments every few months.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


MARC plan calls for new stations, more service

MARC commuter rail could eventually get new stations, more frequent service, and connections to Northern Virginia and Delaware. That's what a draft update of the system's Growth and Investment Plan calls for over the next 40 years.


Photo by morganglines on Flickr.

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) envisions $467 million in capital improvements between 2013 and 2019 and another $1.8 billion for the following decade, according to the draft plan, an update of the original 2007 plan. It also includes potential plans for between 2030 and 2050.

The draft update identifies four trends affecting MARC. Over the past 15 years, system ridership has gone up an average of 3.5% per year, largely due to the Penn Line between DC, Baltimore, and Perryville. Parking is at capacity at stations on all 3 lines. MTA wants to make the system more sustainable. And MTA wants to encourage transit-oriented development.

MTA already has programmed investments for MARC that are either underway or are planned to happen soon. They include weekend service on the Penn Line, starting December 7; a new station at Halethorpe, on the Penn Line; and the purchase of 54 new railcars. MTA also plans to buy 10 new diesel locomotives, overhaul 63 bi-level railcars, and repower 6 diesel locomotives.

MTA also plans to implement positive train control, as required by law. And MTA plans to improve the track on the Camden and Brunswick Lines, build a facility for mid-day train storage in Washington, procure a maintenance facility at Riverside Yard in Baltimore, and build an interlocking at Hanson, just south of New Carrollton.

For the future, the draft update lays out four objectives for MARC: maintain a state of good repair, increase ridership, improve service, and enhance the customer experience.

On the Penn Line, MTA has $1.296 billion of planned improvements for 2020-2029, including new stations at West Baltimore and BWI and station construction at Bayview (in Baltimore) and at Elkton (in Cecil County). Plans also include expanded parking at Aberdeen, Halethorpe, Odenton, Bowie State, and Seabrook. Trains would have expanded peak and reverse peak hours and 30-minute headways for off-peak service. And there would be a shuttle link with SEPTA, the transit system for Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania. MTA also plans to expand capacity at the Martins maintenance yard north of Baltimore and to build a pedestrian overpass at Odenton.

For 2030-2050, the potential plans for the Penn Line include a complete fourth track, including new bridges and tunnels, as well as service to L'Enfant Plaza and northern Virginia.

On the Camden Line, the $33 million of planned improvements for 2013-2019 include longer trains, a pedestrian crossover at Savage, 2 additional round trips, and turnback service between Washington and Dorsey. For 2020-2029, the $186 million of planned improvements include parking expansions at Laurel, Muirkirk, and Laurel Park Raceway; a third track between Savage and Laurel; one additional mid-day afternoon train; and one additional reverse-peak train. The potential plans for 2030-2050 include more third track, 20-minute headways for peak service, limited mid-day service, and weekend service.

On the Brunswick Line, the $57 million of planned improvements for 2013-2019 include longer trains and more bus connections. The $264 million of planned improvements for 2020-2029 include a third track on Barnesville Hill, east of the Monocacy River, as well as an additional or expanded station in Montgomery County and a parking garage at Germantown. There would be increased limited-stop and express service, along with one additional round trip from Brunswick and one reverse-peak trip to Brunswick. Potential plans for 2030-2050 include more third track, limited reverse-peak service, and 3 additional round trips from Frederick.

For comments on the draft update, you can e-mail MTA at MGIP@mta.maryland.gov until mid-November.

Transit


CSX explains slower train speeds in heat or heavy rain

Why do trains on MARC's Camden and Brunswick Lines sometimes run slowly? One reason is the weather: CSX, which owns the tracks, orders MARC trains to slow down for safety when it's hot or very rainy.


Photo by Don Shall on Flickr.

That's what CSX Vice President for Passenger Operations Jay Westbrook told the MARC Riders Advisory Council last week. High temperatures can make the rails buckle. If a train goes over a buckle or sun kink, the train may derail, as Amtrak's Capitol Limited did near Kensington in 2002. Meanwhile, a lot of rain can wash out the track bed, causing the tracks to collapse.

Heat is a problem because modern railroads use continuous welded rail, rather than jointed track. Continuous welded rail is sections of rail that are 1/4-mile long, with the ends welded to the next section of rail. Unlike jointed track, there are no gaps between the sections of rail to accommodate expansion when the rail gets hot. Instead, the rail spikes, tie plates, rail anchors, and track ballast are supposed to keep the rail in place.

The Federal Railroad Adminstration requires track owners to have a plan for continuous welded rail. The plan must include procedures governing train speed on continuous welded rail track when "the difference between the average rail temperature and the average rail neutral temperature is in a range that causes buckling-prone conditions to be present at a specific location."

CSX owns the tracks on MARC's Brunswick and Camden Lines. CSX issues a heat order for operations between 1 pm and 7 pm if the predicted high temperature for the day is 90 degrees or higher, or if there is a large predicted change in temperature (e.g., 25 degrees or more), especially if the predicted high temperature is higher than 85 degrees. Large predicted changes in temperature are usually the reason for heat orders in the fall or spring.

If CSX issues a heat order, passenger trains must go 20 miles per hour below the maximum authorized speed, but not less than 40 miles per hour. Freight trains must go at least 10 miles per hour below the speed limit, but not less than 30 miles per hour. On the Brunswick and Camden Line tracks, under normal operations, the maximum authorized speed is 79 miles per hour for passenger trains and 60 miles per hour for freight trains.

Thus, for example, the usual maximum speed for a passenger train with a heat order would be 59 miles per hour. However, if the maximum authorized speed for a particular section of track were 45 miles per hour, then under a heat order, the passenger train would go 40 miles per hour, not 25 miles per hour.

The slower speeds not only help the engineers look out for buckles but also prevent buckling in the first place, because a slower train puts less stress on the track, Westbrook said.

For rain, said Westbrook, CSX currently uses Accuweather's Skyguard service, which provides weather information for specific locations. Skyguard issues flash flood warnings based on recent rainfall, the predicted hourly rainfall rate (more than 1 inch per hour or 3 inches per 3 hours), the total predicted rainfall, and local conditions, such as elevation and soil. Under flash flood warnings, the maximum speed is 40 miles per hour.

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