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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 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.

Transit


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.

Transit


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 TransitMap.net, 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.

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?


Transit


At the King Street Metro, parking is out and a pedestrian plaza is in

At Alexandria's King Street—Old Town Metro station, there's a whole lot of space dedicated to cars and buses and not much for people on foot. But the station's parking lot will soon become a pedestrian plaza with wider sidewalks and more parking for bikes.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Today, when you come out of the Metro at King Street, you walk into a parking lot with 30 spaces and six bus bays. Contributor Gray Kimbrough noted that that's a lot of space devoted to cars, but also that the station is tough for walking around:

The station has Old Town in its name, but it's not at all obvious how to walk out of the station in the direction of Old Town. And all of the roads around the station seem to share the problem of missing or inconveniently placed crosswalks.
Joanne Pierce added:
The parking lot is not proportional. There is not enough parking to make it worthwhile for commuters but because it's a popular drop off/pick up spot (which Metro apparently never intended to be the case) there are more moving vehicles during rush hour, creating congestion and lots of pedestrians have to avoid the cars and the buses. There are no stop signs for the cars, either.

There are two station exits but one is much more heavily used. If I recall correctly, there isn't a tourist-friendly map outside of the other exit, nor are there signs telling tourists where they should go from the other exit. This means more tourists are using the main gates and then cross the parking lot to reach King Street or cross the bus lane to get on the King Street bus trolley that shuttles riders directly to the waterfront.

I myself will add that when you're coming up King Street, it is not immediately evident how to access the station entrance. I often find going to the north entrance, which is not immediately obvious to pedestrians, is often easier.

A plan to replace the parking lot with a pedestrian plaza and to add four new bus bays to the existing six could be the first step toward the station becoming more walkable, and it gained approval last week.

The reconfigured plaza will make it easier to get to the station by walking as well as accommodate WMATA's plans to increase bus service in the area. WMATA has also said there will be more bike parking, but there aren't yet any details beyond that.


Planned layout of the new bus and pedestrian plaza in front of the King St station. Image from the city of Alexandria.

The project will cost $11.7 million, and has been planned since at least 2012.

A public hearing is planned for the fall with final approval expected by the end of the year, WMATA board documents show.


The current King St station plaza includes 30 parking spaces and six bus bays. Photo from WMATA.

More improvements are coming to the King Street station

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is also working on improved access to the King Street station. Design is more than halfway done on a new pedestrian tunnel linking Alexandria Union Station and the adjacent Metro station, a Northern Virginia Transportation Authority project update from July shows.


The planned pedestrian tunnel from Alexandria Union Station to the King St Metro station. Image from VRE.

The authority awarded VRE a $1.3 million grant for the tunnel in 2014, however, the agency has yet to identify funding for the balance of the roughly $11.3 million project.

The tunnel is currently scheduled to open by the end of 2017.

Transit


Virginia's commuter rail service may become more of a transit system

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE), a commuter rail system with a large coverage area but somewhat infrequent service, is considering both running trains more frequently and adding new stations, but funding constraints may force a choice between the two. More trains, more often would make VRE more like a transit system, with regular service throughout the day rather than just at rush hour.


A VRE train at the Woodbridge station. Image from VRE.

VRE's Fredericksburg Line, which uses CSX railroad tracks, carries commuters north from Spotsylvania County on a route parallel to I-95. The Manassas Line, which uses Norfolk Southern tracks, brings commuters to Union Station from Broad Run, which ends next to the Manassas airport, and is an alternative to commuting on I-66.

The VRE Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Project began in July 2015, with a proposal to build 11 miles of track and three new rail stations to extend the commuter rail service west to Haymarket. Environmental analysis and preliminary design are supposed to be completed in 2017, with service starting in 2022.


Map made using ArcGIS Online.

VRE is planning to add more trains to carry additional passengers during rush hours, as well as offer service in the middle of the day. VRE plans to add three new trains to the Manassas Line at rush hour, raising the total from eight to 11 (a total of 22 trips/day). A 10-car train can carry up to 1,000 people.

Running trains more frequently could mean more service

VRE is also considering adding service in the middle of the day from Manassas to Alexandria, starting the conversion of VRE from a commuter rail system to a transit system. The proposed Off Peak Shuttle would add seven additional trains each way between morning/evening rush hours. There would be a headway (gap between trains) of approximately an hour, bringing the total number of daily trips to 36.


Image from VRE.

Off-peak shuttle trains would terminate at Alexandria, where passengers could catch Metro to get into DC. The new service would add customers to Metro's Blue and Yellow lines outside of rush hours.

Outside of rush hours, VRE trains would not go further than Alexandria due to existing congestion on the CSX Railroad; the stretch of tracks between Manassas and Alexandria is a dead-end stub for Norfolk Southern, meaning the tracks don't see as much traffic as the CSX ones.


Map made using ArcGIS Online.

Building more tracks could also mean serving different locations

VRE has packed its proposal to expand service with plans to build new track and stations. The Fredericksburg Line was recently extended south to Spotsylvania County, and since 2002 VRE has been looking at extending its Manassas Line building an extension 11 miles west to Haymarket, near where I-66 crosses through Bull Run Mountain.

Among all of the options its considering, VRE's preference is to build the extension with three new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket. The existing Broad Run station would be closed and a new railyard would be constructed west of Haymarket, perhaps in Fauquier County.


Map of the proposed extension and station locations. Image from VRE.

The extension to Haymarket would cost $468 million. When Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) prioritized projects for the 2017-2022 Six-Year Improvement Program on June 13, 2016, the benefit/cost ratio was not high enough to justify funding.

The CTB uses what's called the "Smart Scale" analytical process (previously known as the "HB2" process) to prioritize transportation projects, and VRE staff called their proposal the "best project not to get funded this cycle."

Funding for the proposed expansion will be problematic. VRE claims it does not intend to rely upon local funding for construction, but 50% of current operations costs are subsidized by local jurisdictions.

VRE anticipates Federal/state grants would fund one-time capital costs for building track and buying new locomotives and railcars. The counties/cities in Northern Virginia would have to find the revenue in local budgets to fund the extra $4-5 million in annual operating costs not covered by customer fares.

Another option: Expanding by adding a station at Godwin Road

At the start of the analysis required to obtain federal funding, VRE identified expanding via Godwin Road as alternative to the three new stations. That would mean replacing the existing Broad Run Station with a new end-of-line station 1.5 miles to the northeast at Godwin Road, creating space for railyard expansion.

The Godwin Road option would also mean VRE could run more trains at rush hour and during the day, as the Broad Run railyard could support the extra service.


Map made using ArcGIS Online.

The proposed extension to Haymarket, compared to the Godwin Road alternative, would cost $250-350 million more for construction and $9 million more annually for operations. I believe, however, that it would remove only 100 more cars/day from I-66 in 2025 and only 300 cars/day in 2040. The project's justification in the Smart Scale process was based on claims for increased economic development, since congestion relief on I-66 would be so minimal.


Chart from VRE.

Funding for passenger rail is limited, and it is obvious that funding better maintenance for Metro will be a higher priority that any VRE expansion. Asking federal, state, and local officials to spend $500 million more by the year 2040 than the Godwin Road alternative, just to reduce 300 cars/day on I-66, will be difficult when so many rail projects are seeking funding.

For more details, see the Prince William Conservation Alliance blog.

Transit


Picture a rail yard, but with bike lanes and parks on top

A roof deck over a rail yard north of New York Avenue could create new space for bike lanes, a park, or more development in the area. The Virginia Railway Express, a commuter rail line that serves Virginia and DC, is looking at the possibility as part of a project to build a new place to store its trains.


Where the VRE's proposed storage tracks would go, north of New York Avenue. Amtrak's Ivy City Yard is the space wtih the grey/white building in the middle with tracks on both sides. Base image from Google Maps.

Currently, 16 VRE trains currently run north on the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines into DC each weekday morning, and 16 run back in the evening. While VRE train schedules are fairly limited and none run in off-peak directions or on weekends, VRE has long-term plans for expansion and is working on more bi-directional service at more stations.

For now, VRE leases space to store its trains in Amtrak's Ivy City Yard, which sits north of New York Avenue near 9th Street. But there isn't enough space for one of VRE's trains, so it runs to and from the agency's storage facility in Broad Run, Virginia, each day, which isn't cheap. Between that and the fact that Amtrak wants to use the space for something else anyway can start reducing VRE's storage space next year, VRE is looking for another way to house its trains in DC every day.

To find a new location for its trains, VRE evaluated 20 potential sites within 12 miles of DC, and decided that the best move would be to purchase or lease space just off of New York Avenue, east of the Amtrak lot (and just below Amtrak's Northeast Corridor tracks). In May, VRE released a Request for Proposal to find a builder for five new sets of tracks at that location.

New rails could bring bike lanes and space for development

As part of the project, VRE is looking at how to make the new rail yard fit into the surrounding area. Part of VRE's request instructs its consultant to examine what it would take to provide "improved rail transit access to the surrounding neighborhood."

VRE threw out a few possibilities that they might look at, including a possible new VRE and/or MARC rail station as well as walking and biking that connect the neighborhood to surrounding areas, including the NoMa Metrorail station.

The language in VRE's proposal is pretty broad and vague, but it does ask whoever takes the project on to look into building a deck over top of the tracks. That'd make room for additional development, trails, a possible rail infill station nearby, or park space. In Manhattan, development above a major rail yard is underway:


Construction at Manhattan's Hudson Yards, December 2012 through May 2016. Video from Hudson Yards New York.

It's possible this could help with realizing DC's 2005 Bike Master Plan, which calls for expanding the bike and pedestrian trail from 4th Street NE to further up New York Avenue near the Arboretum. With some collaboration between VRE and DC, a new decked-over rail yard could provide the space needed to get the ball rolling on the trail project and could be a win-win for everybody involved.


Cross-section of the VRE storage yard with existing and proposed ground lines. Image from VRE.

Train storage in Virginia doesn't currently work for VRE

CSX Transportation owns the Long Bridge which runs from Virginia to DC as part of the company's RF&P subdivision, running from DC down to Richmond, VA. Through an agreement signed with VRE, the passenger rail company has 38 slots for trains running over the bridge. VRE uses 32 of these slots daily for passenger trains to and from Fredericksburg and Manassas. Two more slots are used to deadhead the one train down to Broad Run, since there isn't storage space for it in DC. And the last four slots are borrowed by Virginia to run Amtrak service to Richmond/Norfolk and Lynchburg to DC.

The limit imposed by CSX is one of the main bottlenecks in VRE's network, and keeps the agency from running more trains through to and from DC during rush hours. This limitation by itself essentially would eliminate the option of storing VRE trains mid-day in Virginia without a renegotiated access contract giving VRE more slots.

Another possibility, though more long-term, would be to agree with MARC to have trains run-through and service each others' stops. The two agencies have talked about doing this for several years now, but there are still hurdles to overcome before that might be a possibility. The tracks at Union Station would make running-through trains only easily doable for the MARC Penn line, the two agencies use a mixture of high and low platforms, and the issue of not enough capacity over the Potomac remains true.

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.

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How can our commuter railroads be better? DC wants your input

Should MARC service run to L'Enfant Plaza? Should resources go toward more weekend commuter rail service? Every state in the US (including DC) has to create a plan for how to use its railways, these are some of the questions the District Department of Transportation is asking as it crafts its plan for passenger, commuter, and freight rail.


Railroads in and around DC. Image from DDOT.

In a survey asking residents what its goals for rail should be, DDOT lists a number of possibilities, including:

  • MARC service extending to L'Enfant Plaza
  • More reverse commuting options
  • More weekend commuter rail service
  • Commuter rail seeing expanded hours and frequency
Also, Union Station is getting a makeover, and DDOT is considering ways to shorten the walk from train drop off areas, make it easier to connect to Metro, integrate the station with the neighborhood, add space for waiting, and add parking.

More generally, DDOT is deciding where to put its effort when it comes to more general matters, including better connections at stations and faster trip times and on-time service. The survey also asks what people are concerned about when it comes to railroads in DC: Terrorism? The environment? Trains disrupting the neighborhood?

Some plans are already going into place. DDOT is currently looking at options for rehabilitating or rebuilding Long Bridge across the Potomac, and CSX is working on rebuilding the Virginia Avenue Tunnel.

Finally, you can put in your own ideas about what DDOT should be doing when it comes to the district's railroads and supporting infrastructure.

One thing that's important to remember: While there are some choices that could be seen as pitting passenger rail against freight, better rail corridors are typically good for both.

The survey will be open here until March 1st.

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