Posts about VRE
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.
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.
Last week, Amtrak unveiled a master plan for the future Union Station. Most press coverage immediately focused on the dollar figure in the plan, $7 billion, and even many transit advocates fretted that this cost sounded unrealistic. But we should not criticize Amtrak for suggesting a $7 billion plan. Instead, we need even more big plans to go along with this one.
That's because this plan isn't just for today, and isn't just for Amtrak. It's about what it will take to update a 100-year-old commuter and intercity rail bottleneck that we haven't invested in for generations. It even goes far beyond Union Station, and there need to be plans for all of it.
Plus, transportation planning is not about what we need today. States put things on the plan which have no money at all, but decades later, they get done. If we want a commuter and intercity rail system that can grow for the next 100 years, we need to plan investments 30 years hence, today.
Make no little plans, because other transportation agencies are making big plans
The Washington region's transportation investment primarily revolves around the Constrained Long-Range Plan, or CLRP. The Transportation Planning Board, a commission of government officials from DC, Maryland, Virginia, many local cities and counties, WMATA and more, creates and approves this plan.
The current CLRP plans for spending $222.9 billion in capital and operating money over 30 years. That's the size of the region's transportation spending to keep roads and transit running and add new capacity on both. It includes the DC streetcar, 11th Street Bridge, Silver Line, Beltway HOT lanes, I-95 HOT lanes, Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, Columbia Pike Streetcar, widening I-66, widening I-270, and widening nearly every major road in Northern Virginia and many in Maryland. It's got a few bike and pedestrian projects, too.
In short, this plan contains almost everything the state and local governments currently want to do over the next 30 years. But a lot is not in the plan. There are no new Metro lines through the core. There are no dedicated bus lanes. There are a lot of road and rail and bus and pedestrian and bicycle projects that regional governments want to do, but had to cut because of that C in CLRP: constrained. The CLRP requires there to be some concept of where the funding will come from, like federal transportation dollars between 2025 and 2030 or something like that.
Make no little plans, because your problems are not little either
The CLRP also doesn't have projects to do something about one of the most severe transit bottlenecks in the region: trains in and out of the core. Right now, Amtrak and MARC trains from 3 lines have to all come together at the "K interlocking," the spot near K Street where all the tracks merge, and they also have to fight for space with VRE trains that go out to a storage yard in Ivy City.
Farther south, VRE and some Amtrak trains go through a tunnel to the L'Enfant Plaza area, where they merge with CSX tracks coming through Capitol Hill. 4 tracks, 2 from each, merge down to just 2 tracks over the Potomac's Long Bridge and out to Virginia. The L'Enfant VRE station is horribly undersized for its need, especially since, being near the intersection of 4 Metro lines, it is a better transfer point for many riders.
MARC, VRE, and Amtrak could all move far more people than they do today if they could load and unload more passengers at Union Station and L'Enfant Plaza, fit more trains in the area, and commuter railroads could run trains through from Maryland to Virginia and vice versa. They'll also need to fix bottlenecks elsewhere, like in Baltimore.
We've been gradually upgauging roadway capacity in the area for at least 60 years, but during most of that time we neglected 100-year-old rail infrastructure because transit was declining. Now it's growing quickly, and could grow even more if it had the room.
The platforms at Union Station are far too narrow compared to modern intercity and commuter rail stations, especially major terminals. The railroads can't load and unload trains from more than one side of a platform at once, and therefore Amtrak says they can't let anyone wait on the platform for trains before they are ready to board.
That means the too-small waiting areas become even more massively overcrowded. Other large train stations let people access the trains from more than one end.
Union Station is also more than just trains. It's got the Metro station with the most people coming in or out, even though only one line serves it. It's a major loading point for tour buses. Many intercity buses now stop there. Numerous local bus lines serve it, including 2 Circulators, and soon the streetcar will as well. It's a huge parking garage and a major mall.
Many people also got confused by thinking that this plan is an Amtrak plan. Amtrak was the lead agency, though they made a major tactical mistake by focusing the rollout around themselves and reinforcing the idea that it was an Amtrak plan. This is a master plan for a place that serves many, many modes and agencies.
Make no little plans when you really need an even bigger plan
A good master plan considers all of the needs for all of the modes and all of the agencies, then fits everything together like a massive puzzle. This plan not only includes a complete rebuild of the inadequate tracks and too-narrow platforms, but also a fixed K interlocking, 3 new concourses, underground parking (some of which we might be able to do without), a whole bus station, rebuilding the H Street bridge (something DC says needs to happen anyway), more space in the Metro station (another severe problem even today), more retail which brings in more money, supports for buildings atop the railyards, and more.
But this plan doesn't even cover everything. We also need an even bigger master master plan, that goes along with the Union Station plan, for the railway corridor from at least Springfield through to Baltimore. The master master plan should look at what it will take to integrate MARC and VRE into a commuter rail operation that runs through from one state to the other, if that turns out to be worth the cost.
This even more comprehensive plan should look at how to untangle passenger and freight on the Long Bridge, include the cost of a better 4-track L'Enfant station, improve connections to Metro at stations, and even new Metro lines to serve Union Station.
A potential future Metro system, if the commuter rails ran frequent service and served as "express" lines.
Then, that plan needs to go on the CLRP. Maybe that's a $25 billion plan. That could be 10% of the region's investment in the 30-year timeframe, but this is also even more significant to the federal government. This is the gateway to the nation's capital, a pair of stations by the United States Capitol and the densest cluster of federal offices, the way many visitors come to see our monuments and memorials.
Make no little plans when by the time they happen, big plans might be realistic
Sure, right now Congress seems entirely hostile both to having a great capital and to investing in infrastructure across the nation. But 30 years ago a lot was different, and by 30 years from now a lot will change again, for better or worse. The stimulus popped up very fast, and rewarded everyone who had "shovel-ready" projects. A lot could change one day, and maybe almost overnight.
Meanwhile, the railroads, Metro, and everyone else needs to price out these projects and get them onto the long-range plans. If they don't, someone else will put something on instead. It's not like the state DOTs will just put in a 5-, 10- or 25-billion dollar placeholder for "really important stuff we will figure out later."
No, they'll stuff the tail end of that pipeline full of just about everything anyone can come up with, and grab all of the future money. Even if most of that stuff is also worthy, and even if not everything from the Union Station plan gets built, the only way stuff like fixing the commuter railroads and Union Station overcrowding will ever get done is if someone puts it into the hopper along with everything else now.
We should cheer Amtrak, the commuter railroads, USRC, Akridge and everyone else for thinking big. We need similarly big plans for Metro, L'Enfant and the Long Bridge, and everything else. Then all transit supporters need to push Congress and the states to invest as they should, today and 30 years from now, and in the meantime, push to at least fund the highest priority pieces.
Yesterday, Dan Malouff wrote about the long-term planning from Gaithersburg versus Rockville. Gaithersburg planned ahead by about 10 years, while Rockville didn't, to its detriment. Dan wrote, "Proactively plan for what you want, or lose out to someone who did."
He could just as easily have been talking about Union Station or any other transit expansion plan. With this plan, what Union Station needs might or might not happen. But without it, it definitely won't.
Update: Another problem, which I meant to include but didn't get in, is that Amtrak only released a top-line cost number, without details about where the $7 billion comes from or how much each element contributes to the cost. Amtrak will need to be more forthcoming with details as it moves forward so that people can better understand the dollar figure and either understand why it is the size it is, or challenge assumptions that make it so large.
Yesterday, Amtrak released a master plan to guide Union Station's growth over the next several decades. The ambitious proposal includes several key components that will make the station easier to use, increase its capacity, and ensure a strong foundation for the transportation center.
It's somewhat fitting that this ambitious plan is attached to Union Station. The architect who designed the Beaux-Arts main station building, Daniel Burnham, is known for saying, "Make no little plans. They do not have the magic to stir men's blood."
This plan is a big plan. And at an estimated $7 billion, it's an expensive plan. But it has many needed pieces. It will triple Union Station's passenger capacity and double the number of trains.
Union Station needs to grow
According to Amtrak's Stephen Gardner, since the station was rebuilt in 1988, the station's annual passenger volumes have risen by more than 2 million trips. In 1988, MARC's daily ridership was a mere 5,000. Today it's passed beyond 33,000. The station has outgrown its capacity, and many of the stations tracks, platforms, and other facilities are old and do not meet ADA requirements.
As the plan makes clear, deferring action is not an option. Additional capacity is needed to accommodate the thousands of additional daily riders expected over the next several years.
Union Station is the second-busiest Amtrak station in the nation, falling only behind New York's Penn Station. It handles an estimated 100,000 passenger trips each day, but the station is home to outdated infrastructure and crowded spaces.
The Union Station Master Plan sets out a framework for rebuilding and expanding the station over the next 20 years. The first 3 phases of the project are expected to cost somewhere between $6.5 and $7.5 billion, and will greatly expand capacity and usability.
Funding is not identified in the document. The region will likely need to contribute a good deal, but the station is in federal ownership and is the southern end of Amtrak's busiest rail corridor, so some investment can be expected from outside the region.
What would a better Union Station look like?
The vision lays out a plan to improve much of the station. Here are the key elements:
Platforms and tracks are going to be redone completely. The plan is actually to reduce the number of tracks at the station, but to make use of them more efficiently. Currently, there are 20 tracks at the station. At the end of Phase 3, there will be just 18.
However, one major and early component of the project will be to lengthen and widen the platforms. Additionally, Amtrak wants to remove the parking garage above the tracks, which will let it keep the new platforms clear of obstructions like the large columns that crowd the platforms now.
While all VRE trains and the Superliner cars that Amtrak uses on its Capitol Limited can only use low-level platforms, the majority of trains operating at Union Station are designed to use high platforms. When those cars stop on a low-level platform, passengers have to navigate stairs to board and alight.
The lower level of the station currently has 6 platform tracks, all of which are low-level platforms. These tracks have access to the First Street Tunnel, which allows trains to continue south toward L'Enfant Plaza and Virginia.
Under the plan, Amtrak will add 2 new platform tracks, for a total of 8 on the lower level. 5 tracks will have high-level platforms and 3 will have low-levels.
On the upper level, the plan includes 10 high-level platforms. These are the stub-end platforms that will end directly behind the station building.
Phase 4 adds 6 (and potentially up to 9) underground tracks specifically for the NextGen Northeast High-Speed Rail. Those tracks will be built under the Upper Level platforms, and 3 will be able to extend further south under the station building to connect with the proposed Southeast High-Speed Rail to Virginia and North Carolina.
Each platform will have access at three points: at the southern and northern ends of the platforms and also in the middle.
Concourses will provide routes through the complex.
Running down the central axis of the station is a major pathway called the Central Concourse. The Central Concourse will be located one level below the tracks, starting in the area that is currently the food court.
The corridor will be 50 feet wide, and open above, with the ceiling about 100 feet up. This concourse will connect the main station building to each of the three east-west concourses that provide access to the tracks. It will also connect to the consolidated bus terminal at its northern end.
Concourse A is the current train concourse, located one level above the Central Concourse at the southern end of the platforms. It will connect the Great Hall to the train platforms, and will also include a connection to the Central Concourse.
The plan calls for most Amtrak passengers to use Concourse A to access platforms, but the platforms will be open to all passengers from any of the entrances.
Concourse B, located in the middle of the platforms, and Concourse C, located at the north end of the platforms, will primarily serve commuter rail patrons. Waiting areas for commuter trains will sit along Concourses B and C. These concourses will be on the same level as the Central Concourse, one story down from the platforms.
Additionally, a north-south connection will run along the western edge of the station, called the West Concourse. This concourse will start at the northern entrance to the Metro station and run all the way along the station to Concourse C. Along the way it will link to several new entrances along First Street NE.
One additional east-west corridor, called the Market Passage, will facilitate movement through the station, but will not provide access to the platforms. The Market Passage runs along the area currently occupied by the closed H Street underpass. It will link a new entrance on First Street NE west of the station to one on 2nd Street NE on the east side of the station.
New design will shift station's architecture
While Burnham's structure will still remain a major element of Union Station, the complex's center of gravity will shift northward.
Above the Central Concourse, Amtrak plans to create a high trainshed that will let light into the platform and concourse areas. At the northern end, a new entrance on H Street will give passengers access to H Street and the Burnham Place development over the tracks along H.
The design of the northern end of the station will be quite different from the Beaux-Arts headhouse on Columbus Circle. But it will give the station an airy, light-filled interior.
Transit will connect far better
The plan calls for greatly improving transit connections in and around the station.
On the lowest level of the station, the plan suggests removing lots of the walls. Opening up the space that's currently the food court will allow easier access between the Metro and the Central Concourse.
Designs show a much more open area around the north mezzanine entrance to the Metro station. It includes 2 new escalators which will drop customers closer to the center of the Metro platform. These new escalators will be in addition to the 2 new elevators and staircase that Metro has already proposed to add.
The plan makes reference to another new Metro line. But since WMATA is not actively planning such a line (yet) and hasn't chosen an alignment, the plan is silent about how a second Metro platform would fit into the new designs.
As for the DC Streetcar, the plan calls for platforms on the Hopscotch Bridge, immediately outside the new H Street entrance pavilion.
Intercity and tour buses will move to a new consolidated bus terminal beneath the tracks just south of K Street, linked to the rest of the station by the Central and West concourses.
Is there too much parking?
One possible way to cut the project's costs would be to reduce the parking in the plan.
The current parking garage, located above the station's upper level platforms, has about 2,200 parking spaces. The plan calls for building 5,000 spaces to replace the spaces in the deck and expand capacity. And a good portion of those 5,000 spaces would be built underground within the station site.
Amtrak is proposing this increase in the parking despite its expectation that the number of people accessing trains by car at Union Station will drop. Amtrak feels the parking needs to be included for employees and shoppers at the station complex.
As the region's preeminent transit hub, Union Station can probably succeed without so much expensive subterranean parking.
Plan has magic to stir the blood
Seeing Amtrak's vision for Union Station is exciting. The redesign of the station will create a truly magnificent transportation hub for and gateway into the region.
In 30 years, surely our children will find Burnham prescient. His famous quote ends, "Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big." Burnham designed the foundation, but he certainly would be amazed to see this Amtrak vision realized.
One day, disjointed streets and lifeless blocks around L'Enfant Plaza could become a complete neighborhood with a connected street grid, park space, mixed-use buildings, and an expanded 4-track rail hub connecting MARC and VRE commuter trains to Metro, buses, and the DC Streetcar.
That's the vision of DC's Maryland Avenue SW plan. While there's currently no funding to actually build the improvements it calls for, the plan can and should shape smaller steps to transform the area, including CSX's National Gateway project to double-stack its trains.
For the this to be a reality, though, DC will need to start at least preliminary engineering soon. CSX is moving ahead with National Gateway planning, and if the the District wants to make sure that CSX's work integrates rather than conflicts with the plan's long-term vision for the area, more planning needs to be in place.
More tracks would serve a new L'Enfant station
The Maryland Avenue SW plan recommends building a new and larger L'Enfant rail station where the current station is today, and extends it farther east. Currently the rail line has 3 tracks through the area, and Amtrak, CSX, and the commuter railroads all want to expand it to 4. The expansion would let more commuter trains stop at L'Enfant, while allowing the Amtrak and freight trains to pass through without delay.
A 4th track would help MARC to run trains past Union Station to L'Enfant Plaza, letting MARC riders directly connect to the 4 Metro lines that don't serve Union Station and thus get to jobs in the area more easily.
Right now, one of the other challenges to through-running MARC trains to L'Enfant is that MARC trains use high platforms at the level of the train floor, while VRE uses low platforms with stairs to the trains. The Maryland Ave plan recommends building platforms on both sides of some of the tracks in the new station, so that both high-floor and low-floor trains could use the same tracks and just open their doors on the side that accommodates their train height. These new platforms would also be longer than those in the current station.
That's not the only logistical question to work out. The MARC Penn line uses electric wires for power. CSX has expressed concerns that their double-stack trains might not be able to reliably coexist with wires. They haven't opposed putting wires on a new 4th track, but are reluctant to allow them on a second track, reducing the number of wire-free tracks to 2. Officials will have to work this out and hopefully convince CSX that the wires won't interfere with their operation.
Streets would connect in a grid
The other major set of recommendations in the plan reintroduces a grid of streets, as once existed, but elevated above the railroad tracks.
The development known as the Portals, which includes the Mandarin Oriental hotel, decked over a short piece of the tracks to create a new Maryland Avenue west of 12th Street, which now ends in a circle. The plan suggests adding 3 more decked blocks here, from 12th west to 9th.
Immediately east of 12th Street is the "12th Street Expressway", which branches off from the Southwest Freeway. There are off-ramps to D Street in each direction. The expressway then dives below the Mall to 12th Street NW. The plan recommends making this into a regular street, called 11th Street. It would have a regular intersection with the new Maryland Avenue where the off-ramps are today.
When the Department of Energy's Forrestal complex is redeveloped according to the SW Ecodistrict plan, Virginia Avenue and C Street could also be restored through the site. The new 11th Street would continue through to Independence Avenue. The ramp to the tunnel under the Mall would be rebuilt to split off from 11th Street just north of the Maryland Avenue intersection, then go under C and the Mall.
We need to plan the track expansion now
The report estimates it would cost $429 million to build all of this. That money is not even close to available now, but there is something important that DC needs to do: the preliminary engineering for the station, tracks and deck. A more detailed architectural and engineering design will figure out exactly where the new platforms and station could fit.
That's important because CSX is going to be spending a lot of money on these tracks to fit the double-stack trains it wants to run along its major east coast route, which passes right through DC. It's going to lower the tracks here to fit those freight cars under some of the bridges. The plan notes that recreating Maryland Avenue will require lowering some of those bridges even further, which means lowering the tracks more.
And do some of the tracks need to shift a few feet here and there for the future L'Enfant rail station? When CSX lowers and rebuilds the tracks, that's the time to put them in the right spot. CSX certainly wouldn't pay to move the tracks later, and might not even allow DC to do it; once the line is running, they'll want to keep it in use for freight trains.
CSX's project will happen in the next few years. DC should fund enough engineering right now so it can push CSX to locate the tracks properly and design them to accommodate any neded infrastructure like electric wires. Then, whenever money comes up to create a new commuter rail station or deck Maryland Avenue, there's no need to touch the tracks or disrupt freight trains again.
Perhaps one day, some people will move to homes at L'Enfant Plaza station and enjoy walking around a lively mixed-use neighborhood on top of the tracks, and be amazed when people tell them that once upon a time the neighborhood had no residents, no walkable Maryland Avenue in that area, restaurants almost all in underground malls, and a generally inhospitable feel. If people can't tell that the neighborhood once felt like it does, that'll be the best success of all.
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