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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.

Transit


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.

Transit


MARC, VRE, and Amtrak service might stop on January 1st

On January 1st, trains that carry millions of commuters might stop running. That's because in 2008, Congress set a deadline for trains to have a certain type of safety feature by the end of this year, and a lot of train operators won't be able to meet it.


Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

The law Congress passed requires that any railroad line hosting regular inter-city or commuter rail service, along with freight lines that carry certain types of hazardous materials, be outfitted with "Positive Train Control" (PTC) by December 31, 2015. For much of the nation, that isn't going to happen, and that means those lines will stop operating on January 1st.

Realistically, the only way that freight and passenger service in the United States can avoid being crippled on January 1st is if Congress extends the PTC deadline. If it doesn't, commuters in many cities, including Washington and Baltimore, could see train service disappear.

Here's how PTC works

Positive Train Control is a system of controls built into the track, locomotives, and radio antennas that will stop train crashes in a variety of circumstances. Had PTC been in place at Frankford Junction earlier this year, it would have almost certainly prevented the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia this May.

PTC will automatically stop a train before it runs a red signal, takes a curve too fast, or enters a work zone at an unsafe speed. In order for it to work, the track has to be outfitted with equipment that can tell the train where it is at any given time, radios that will communicate data to the train, and equipment in the cab that interprets those signals and slows or stops the train as necessary.

Congress decided to mandate PTC in the wake of a deadly head-on crash between a Metrolink train and a freight train in Los Angeles. But this was an unfunded mandate. Following it is costing public agencies like MARC and VRE and railroads like CSX and Amtrak billions of dollars.

The fact that the deadline is approaching and PTC is not yet in place across much of the network is not for lack of trying.

Six years may seem like a long time, but to design, install, test, and activate this complex system over thousands of miles of track was and is a herculean task. And it was made more difficult by miscues, especially from the Federal Communications Commission, which dragged its feet allocating the radio frequencies necessary for the system to work.

Some of our region's rail providers will meet the deadline, but others won't

With the deadline to have PTC operational just three months away, railroads are scrambling to figure out what is going to happen. Most of the big freight railroads say they won't meet the deadline. They're all actively working on PTC, but there's just not enough time to complete the work before December 31.

On the other hand, some railroads are ready, or will be. In Los Angeles, Metrolink, the regional commuter rail network, already activated PTC on the tracks it owns, but sections controlled by other railroads remain unfinished. Amtrak says most of its Northeast Corridor will also be ready by December 31. But Amtrak trains on other lines won't be so lucky.

That's because on much of Amtrak's network, the passenger trains run on tracks owned by other railroads, who haven't gotten their equipment in place. Amtrak has been able to get the equipment in place because it owns most of the Northeast Corridor.

Unfortunately, the New York MTA actually owns the corridor between New Rochelle and New Haven, so PTC won't be in place on its section by the end of the year. But between New York and Washington, trains should still be able to operate.

That's some good news. It means that MARC service on the Penn Line shouldn't be disrupted.

On MARC's other lines and on VRE, the story isn't the same. In their cases, CSX and Norfolk Southern don't have their networks ready and won't by the deadline.

Chicago's Metra, one of the largest commuter rail operators in the country, has already begun alerting their riders that unless the deadline is extended, service will stop after December 31.

The shutdown of commuter and inter-city passenger service, along with many freight shipments, could have a huge impact on many regions and the nation as a whole. In the Washington region, thousands of commuters ride in to the city on commuter trains. That number is much higher in other cities.

Without commuter trains, these riders will have little choice but to travel other ways, which will likely increase congestion, pollution, and motor vehicle crashes. And for businesses waiting on shipments stopped because PTC hasn't been turned on, jobs and productivity will be at risk.

At this point, only Congress can keep trains running

Only Congress can fix this. So far, it hasn't shown much inclination to get this (or anything else) done.

House Republicans introduced a bill to extend the deadline three years. However, in the Senate, some Democrats are trying to use it as leverage.

California Senator Barbara Boxer says that unless House Republicans pass a transportation reauthorization, the Senate won't pass the PTC extension bill.

PTC installation won't be complete on most of the tracks that are required to have it by December 31. Without Congressional action, much of the nation's rail network will shut down as 2016 dawns.

That's an unacceptable outcome, but it doesn't mean a polarized and gridlocked Congress will actually manage to stave off the crisis.

Transit


MD & VA commuter rail look great together on one map

Maryland's MARC train and Virginia's VRE are very similar regional rail systems. This map shows what they might look like as a single integrated regional network.


Map from Peter Dovak at Transit Oriented.

Although MARC and VRE aren't all that different, they operate totally independently of each other. Riders on one may not even be aware the other exists. This map would help change that.

The two agencies will probably never merge, but it might someday be possible to integrate their operations to work more like a single system. MARC trains might run across the Potomac into Virginia, and VRE trains might continue north into Maryland. It would be difficult but possible.

In the meantime, this map from Peter Dovak at Transit Oriented is a nice unofficial first step. And it's easier on the eyes than the current official MARC or VRE maps.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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