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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.

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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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Transit


Commuter rail could extend all the way to Haymarket

Northern Virginia's commuter rail service, VRE, is taking the first steps to extend its Manassas Line 11 miles farther west, to Haymarket.


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

The extension would bring commuter rail to three new stations in Prince William County, which is growing quickly. It would split off as a spur from the Manassas Line, with some trains going on to Broad Run on the existing line, and some trains going to Haymarket.

It would would also bring the Manassas line's total number of stations to nine. There's a new Fredericksburg Line station in Spotsylvania set to open this summer, meaning the whole system would go from 18 lines to 22.

VRE engineers are studying what it's going to take to get the extension up and running. That includes deciding on where to put the new stations and how frequently trains will run through them, as well as looking at how the extension would affect the environment.

Once the study is complete, elected officials will need to approve the new service, as well as find a way to fund it. Virginia's General Assembly recently passed a bill that gives more money to transit, but the new funds won't be enough to cover a project this big.

To reach its potential, VRE needs to be able to run more trains

Service capacity is still an issue because CSX, the freight company who owns the tracks between Alexandria and Union Station, only lets VRE run 40 trains per day. VRE uses 30 of those spots for existing service, and it needs to reserve some of what's left for potential changes to the Fredericksburg line. VRE will need a larger allowance for the Manassas extension to have a real impact.

More frequent service, particularly reverse or midday runs for the Manassas Line, would likely lead to an more people riding.

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Events


Events roundup: One more week to party time

Our birthday bash is coming up one week from Wednesday. We hope to see you there! Also, weigh in on VRE fare hikes, the GW Parkway, Wilson Boulevard, and Columbia


Photo by Omer Wazir on Flickr.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is now seven years old! Celebrate wtih us on Wednesday, March 11, 6:30-8:30 pm at Lost and Found, 1240 9th Street NW. There will be cake, merriment, and a cash bar. See you there!

GW Parkway: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle between Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches on Tuesday, March 3, 5-8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

VRE fare hike: The Virginia Railway Express plans to raise its fares. The final two public forums are this week. The first is Tuesday, March 3, 7-8 pm at 14700 Potomac Mills Road in Woodbridge. The second is on Thursday, March 5, 7-8 pm at Fredericksburg City Hall, 715 Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's transportation funding initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to cowens@apta.com.

Wilson Boulevard changes: Arlington is going ahead with bike lanes and a road diet on Wilson Boulevard in the Bluemont area. There's a meeting on the changes this Thursday, March 5, from 7 to 8:30 pm at 855 North Edison Street.

Future of Columbia Pike: The streetcar is canceled, so what's next? Elected officials and community leades will discuss the future of Columbia Pike at a panel this Friday, March 6, from 6 to 8 pm. It's at the Salsa Room, 2619 Columbia Pike.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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Transit


Events roundup: Fare hikes and transit updates

Fares may rise on Virginia rail, and changes are coming to the Blue Line corridor in Prince George's County and the GW Parkway. Learn about federal transit funding and make sure to save the date for the Greater Greater Washington birthday party!


Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr

Virginia railway fare hike: The Virginia Railroad Express, Virginia's only commuter railroad, plans to raise its fares. If you didn't have a chance to weigh in last week, you have three more chances this week:

  • Tuesday, February 24, 7-8 pm at the Burke Centre Conservancy, 9837 Burke Pond Lane
  • Wednesday, February 25, 12-1 pm at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington
  • Thursday, February 25, 7-8 pm at Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street in Manassas
After the jump: Blue line corridor, GGW birthday bash, the GW Parkway and more.

Blue Line corridor: Do you live along the Blue Line in Maryland? Prince George's County is planning to improve pedestrian safety, foster transit-oriented development, and more along its Blue Line corridor. Join the planning department for an update on the project this Thursday, February 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Omega Room of St Margaret's Catholic Church at 410 Addison Road South in Seat Pleasant.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is turning seven and we want you to help us celebrate! Join us for cake and merriment on Wednesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Lost and Found at 1240 9th Street NW. See you there!

GW Parkway transit assessment: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle beween Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches of the area on Tuesday, March 3, from 5 to 8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's Build America Investment Initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to cowens@apta.com.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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Transit


Your transit map could look like this if Maryland builds the Red and Purple Lines

Within ten years, you could be able to take trains from West Baltimore to Tysons Corner in Virginia, or go from Bethesda to Fells Point along the Baltimore waterfront without detouring through downtown DC. If, that is, Maryland still builds the planned Purple and Baltimore Red light rail lines.


Map by Peter Dovak and David Alpert.

Last week, Jeff La Noue wrote how the Red Line is more than just a way to get east-west across Baltimore, but a way to link more destinations to the regional transit network.

It's easiest to grasp this concept with a map, so designer Peter Dovak and I created one. This shows how MARC ties together transit networks in Washington and Baltimore. The Purple and Red lines each link up key destinations with all of the existing transit lines.

Make commuter rail better, too

The only commuter rail line which runs more than just during peak hours is the MARC Penn Line from Union Station to Baltimore Penn Station via New Carrollton, BWI Airport, and West Baltimore. But the map also illustrates how all of the MARC and VRE rail lines, which already exist today, could form a larger-scale regional transit network if only Maryland, Virginia, and (in a small way) DC could work together to set up frequent, all-day, two-way service that runs from Virginia through to Maryland and vice versa.

There are obstacles to through-runningthe stations need more platforms, the lines need more tracks so passenger trains and freight rail can better coexist, Union Station needs a rebuild, and the current trains aren't compatible—but it's all achievable and cheaper than new Metro lines.

Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Hogan is evaluating the Purple and Red Line projects. He will soon decide whether to stick with his campaign statements opposing them, or listen to the many business groups and local leaders who are pushing Hogan to nudge these projects over the finish line.

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Bicycling


New bike lanes will close a big trail gap in Burke

There's a big gap between two of Fairfax County's major bike trails. Burke Road, which connects them, has missing sidewalks, narrow stretches, and sharp curves that make riding on it intimidating for cyclists. Two new projects will help remedy the issue.


A map of proposed changes. Image from Google Maps with edits by the author.

The section of Burke Road we're looking at is about two miles long, and it provides the straight and flattest connection from the Cross County Trail to the Burke VRE Trail. The Cross County Trail extends 40 miles from north to south in Fairfax, and the county recently built the Burke VRE trail to add a sizable neighborhood trail system in the Burke area.

The first phase will extend the Pohick Creek Trail across Burke Lake Road, routing cyclists and pedestrians behind a busy commercial area whose multiple entrances are a hazard. The project received funding last year but has yet to really ramp up.

The next stage will add bike lanes to a section of Burke Road between Mill Cove Road and the Rolling Road VRE station. This portion of Burke Road is wide enough that the county can add bike lanes without taking space away from drivers, and it already has sidewalks for anyone who wants to walk or run.


A wide section of Burke Road. Image from Google Maps with edits by the author.

The Board of Supervisors hasn't yet approved this part of the project, but if Fairfax's transportation bond passes this year, some of the money could fund it.

But even once these projects are complete, there will still be a section between Rolling Road and the Cross County Trail so narrow that cyclists will have to share it with pedestrians. While the county has repaired the path in the past year, it should improve this section. Alternatively, for cyclists who choose to stay on the road, Fairfax could add sharrows or an uphill bike lane.

Most of the roads that go anywhere in Burke are simply too wide and fast for anyone but the most fearless of cyclists. Incremental steps like these will help connect the growing trail network as well as help more people see bikes as a suitable transportation option in this very suburban corner of Fairfax County.

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