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Posts about Commuter Rail


Lisbon is a rail transit mecca

Lisbon has just about every type of rail transit out there. Streetcars, funiculars, a metro, and commuter rail all provide a dense, interconnected transit system for the Southern Europe metropolis.

A streetcar in Lisbon. All photos by the author.

Lisbon's streetcarstrams, as they refer to them—act as both transportation for the city's residents and a popular way for visitors to see the city, with streetcar line 28 connecting many of the main sights of the city's old city.

Many of the streetcar lines share the city's narrow streets with car traffic. However, some stretches have dedicated lanes, including along Avenue 24 de Julho, next to the commuter rail tracks approaching the Cais do Sodré railway station.

A vintage streetcar in a dedicated lane alongside a commuter train in Lisbon.

Complementing the streetcar network are three funiculars and an elevator that climb some of the city's steep hills.

The Gloria funicular in Lisbon.

The Lisbon metro has four lines stretching 26.8 miles across the city and providing the backbone of the transit network.

A map of the Lisbon metro with commuter rail services in gray.

Lisbon has two commuter rail operators: state-owned Comboios de Portugal (CP) and the private Fertagus line. While more frequent and metro-like than Washington DC's commuter rail services, CP's services are not as extensive as those in most European cities with overlapping lines connecting four terminals in central Lisbon and one south of the Tagus River with five different suburbs.

CP's Lisbon commuter rail map.

Fertagus provides the only commuter rail service that crosses the Tagus River, running on the lower deck of the 25 de Abril bridge.

The 25 de Abril bridge in Lisbon.

Lisbon is a good example of how a dense transit network with a variety of interconnected modes can work.

The Washington region is slowly moving towards a similarly dense and varied network, with Metro forming the backbone and other modes like the Metroway bus rapid transit line Virginia, the DC Streetcar in the District and, when it opens, the Purple Line light rail in Maryland filling in the gaps and complementing Metro. However, we have a long way to go to match Lisbon's network.

For more on transit developments in other cities and around the world, check out Greater Greater Washington's articles about Adelaide, Cape Town, Dallas, Hartford, Johannesburg, Oakland airport, San Diego, and San Juan.


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.


All the railroads we had in 1921, in one subway-style map

In 1921, you could take the train from downtown DC to Annapolis, from Baltimore to Harrisburg, or Winchester to DC. I built a subway-style map of the rail service our region once had.

Map by the author. Click for the full version.

In the Mid-Atlantic region, hundreds of trains and ferries used to serve passengers at over 1,370 stations. But they were run by dozens of individual companies, meaning there was no single unified system map to let people know how to get from A to B. Passengers had to pour over dozens of often-opaque timetables to know how to get around.

Doing that was no simple task, as I can now attest to after having trawled hundreds of these tables in The Official Guide of the Railways to pull together this one map.

Subway-style maps were a genius invention of the early 20th Century. By combining old railway maps with service schedules, they allow travelers to understand at a glance how the transit system works without relying on byzantine schedules.

Map by the author. Click for the full version.

This map says a lot about how the region worked back then

My Mid-Atlantic map shows about 29,000 square miles, centered on DC and Baltimore. I tried to map to the logical endpoints of the railroads, where they converge before diverging again.

Baltimore's prominence as a major transportation hub is clear, especially for waterborne travel. Ferries hit remote villages and towns along rivers up and down the Chesapeake, delivering people and goods between the villages or back to the dozens of railroads serving Baltimore. Though it's tough to imagine the Rappahannock or Piankatank as transport corridors today, steamer service was often a lifeline to the rest of the country.

And while the city itself is absent from this map, you can see Philadelphia's strong influence in the northeastern corner. The Baltimore & Ohio's Main Line to Washington, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Main Line along the top of the map, and Pennsy's Washington lines all point to that formidable hub.

Clear, too, is the shape of our contemporary rail infrastructure in the old system. MARC and VRE both make use of old passenger routes, while Metro and Baltimore's light rail both make use of abandoned rights-of-way.

From this GGWash post, this map shows the MARC, VRE, Metro and Baltimore light rail.

There are also some particularly evocative and historical station names. One wonders about Tuxedo, just outside DC, or Screamerville on the PF&P. Buck Run and Doe Run are adjacent stops on Pennsy's Pomeroy Branch. Baltimore's Penn Station was once optimistically named Union Station, though since city's eight stations made it hard to centralize everything, the name never took off.

This is hardly a complete transit map, of course. Because it is almost impossible to find contemporaneous timetables for every company, I had to limit myself to the companies and stations appearing in The Official Guide. Hence, the jarring absence of Silver Spring from the B&O and the lack of the streetcar line from DC to Glen Echo.

What kind of system could we have today?

Beyond just being fun for train buffs, I hope this kind of map will inspire transit advocates to think big about what we might have again one day.

Some months ago, a caller to the Kojo Nnamdi Show was hopeful that Winchester might someday get commuter rail service. It actually turns out the B&O ran through Winchester as well as a number of small West Virginia towns before hitting the main line to Union Station. Maybe that would be a good place to expand MARC's Brunswick Line.

Or perhaps, if Baltimore again becomes the kind of major metropolitan center it once was, it would make sense to reactivate the Old Main Line between Baltimore and Frederick. Or, maybe it wouldn't! The point is to think big, to see where nostalgia and practicality might align.

That in mind, what line do you wish would see a revival? Also, I'm still open to suggested revisions for this map before releasing it as a poster that's for sale. Feel free to nitpick in the comments below!


Johannesburg’s Gautrain aims to get people out of cars and into the city

South Africa's Gautrain whisks passengers around the country's traffic-clogged Gauteng capital region quickly and safely. Completed in 2012, the system is an attempt to both get people out of their cars and revitalise the centers of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The Gautrain at the Marlboro station. All photos by the author.

The 80-kilometer (50-mile) rail system is entirely separated from the existing Metrorail commuter rail system, allowing for fast express service between the center of Joahnnesburg, O.R. Tambo International airport and Pretoria. The majority of the system runs above ground, allowing for vistas of Gauteng's rolling urban sprawl, with a subway through central Johannesburg.

A Gautrain map showing above ground and underground segments.

Gautrain operates three service patterns: North-South (central Johannesburg to central Pretoria), East-West (Johannesburg's Sandton business district to the Rhodesfield park-and-ride) and an airport express.

Gautrain service map.

The system takes a unique approach to its airport service. The first two carriages of the four-carriage East-West trainsets are for airport passengers only, allowing travellers to board at the Marlboro and Sandton stations but not at Rhodesfield station.

The platform at the O.R. Tambo airport station is only long enough for the first two carriages—or "airport express" portion—of trains. Work us underway to extend the platforms to accommodate four-carriage trainsets.

The last two carriages of a Gautrain trainset extending beyond the platform at the O.R. Tambo airport station.

South African urbanism

South Africa had many reasons to invest R26.5 billion ($1.92 billion) in the Gautrain, including cutting traffic congestion and promoting urbanism in the sprawling Gauteng region.

Gautrain has replaced about 21,300 daily car trips, an economic impact reportreleased in July shows.

In addition, the report says the rail system has driven significant additional investments in residential, commercial and office space throughout the region since it opened. This includes new transit-oriented development around some stations, including Sandton.

One of the things many South Africans mention when discussing Gautrain is the region's focus on getting people into the center of Johannesburg outside work hours. They cite things like weekend festivals and farmers markets that are accessible with the train as part of this effort.

Safety is a key part of any effort to get people out of their cars and onto the train. Johannesburg has a reputation for crime, something that Gautrain takes very seriously. Security guards were patrolling the trains and were visible inside each station on a recent roundtrip between the airport and Marlboro.

Efforts to get people to ride Gautrain seem to be working. In addition to the previously mentioned traffic reductions, the system was averaging nearly 60,000 weekday riders in March and ridership continues to grow, its 2015 annual report states.

For more on transit developments in other cities and around the world, check out Greater Greater Washington's coverage of Cape Town, Dallas, Hartford, San Diego and San Francisco.


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.


Ask GGW: What are good gifts for budding young railfans?

Did you enjoy playing with trainsets as a kid? Were you excited when you rode a train for the first time?

Photo by Thomas's Pics on Flickr.

This week, our own David Alpert looked to us to see what he could get for his young nephew who's a budding railfan.

My young nephew, who lives in suburbia, visited DC recently and loved the Metro. He was fascinated by the map and said he wanted to ride one of he lines from one end to the other. I thought that sounded like a budding railfan, and want to encourage him.

His birthday is coming up. What could I get him? There's the book "Transit Maps of the World." What other ideas are there?

If you're looking for toys and gifts, Ashley Robbins has a few great suggestions:

Melissa and Doug, a specialty store with a variety of products for children of all ages, make some great passenger train and light rail toys, and the Del Ray variety store in Alexandria normally carries them.

For a younger child, you could get the Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood Trolley figure. And don't forget about the collection of Dinosaur Train toys as well as the usual Thomas the Tank Engine, Chuggington, and Lego toys, although they are on the expensive side.

Locomotive by Brian Floca is a Caldecott winning book that our 3-year old loves," says Jacques Arsenault. "But is probably good up until about age seven or eight." Another book option is Steam Train, Dream Train.

Emulating real life train systems

Julie Lawson says her young son is all about the real stuff:

Metro sells a branded version of the Melissa & Doug construction worker costume so you can be a track maintenance tech. He loves that. He also likes collecting free maps from the racks at stations and tourist sites and studying them. Even a package of those would blow his mind.
Many regional transit agencies have gift stores where you can find plenty of transit merchandise such as maps, toy train cars, and other memorabilia. Metro's own gift store sells current system maps as well as area maps for each Metro station that are also framed. Philadelphia and Chicago's gift stores also sell an array of collections, posters, and prints. A personal favorite of mine is the New York Transit Museum Store, which has an amazing selection of items for budding railfans and veterans alike if you're a fan of the New York City subway.

Museums and rides let kids experience trains

"Simply taking a child on a train will do wonders," says Canaan Merchant. "We've obviously got Metro and commuter rail, but maybe take him on a trip on Amtrak, or go out to Cumberland, Maryland to ride the Western Maryland scenic railroad."

Matt Johnson offers a host of options that he remembers from his days as, in his words, a "baby ferroequinologist:"

Locally, railroad museums include the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum at the Mount Clare Shops west of Downtown Baltimore and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg. At Strasburg, the museum offers daily excursions. For transit, the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville and the Baltimore Streetcar Museum also offer exhibits and rides. The Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington (near Pittsburgh) is also an excellent facility, and offers rides on a rebuilt section of the Washington and Pittsburgh interurban.

For excursions, the Western Maryland has trips between Cumberland and Frostburg. The Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia (across the mountain from Staunton) can also be a fun trip. For watching trains, there's a viewing platform alongside the Northeast Corridor in Old Bowie. A bit further afield, near Altoona, an incline takes railfans to the midpoint of the Horseshoe Curve, where people can watch Norfolk Southern freight traffic on the busy 3-track main line (and the twice-daily Amtrak Pennsylvanian).

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll pose a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!


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.


San Diego's Trolley is just the beginning of an extensive countywide rail network

Continuing our look at transit systems outside the Washington region, San Diego county has a light and commuter rail network that stretches 117 miles across Southern California.

The San Diego Trolley departing Grossmont station. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

The 53.5-mile San Diego Trolley, and its distinctive red cars are the flagship of San Diego's network. The light rail system carries an average of 124,000 passengers every weekday, the fourth most among American light rail systems. It also connects many of region's major destinations including downtown, at least one of the naval bases, and the US-Mexico border crossing at San Ysidro.

The Trolley has three lines, and the segment of the Blue Line between downtown San Diego and the Mexican border that opened in 1981 makes it the oldest modern light rail in the US. The first segment of the Orange Line did not open until five years later in 1986, and the most recent extension came along in 2005.

Map of the San Diego Trolley.

While it covers much of urban San Diego county, the Trolley has its limits. You can't ride to the beach, Hillcrest (a dense urban neighborhood), or popular tourist sites like Balboa Park and the zoo. You also can't take it to University City, a major education and employment center north of downtown, though that will change when the 10.9-mile Mid-Coast Corridor extension opens in 2019.

Two commuter rail lines stretch San Diego's network

At the Santa Fe Depot and Old Town stations, the Trolley shares a platform with the county's Coaster commuter rail line.

Amtrak and Coaster platforms are on the left and Trolley platforms on the right at San Diego's Santa Fe Deport.

The 41-mile line hugs the Pacific coast from downtown San Diego to Oceanside, offering some impressive ocean vistas along the way.

View of the Pacific Ocean from the Coaster. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

At its northern terminal, the Coaster connects to the county's hybrid light commuter rail line the Sprinter, as well as the Los Angeles region's Metrolink commuter rail system and Amtrak.

A Coaster train at Oceanside Transit Center.

The Sprinter runs between Oceanside and inland Escondido along a 22-mile suburban highway corridor. The line has faced criticism for its low ridership and limited frequency. On weekdays it runs every 30 minutes (even less often on weekends and evenings) and averages about 8,000 riders, despite initial targets of 11,000.

The Sprinter. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

Criticizing the Sprinter for not being as successful as light rail, though, is a little unfair because it's not light rail. Many commuter rail lines only provide good service at rush hour, and thus often have relatively low ridership compared to all-day light rail. As a hybrid, Sprinter strikes a balance between the two, providing better all-day service than commuter rail like Virginia's VRE, but not as good as light rail.

The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the area's metropolitan planning organization, both plans and funds transit in San Diego. Funded by a half-cent county wide sales tax, it decides what gets built where and when, leading to transit investments being spread across the region.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) in actually operates the Tolley, and the North County Transit District (NCTD) runs both the Coaster and the Sprinter.

San Diego's centralized planning and funding structure is certainly different from ours. The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board handles our region's long-term transportation plans, but it is up to the individual jurisdictions to actual design, fund, and build those projects. This means varying priorities, and projects whose benefits aren't immediately apparent across the region as a whole.

Unfortunately, a centralized planning organization with the power of the purse is unlikely in the Washington region because there are too many governments in play. But San Diego's system is an example of what such an organization can do.

For more on transit developments in other cities, check out GGW's coverage of San Francisco BART's new Oakland Airport connector and Dallas' DART light rail system.

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