Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Commuter Rail


CSG explains Metro Momentum in new video

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has just released a video supporting Metro Momentum, WMATA's plan to increase Metrorail and Metrobus capacity, and a web tool to contact your local elected officials in support of funding Momentum.

Momentum is WMATA's strategic plan to increase capacity in the Metro system to keep pace with job and population growth in coming decades. The Momentum plan has two partsMetro 2025 and Metro 2040.

Metro 2025, which is the core of the plan, calls for upgrades to all facets of our existing transit systems including running all 8-car trains at rush hour, restoring service on the Blue Line to pre-Rush Plus levels, and running more Red Line trains all the way to the end of the line to leverage as much as we can from a system that is already very popular. There are 7 main components of Metro 2025:

  1. 8-car trains: Metro will run all 8-car trains during rush hour, making room for 35,000 more rides per hour through the system's core.
  2. Station improvements: Metro will build pedestrian walkways between Gallery Place and Metro Center, and between Farragut North and Farragut West to ease transfers and reduce platform crowding. Metro will also integrate new station entrances and changes to elevators and escalators in high-ridership stations.
  3. Metrobus Priority Corridor Network: Metro will improve bus service, travel speeds, and reliability on 24 regional bus corridorswhich serve half of Metrobus riders.
  4. New Blue Line Connections: Metro will work to unclog the bottleneck at Rosslyn station to restore Blue Line service to pre-Rush Plus levels.
  5. Rider Communications: Metro will install a new PA system, better real-time information for riders, and more.
  6. More Buses: Metro will expand its bus fleet, putting 400 more buses on the streets.
  7. Pocket Tracks: More crossover and pocket tracks throughout the system will make it easier to turn trains around, making more flexible service possible.
Sexier improvements, like the "Metro Loop" and a new station in Rosslyn, are pieces of the Metro 2040 part of Momentum.

These are all good things for the region and many of the proposals are familiar to public transportation advocates, but now it's time for those advocates to begin educating others, and for the public to contact their elected officials to tell them that in order for DC region to grow more sustainably we must expand transportation options to all of the region's commuters and travelers.


VRE's future could include off-peak and weekend service

Faced with growing ridership but limited capacity, VRE has released a plan to significantly expand commuter rail service in Northern Virginia, including reverse-commute, off-peak, and weekend services and an extension to Gainesville and Haymarket.

Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

The $2.68 billion, 25-year capital improvement plan is split into three phases with modest capacity improvements through 2020. By 2030, it proposes major infrastructure projects including a new Long Bridge over the Potomac River, with further improvements in its last decade through 2040. It is the first new strategic plan for the railroad since 2004.

VRE planners say their vision is delivers a lot for a relatively low cost. "Significant capacity increases can take place almost entirely within the existing right of way, at a cost, and in a time frame competitive with highway and heavy rail construction projects in the region," the plan says.

Expansion is sorely needed. CSX and Norfolk-Southern own the tracks VRE's two lines use, and provide few slots for the commuter rail, limiting its schedule. Chokepoints in the region's rail network, most notably the Long Bridge, restrict the number of trains VRE can run. They also share track with Amtrak regional and long-distance trains.

During the railroad's 2013 fiscal year, which ended in June, VRE's average daily ridership was 18,878, though it regularly spikes above 20,000, according to recent comments by VRE Chief Executive Doug Allen. Capacity is about 19,000 passengers per day.

Under the plan, capacity on the commuter railroad would increase to about 43,000 passengers per day on weekdays, a 24,000 passenger increase. It also allows for about 6,000 passengers per day on weekends.

VRE would not cover the entire cost of the plan. The railroad, local, and regional jurisdictions would only be on the hook for about $1.19 billion under the plan, with the rest coming from project partners, for example CSX or Amtrak, and the federal government.

The VRE operations board unanimously approved the plan during its meeting January 17.

Plan proposes new Long Bridge, through-running with MARC

The first phase of VRE's plan, between 2015 and 2020, includes longer trains, an additional round-trip on both the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines, expanded parking at stations, and improved station facilities. These would cost the railroad $285 million. VRE says that these are cost-effective plans that can occur under its existing agreements with CSX and Norfolk-Southern.

The second phase, between 2021 and 2030, includes arguably the largest, and most important, project in VRE's plan: the Long Bridge replacement. Budgeted at about $1.1 billion, this could involve replacing the existing two-track structure with a new four-track bridge, as well as adding new tracks for four from L'Enfant Plaza to Alexandria.

VRE is participating in the Long Bridge replacement study, which the DC Department of Transportation is leading. The commuter railroad estimates that it would only need to contribute up to $111 million to the project under the plan.

A new bridge and additional tracks would also enable through-running with MARC. According to the plan, VRE says that it would work with its Maryland sibling, which is planning to do the same thing.

Other projects during phase two include the $295 million extension to Gainesville and Haymarket, initial investments in a third tr


Can we build up around MARC stations?

It's not surprising that corporate offices and sprawling suburbs are consuming the green fields between DC's and Baltimore's beltways. What is surprising is there's no real alternative: no urban places are being built at all of the MARC stations in the same corridor.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

My wife and I live in Baltimore. Each morning, we splash cold water on our faces before heading to Penn Station in the dark. There, I drop my wife to catch the 5:50 MARC train to Union Station, where she will then transfer to the Metro and arrive at work by 7:30. This is a better choice than driving through morning and evening rush hour in two cities, which she has tried before.

I work in Baltimore, but have meetings in the suburbs between there and DC. By being in the middle, families and businesses can access the employment, cultural, airport, and other benefits of both regions. But the traffic is terrible, and there is pressure to use taxpayer dollars to widen roads or create new ones, like the Intercounty Connector.

The status quo development between Baltimore and DC is comprised of both commercial and residential sprawl, some of which is very close to MARC stations. But the way it's designed and sited makes it inaccessible to train passengers.

The US Green Building Council (USGBC) and its LEED rating system need to play a role. USGBC should not be giving isolated, land-gobbling sprawl producers green credentials for energy efficiency when these same buildings require inefficient commuting.

By contrast, all seven Penn Line stations, and most of the Camden Line stations between Baltimore and DC lie in a desert of surface parking lots (there's actually a garage at BWI Airport station). It's difficult to even get a cup of coffee at most of these outposts. But the train service offered there can deliver a passenger to the center of Washington or Baltimore roughly as fast and as comfortably as the Metro or a car.

Can we encourage transit-oriented development around MARC stations, the way we have around places like Arlington, Rockville, Bethesda, and Silver Spring, which have grown up around Metro stations? Kaid Benfield has covered Arlington's success in revitalizing neighborhoods without increasing traffic. And Chris Leinberger has described the growth of what he calls "WalkUP" development that is becoming so prevalent in the DC area.

While I advocate for infill development inside the beltways, there's still demand for development in between. It is time to start urban, mixed-use development along the MARC Penn and Camden lines.

The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) proclaims they are open for business partnerships at MARC stations, and have a transit-oriented development (TOD) underway at Odenton. Private sector developers have made lots of money building urban neighborhoods at Metro stations, particularly in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There is potential for similar opportunity adjacent to MARC stations.

So why has scattered growth continued between Baltimore and DC while MARC stations remain constellations of barren surface parking? I speculate the issue is the cost of structured parking, which frees up room for urban development. With cheap available greenfields to build lots on, why spend the money?

The frequency of MARC service also affects the prospects for development around stations. Headways on the Penn Line are close to an hour outside of rush hour, while the Camden Line is even less frequent, and offers no trains in the middle of the day or on weekends.

More frequent MARC trains help overcome one advantage the Metro has over Maryland's commuter lines. Increased service, like weekend service on the Penn Line that started this December, makes TOD more viable because the people who live and work there can rely on it.

There are an increasingly large number of people who travel between Baltimore and Washington that may prefer a hassle-free train ride to a drive in traffic. Especially if there's a cosmopolitan urban environment where they get on and off the train. There is a premium for this in Bethesda and Arlington, and there could be at MARC stations as well.

To get on a roll at MARC stations, the public sector may have to help build and finance structured parking to open up land adjacent to stations for development. Stu Sirota, principal of TND Planning Group, says there needs to be an overarching vision coupled with marketing. "A real regional planning effort or charrette will show how all these station areas could become cool transit villages (or bigger)," he says, "and what an incredible impact that could have on the Baltimore-Washington corridor."

Once there are a few hot spots along the Penn and Camden lines, the areas around MARC stations will become coveted real estate. It is time to get started.


All northeast US passenger rail on one awesome map

This map shows every Amtrak, commuter rail, metro, light rail, and tourist rail line from Maine to North Carolina, to scale.

It comes from, and you can even download it in a fully-editable Adobe Illustrator format.

Image from

Image from

Cross-posted to BeyondDC.

Update: The map's author has requested that you "like" their page on Facebook. Please help them out and do that!


CSX explains slower train speeds in heat or heavy rain

Why do trains on MARC's Camden and Brunswick Lines sometimes run slowly? One reason is the weather: CSX, which owns the tracks, orders MARC trains to slow down for safety when it's hot or very rainy.

Photo by Don Shall on Flickr.

That's what CSX Vice President for Passenger Operations Jay Westbrook told the MARC Riders Advisory Council last week. High temperatures can make the rails buckle. If a train goes over a buckle or sun kink, the train may derail, as Amtrak's Capitol Limited did near Kensington in 2002. Meanwhile, a lot of rain can wash out the track bed, causing the tracks to collapse.

Heat is a problem because modern railroads use continuous welded rail, rather than jointed track. Continuous welded rail is sections of rail that are 1/4-mile long, with the ends welded to the next section of rail. Unlike jointed track, there are no gaps between the sections of rail to accommodate expansion when the rail gets hot. Instead, the rail spikes, tie plates, rail anchors, and track ballast are supposed to keep the rail in place.

The Federal Railroad Adminstration requires track owners to have a plan for continuous welded rail. The plan must include procedures governing train speed on continuous welded rail track when "the difference between the average rail temperature and the average rail neutral temperature is in a range that causes buckling-prone conditions to be present at a specific location."

CSX owns the tracks on MARC's Brunswick and Camden Lines. CSX issues a heat order for operations between 1 pm and 7 pm if the predicted high temperature for the day is 90 degrees or higher, or if there is a large predicted change in temperature (e.g., 25 degrees or more), especially if the predicted high temperature is higher than 85 degrees. Large predicted changes in temperature are usually the reason for heat orders in the fall or spring.

If CSX issues a heat order, passenger trains must go 20 miles per hour below the maximum authorized speed, but not less than 40 miles per hour. Freight trains must go at least 10 miles per hour below the speed limit, but not less than 30 miles per hour. On the Brunswick and Camden Line tracks, under normal operations, the maximum authorized speed is 79 miles per hour for passenger trains and 60 miles per hour for freight trains.

Thus, for example, the usual maximum speed for a passenger train with a heat order would be 59 miles per hour. However, if the maximum authorized speed for a particular section of track were 45 miles per hour, then under a heat order, the passenger train would go 40 miles per hour, not 25 miles per hour.

The slower speeds not only help the engineers look out for buckles but also prevent buckling in the first place, because a slower train puts less stress on the track, Westbrook said.

For rain, said Westbrook, CSX currently uses Accuweather's Skyguard service, which provides weather information for specific locations. Skyguard issues flash flood warnings based on recent rainfall, the predicted hourly rainfall rate (more than 1 inch per hour or 3 inches per 3 hours), the total predicted rainfall, and local conditions, such as elevation and soil. Under flash flood warnings, the maximum speed is 40 miles per hour.


DMU trains are the DC region's missing transit mode

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 train in San Diego. Photo by mrpeachum on flickr.

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.

DMUs, and their electric cousin EMUs, are used in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Portland, San Diego, Dallas, and Austin. They're proposed in even more cities.

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.

Austin DMU on-street. Photo by paulkimo90 on flickr.

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.


Through-running isn't so easy for MARC and VRE, part 2

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.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

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.

Proposed L'Enfant commuter rail station layout. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

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.


Through-running isn't so easy for MARC and VRE, part 1

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?

Photo by phrenologist on Flickr.

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.

VRE gallery car. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

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.

Similar stairs on an Amtrak train. Photo by the author.

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.

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