Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Make No Little Plans I

With an ever-increasing growth in transit ridership in our national capital, it is time to consider the future of transportation in Washington. Over the past few weeks several bloggers have introduced transit plans for the region, and I have decided to put mine out there too.

In order to put my proposal in context, I should qualify my candidate projects. It is tempting to assume unlimited funds and total political palatability for transit projects when making fictional transit plan. At the same time, I also wanted to create a plan (or elements thereof) that have a feasible chance of being constructed. And while the strength of any plan like this is its uniqueness, it is often difficult find ideas that are not merely a rehashing of other plans. Yet there is value in showing a potential future. An organization which I was affiliated with in Atlanta uses a similar map to build support for transit funding, and there is much to be said for showing people what we could do with dedicated funding and a little will power.

My plan for the Washington region will be shown in parts, mostly because I’m still finishing up on sections of it. While I’ve been working on the plan for a while, school work and work work have kept me too busy to complete it.

The first part of my plan to be posted here on Track Twenty-Nine is the regional and commuter rail plan. I’m releasing it first simply because it was the first section of my plan to be completed and it represents one of the modes with the greatest potential and some of the greatest limitations.

Before I do so, however, it is necessary to lay some groundwork. After I set out to write a post describing my proposal for a regional/commuter rail system, I realized that the post was too long. So I divided it. This post talks about what we have, ideas for the future, and obstacles to their achievement. The next post will outline my plan. Ideally, these posts would be taken as a unit, but I think they will also stand alone quite well.

Existing System

Washington is currently home to two commuter rail systems. The older is Maryland’s MARC service. This service has been expanded over the years, but dates back to operation by the Baltimore & Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroads. MARC is operated by the state of Maryland’s Mass Transit Administration, which also operates Baltimore’s light rail and metro lines. Service operates from Washington’s Union Station to Baltimore on the Penn and Camden Lines and to Frederick and Martinsburg, West Virginia on the Brunswick Line. Additionally, the Penn Line serves several communities north of Baltimore in Harford and Cecil Counties.

Northern Virginia is served by Virginia Railway Express. Service on VRE dates back to 1992. Trains operate from Union Station to Manassas and Fredericksburg via Alexandria. Virginia’s commuter rail service is operated as a partnership between the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.

In addition to connecting Washington and Baltimore’s central business districts, MARC also serves the job centers of Rockville and Silver Spring. Virginia Railway Express trains make stops in Alexandria, Crystal City, and L’Enfant Plaza before reaching Union Station.

Recently there have been calls to expand Washington’s commuter rail service into a more regional service. Maryland’s MTA has proposed a major service expansion, including service to current VRE stations at L’Enfant and Crystal City. At the same time, VRE has floated the idea of running some VRE trains to Baltimore over current MARC routes.

Others have called for merging the two systems under one operating agency. Cross-regional trains and an integrated fare system could go a long way to reducing congestion and transportation issues in the area. My plan does not make any assumptions about agency organization, although I will not hesitate to suggest that the fewer transit operators the better when it comes to a seamless transit system.


Unfortunately, there are some serious barriers to creating such a unified system. Aside from organizational issues, there are physical limitations which must be addressed if a truly regional system is to be created. This is a very brief look at some of the major hurdles.

Across the country, the difficulty of adding trains is a common issue. Neither MARC nor VRE own any of their own tracks. MARC trains operate on tracks owned by CSX and Amtrak while VRE uses CSX and Norfolk Southern rails. When it comes to adding new trains, the transit agencies have to work with the owners of the rails. The freight companies are often very reluctant to add trains to their often already overburdened tracks.

In addition, both commuter railways have to store trains in downtown Washington. For MARC, some trains (notably those on the Penn Line) return to Baltimore throughout the day, but the majority of trains end up at Amtrak’s Ivy City Yard. Similarly, all of VRE’s trains are stored at Ivy City during the midday. Right now, however, VRE already is using 100% of its storage space and according to a September 2007 MTA report, MARC has already exceeded their contracted space. Both MARC and VRE, therefore, are unable to add new trains or lengthen existing ones.

Union Station
One of the major obstacles, physically, at least, is Union Station. There is a limited amount of space being shared among MARC,VRE, and Amtrak trains. Union Station has two levels, upper and lower. There are 14 tracks on the upper level, which is accessible only to trains coming from the north. Six more tracks are located on the lower level which is shared by all trains that arrive or depart to the south.

Union Station lower level

Typically, MARC uses 8 tracks on the upper level. Amtrak uses another 6 there for trains operating along the Northeast Corridor and on the Capitol Limited. Of the 6 lower level tracks, VRE usually only uses 2, with Amtrak reserving the remaining 4 for their own operation. If MARC run through service is initiated to Northern Virginia, some MARC trains will need to begin operating through the lower level, reducing capacity for VRE or Amtrak services.

Some expansion of Union Station is possible, albeit expensive. When the station opened in 1907, there were 29 tracks (not related in any way to the title of the blog, which refers to the fictitious Track 29 at New York’s Penn Station). Tracks 1-6 (upper level) no longer exist, instead having been dedicated to other uses, mainly in terms of station operations as far as I can tell from having boarded MARC trains there. Additionally, some space was used for the Metro guideway. The remaining upper level tracks are still in use (and keep their historic numbers too with 7 the lowest). On the lower level, there were originally 9 tracks, although 3 appear to be out of service. It seems feasible to me, therefore, that they could be returned to service if absolutely necessary. Even with 9 tracks, however, the lower level’s trains all funnel down to 2 tracks at the First Street Tunnel.

First Street Tunnel/Long Bridge
Passenger trains from the south reach Union Station by way of the First Street Tunnel under First Street SE/NE. The tunnel only has two tracks, although it widens to 6 as it passes under the Union Station headhouse. The tunnel dates to 1907 and probably warrants replacement, perhaps with a double-deck tunnel, if run through service is to be started. A three or four-track tunnel would allow for additional commuter and inter-city trains.

South of the tunnel, the double track merges with a two-track CSX freight line, becoming a three-track line. Currently only one track is dedicated to commuter use, with peak-direction VRE trains using the track to serve the L’Enfant Station. Southwest of L’Enfant, the tracks pass through a cut which would be difficult to widen to more than 3 tracks.

The Long Bridge from
the front of a VRE train

However, the three-track section is short and leads to a bottleneck at the two-track Long Bridge over the Potomac. The corridor widens once again to 3 tracks on the Virginia side of the river, but the right-of-way is much more generous here and could easily support an extra track if needed. Additional rail service between Alexandria and Union Station could warrant additional capacity across the river, including the construction of a new span between the Long Bridge and Metro’s Yellow Line bridge.

Platform Height
Another obstacle, though not an insurmountable one, deals with the height of station platforms. Just to clarify the terminology, platforms are defined here as either “high” or “low.” High platforms are like those seen on Metro, one need not ascend steps in order to board the rail vehicle. Low platforms, on the other hand, are located at ground level, and passengers must climb stairs in order to get into the railcar.

A high platform at Balto.
Camden Station (above)

A low platform at Manassas

Boarding is expedited by high platforms, but those can’t be located anywhere other than MARC’s Penn Line because of freight traffic, which requires wider clearance than passenger coaches. Since all VRE service is located on freight rail lines, all platforms are low (including all platforms on Union Station’s lower level). Therefore all rolling stock is limited to low platform boarding. Most of MARC’s rolling stock, however (the bi-level and single level cars), is able to be used interchangeably on low or high platforms, but gallery cars, which operate on the Brunswick Line only, can only use low platforms.

If any VRE trains are to operate north of Union Station, they would either have to operate via the Camden or Brunswick Lines, where CSX already objects to additional service, or operate with no stops to Penn Station in Baltimore. But even that plan is problematic. Both Camden Station and Penn Station in Baltimore have high platforms only, so some change would need to be made. Of course, VRE could also replace its entire fleet, but that is extremely unlikely, therefore it can be assumed that VRE trains will continue to terminate at Union Station for the foreseeable future. MARC trains, on the other hand could operate south of Union Station, which is likely in the next few years, and is already in MARC’s plans for the future.


There are many good examples of regional commuter rail systems across the country, but few have the organizational and physical obstacles or unique advantages of the Washington region. Philadelphia is perhaps the most influential American city in regards to my plan, yet their situation is quite different. While Philadelphia does have a mix of low and high platforms, they also have just one operator—not just for commuter rail, but also for the subways, trolleys, and buses. Perhaps the most pertinent point in the Philadelphia case is the system’s unity. Before 1984, there were essentially two separate systems, each with its own downtown terminal: the former Pennsylvania Railroad lines and the former Reading Railroad lines. A subway was constructed in 1984 to connect the endpoints of these systems, creating a new system where each line runs from a suburban Pennsylvania terminus to a suburban Reading terminus.

Of course, it is also true that Philadelphia’s SEPTA is in one state (although through agreements some service operates to adjacent states, similar to existing MARC West Virginia service). Here, a truly unified commuter rail system would effectively be a three-state system, with each state wishing for control, rather than merely contracting to another.

None of this, however, means that the barriers are insurmountable. It does indicate, though, that achieving a system like that of Philadelphia’s or Chicago’s will be difficult and unique. For instance, I doubt that one operator will maintain the system, but that does not mean that schedules and fares couldn’t be coordinated. Furthermore, due to logistical obstacles, a trip from anywhere south of Alexandria to Baltimore will require 2 trains and a change at Union Station (unless one takes Amtrak). But I don’t think any of these obstacles will stop this region. Maryland is already moving forward with plans to find a way to implement Northern Virginia service and with the ever-growing green movement, transit is likely to get a boost. It seems that hurdles or not, metropolitan Washington is getting on board with regional rail.


Anonymous said...

From my understanding of the issue, the clearance issues that led high platforms to be banned have to do with not providing enough clearance for railroad employees riding on the side of train cars. It's a regulation that made sense in the old days, but makes much less sense now, especially given all the inconvenience that it causes for wheelchair users and others.

Christopher Parker said...

Anonymous is incorrect. And anyway, it's not a regulation. Some freight cars can fit past high platforms, others can't. That is not a situation any freight railroad wants to have, especially on a main line.

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