Monday, May 9, 2016

Here's How MARC and CSX Could Help Lessen the Burden of Metro Shutdowns

Photo by Ryan Stavely on Wikipedia
The entire Washington metropolitan region let out a collective groan on Friday, when WMATA's new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, announced his ambitious plan to repair Metrorail’s aging and increasingly unreliable system over the next year. Deep down, we all know that these repairs absolutely need to happen and that we’ve put them off for far too long.

But as we begin the hard work of restoring our Metrorail system to its former glory, we also need to make sure that the region’s commuters can continue to rely on other modes of public transit to get them where they need to go reliably and speedily. To that end, one strategy that Maryland and DC officials should seriously consider is establishing a temporary MARC commuter rail shuttle route between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza via the CSX freight rail lines. Such a route could greatly alleviate the congestion that Metro riders on the Orange, Blue, and Silver (OR/BL/SV) lines east of the Anacostia River (EOTR) would otherwise experience during the next year.

Metro’s repairs will significantly impact Prince George’s riders

WMATA’s “SafeTrack” plan will require complete shutdowns of certain segments of Metro’s 118-mile rail system for weeks at a time. Even when stations aren’t shut down, many will have extended periods of single-tracking or will experience significantly reduced train service levels. Beginning in June and continuing for nearly a year, Metro will carry out 15 of these long-term “safety surge” projects.

In Prince George’s County, the most significant impact of SafeTrack will occur late this summer, between August 20 and September 6, when Metro plans to shut down OR/BL/SV service between Eastern Market and Benning Road (BL/SV) / Minnesota Avenue (OR). This will sever the Metrorail connection to downtown Washington for nearly half of Prince George’s Metro stations and three of the four Metrorail lines in the county.

Image from WMATA

Similarly, in November and December of this year and March of next year, Metrorail service on the OR/BL/SV lines EOTR will be significantly reduced because of single tracking and closures on other segments of those lines.

To help mitigate the impact of the track work and shutdowns, WMATA plans to have 40-50 additional buses on hand to provide alternate service. It will also run more eight-car trains, since service will be less frequent. Finally, Metro has requested the support of the affected jurisdictions (Maryland, Virginia, the District, and the counties and cities where Metro operates) to implement the necessary traffic control measures to facilitate increased bus and private automobile traffic. But is that enough?

For the types of large-scale, long-term repairs that WMATA is envisioning over the next year, it is going to take more than a few extra buses, dedicated bus and HOV lanes, and traffic cops to avert a commuter crisis. The Chicago Transit Authority, for example, marshaled over 400 buses and had a months-long public outreach campaign before embarking on its five-month shutdown of part of its rail network in 2013.

Similarly, it may not be realistic to ask governmental and private employers to allow significant chunks of their workforce to work remotely for weeks at a time. Those measures may work for a short-term shutdown, such as the 29-hour emergency repair that Metro did in March, but they are not a long-term strategy.

A temporary MARC shuttle could ease a lot of the pain

Fortunately, the CSX-owned freight rail lines that parallel the WMATA Orange line tracks EOTR may provide a workable solution. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), which runs the MARC commuter rail system, could work with CSX, Amtrak, and DDOT to establish a temporary MARC shuttle between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza from at least August 2016 through April 2017.

The L’Enfant commuter rail station is currently used by Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Amtrak. A separate branch of CSX railway connects the L'Enfant station to Washington’s Union Station from the south.

MARC currently serves Union Station via three other routes from the north, including its most popular Penn Line service via Baltimore and New Carrollton, on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. But that existing service is already oversaturated and would not be able to accommodate the masses of additional OR/BL/SV line Metrorail passengers in Prince George's County that will be impacted by the SafeTrack shutdowns.

Currently, there is no MARC station or platform at Deanwood, but as the pictures below show, there are three CSX freight rail tracks directly adjacent to the northern (inbound) track of the Deanwood Metro station:

Deanwood Metro Station. Image from Google Earth.

Deanwood Metro Station Platform. Photo by author.

That segment of the CSX freight rail network, called the Landover Subdivision, is not currently used for passenger service, although it was originally the main Baltimore & Potomac Railroad passenger route between Baltimore and Washington, DC. CSX has at times been reluctant to allow passenger service on its freight lines. But in light of the impending regional transportation crisis resulting from WMATA's planned SafeTrack initiative, we should not assume that CSX would not be willing to make the necessary accommodations to allow for passenger service along the Landover Subdivision.

CSX is a good corporate citizen and has worked with District, Maryland, and federal officials to allow passenger service on its other rail lines in the region. Additionally, under federal law, Amtrak has the ability to prioritize passenger service over any freight rail line, and it could be called in to work with MTA and CSX to establish such temporary regional service in this situation if necessary.

Establishing temporary MARC service can happen quickly

This modular platform at a Chicago Metra rail station
 was erected in three days. Photo by Composite Advantage.
Within a matter of days, MTA could quickly erect a modular platform (like this, this, or this), stairway, and ADA-compliant ramp on the northern side of the CSX tracks, at Polk St NE, which is connected to the Deanwood Metro station via an existing underpass.

Similarly, with a little additional effort, a second elevated platform with stairs and even a temporary elevator could be erected at the southern end of the CSX tracks at the L’Enfant station, along Virginia Ave SW, between 6th and 7th Streets, to provide additional capacity for passenger boarding and alighting there. (As an example, look at these great photos of a temporary elevated platform at Chicago's Pulaski Station.)

The MARC shuttle could run every 15-40 minutes between Deanwood and L’Enfant, depending on the time of day. Orange line customers could ride the Metro from New Carrollton, Landover, or Cheverly to Deanwood and then transfer to MARC. Blue and Silver line customers could ride Metro to the Addison Road station and then take a free express shuttle bus to the nearby Deanwood station.

Each of the OR/BL/SV Metro stations in Prince George's has ample commuter parking, which should be free or heavily discounted during this emergency period to encourage commuters not to drive into the District. Similarly, those commuters transferring back into the Metrorail system at Deanwood or L'Enfant from the MARC shuttle should receive a credit for the Prince George's portion of their Metro fare.

L'Enfant VRE Station. Photo by VRE.

This temporary MARC shuttle could effectively transport thousands of impacted Prince George’s OR/BL/SV line riders per day to and from downtown, and it would do so much more efficiently than 50 additional Metro buses could ever hope to do.

To encourage ridership, the cost of the MARC shuttle should be minimal (e.g., not more than $2.50 each way, and with eligibility for the $0.50 SmarTrip discount for inter-modal transfers from Metrorail or Metrobus). Conductors should use handheld on-board fare collection devices that allow for customers to pay with their SmarTrip, debit, or credit cards.

Over an extended period of repairs, such as those we will face during the SafeTrack program, this temporary MARC shuttle could provide a realistic rail alternative that would keep the region’s commuters out of their cars and committed to transit. WMATA and governmental officials owe it to the public to consider these kinds of creative options.


  1. One issue with this is, the route in question is single tracked through the Virginia Avenue tunnel, so dispatching the shuttles in a timely manner could be an issue. And also,
    who would pay for it? As it's in two jurisdictions .

    1. The tunnel shouldn't be too much of an issue given the tracks available for queuing on either side and the projected spacing of the shuttles. As for cost, while Deanwood and L'Enfant are both located in DC, I think the cost should fairly be split between MD & DC, since this will impact Ward 7 and Prince George's residents alike. MARC would likely build, own, and operate the stations/platforms, but they'll need to work with DDOT for permitting, street/traffic modifications, and any necessary land acquisition outside of public or CSX ROWs.

  2. The first negative is that the line is going through the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, which if I remember is being reconstructed. That means the single track is unavailable for ANY traffic. Well, there goes going to L'Efant Plaza.

    The second is that the line may not be rated for passenger service, and it may take some time (more than a year) just to get CSX and the Federal Railroad Administration to push the paperwork to get it rated... and have CSX pay the FRA to do it.

    That said, strike up Wikimapia and lets take a look.

    The interlockings (aka track switches) in question are CARROLL to the north of New Carrolton Metro/MARC/Amtrak, LANDOVER to the south of the station, DEANWOOD near the Deanwood Metro station, and Metro's D/G next to Minnesota Avenue Metro. Okay, it's logical to have Metrorail trains turn at Minnesota Avenue. (Note, it is custom to list interlockings in all caps)

    But then things get bad/expensive.

    New Carrolton has a third track (track 1) but it needs access. The only way is to build an entranceway to the existing tunnel and then the platform (assuming 2-4 train cars long). Oh, and the elevator too. Hell, you might as well just extend track A up from LANDOVER and build a proper long-term platform there.

    Landover Metro itself requires tunnelling to get to the other side, and that doesn't include what the station layout actually is. Then you can get to the platform.

    Cheverly is much easier, as it's on CSX rail. You just need the platform, ramp, et all on one side, although you could do both sides...

    Deanwood isn't accessible to both sides. The north side can be built but that's it. But you won't get an interlocking and you're stuck with one track. The DEANWOOD interlocking is over on the access to the Camden Line.

    Minnesota Avenue is also the same as Deanwood.

    In fact, the only interlocking you have is all the way in Anacostia, past the rail yard, and it's called... ANACOSTIA.

    So, for a shuttle train, you got a good amount of reconstruction that won't be done until well after the repairs are done to ALL the Metro lines. That's just a waste, and both the FRA and FTA isn't going to approve it. CSX, Amtrak, WMATA, and MARC isn't going to front the money for it because of it. (For an idea on how long it would take with all the paperwork, look up the latest effort to replace Baltimore's B&P Tunnel, as well as four-tracking around BWI Amtrak station; in short, *years*)

    Nice idea. But it's not going to work.

  3. @ Wolfskunk RedWolf

    I'm don't believe you've accurately set out the landscape here. First, I'm pretty sure the existing Virginia Avenue tunnel remains in use while the new tunnel is being constructed. Once the new tunnel is constructed, rail traffic will switch to the new tunnel, and they'll reconstruct the original tunnel.

    Second, I'd be surprised if the Landover subdivision isn't FRA-rated to carry passenger service. Most passenger service operates over freight lines. All the rest of CSX's main commuter rail segments carry passenger trains. That's not likely to be a barrier.

    Third, I'm really not following your interlocking discussion. I'm talking about establishing a shuttle between Deanwood and L'Enfant. The 3 CSX tracks on the north side of Deanwood are directly adjacent to the Metro station, and a platform constructed alongside the northernmost CSX track would be fully accessible to the boarding and alighting of commuter rail passengers in either direction. In that regard, it's no different than the existing platform at L'Enfant or any number of other one-sided platform stations. The shuttle wouldn't be servicing Landover, Cheverly, or New Carrollton (although I don't see why it couldn't serve New Carrollton on Track 2 NB and Track 3 SB, like all other passenger trains that service New Carrollton.)

    The Landover Subdivision tracks lead directly to the Anacostia River bridge near RFK Stadium, at which point they connect to the RF&P Subdivision, which passes L'Enfant and heads southward to Richmond.

    So no, what I'm proposing would not require huge rail infrastructure modifications to work. Put up a simple modular platform at Deanwood, and you're basically ready to go. (As I noted in the post, it would be quite helpful to have a second platform at L'Enfant, given the traffic there, but it's not absolutely necessary.)

    There are always logistical challenges to work out with any new endeavor, but the ones here should not be major. This idea can work, and it's a hell of a lot better than the alternatives currently on the table.

    1. Okay, you did confuse me on that. But I do doubt the tunnel is in service during construction. A check of the project documents publicly available can settle that question.

      L'Efant is a low-level platform, though, with need for a handicap lift. A similar could be done at Deanwood, but that will require CSX approval and CSX is what I call "freight heavy."

      Also, equipment and crew will have to be "qualified" to run that shuttle. That would most likely be Bombardier staff if it's MARC, due to MTA Maryland's contract with CSX and Bombardier; equipment would need to be tested along the line.

      As I said, it's a nice idea, but it'll take too long to get working.

      BTW, your question as to servicing New Carrolton? You got MARC and Amtrak service roughly every 5 to 10 minutes at that station, and adding the shuttle means changing schedules on about 200 trains (aka every train that travels on the NEC). Yes, it's scheduled *THAT* tightly.

    2. The Va. Ave Tunnel is definitely in service. Their project plan discusses train operations during the construction.

      Yes, the L'Enfant platform is a low-level one, just like most of the platforms that aren't on the NEC. MARC's fleet (or Amtrak's, or most other passenger rail cars that typically operate on freight lines) should be able to accommodate that. And certainly testing and crew qualification would be necessary on a new route. But qualification needn't take as long as, say, the DC streetcar. We've gotten too used to these labyrinthine procedures, and we need to remember that we do have the ability to move quickly, while still ensuring passenger safety. Train engineers should know how to drive trains, and these tracks have been there forever.

      Re: New Carrollton - Yes, I definitely agree things are crowded along the NEC. That's why I was saying the shuttle should just run b/w Deanwood and L'Enfant.

    3. There is no chance MARC could use the existing L'Enfant platform during commuter hours. Between Amtrak and VRE there are 14 northbound trains between 0600 and 0900.

  4. Why make it only a shuttle, why not consider take a few Camden Line Trains(or add a few Camden services) that service Deanwood and L'enfant instead of Union Station. After Riverdale MARC station you could use the switch to get to Deanwood and then L'enfant assuming the Virginia Ave tunnel is open.

    1. I'm not sure whether Camden Line trains (which run on the Alexandria extension to the Capital Subdivision) join the Landover subdivision north of the Deanwood station, to allow it to stop there. But if they do, they would have to run on the single CSX track that runs south of the WMATA tracks - and access to that southern track is difficult at Deanwood.

      Another option might be to put a station to the south of the Minnesota Ave Metro tracks, possibly at the grassy knoll to the right of the Metro station entrance (see here). That might work, but there's more real estate (and tracks) on the north side of the WMATA lines and at Deanwood.

      Either way, you'd still need to run shuttles more frequently between Minnesota Ave and L'Enfant, because you'd be trying to make up for lost Metro service on the OR/BL/SV lines.

  5. I do know there is a plan to have a third track between Union Station and New Carrolton, but no time frame on it.

  6. Great ideas but approval/politics/logistics will take entirely too long.