How to turn MARC & VRE into D.C. Regional Rail

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, May 3, 2019

Good ideas abound for modernizing and transforming the Washington, D.C. area’s two commuter rail systems — Maryland Area Rail Commuter (MARC) and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) — into an interconnected regional rail system more like Philadelphia’s SEPTA Regional Rail. Infrastructural and logistical challenges abound that will take a generation or so to resolve, but the biggest obstacles to sustaining the necessary political momentum are jurisdictional divisions, political leadership’s misplaced priorities, and the lack of broad-based grassroots momentum to reorient those priorities.

A MARC Penn Line train pulls into BWI Airport Rail Station on Monday morning, Sept. 30, 2013. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
A panel talk held Tuesday in the capital’s NoMa neighborhood, sponsored by the local smart growth blog and advocacy group Greater Greater Washington (to which this writer also occasionally contributes), helped clarify and put into perspective the work that lies ahead. The largest single physical roadblock is the 115-year-old Long Bridge, a two-track span that is the only Class I railroad crossing of the Potomac River in the region, the easternmost such crossing, and the only such crossing within a 60-mile radius. I shared a story from the World War II era that illustrates this bridge’s crucial position in the entire East Coast’s rail network in this blog two months ago. 

According to its owner CSX, the span is operating at 98% capacity during weekday morning and afternoon peak periods. Each weekday between 6:00 and 9:30 A.M. and between 3:00 and 7:00 P.M., 13 VRE trains share Long Bridge with five to six Amtrak trains and perhaps a dozen CSX freight trains. CSX says it cannot physically accommodate any more trains at those times. 

A future travel prediction study due out soon is likely to show significant latent demand among suburban Maryland residents for direct service to and from job centers in Arlington and Alexandria, Va. — especially with the coming of Amazon’s second headquarters to railroad-adjacent properties in Arlington — but no MARC trains will be able to come into Virginia until Long Bridge is expanded.

“Long Bridge is emblematic of the 25-year absence of regional investment in rail infrastructure, other than Metrorail,” said panelist Herbert Harris, Jr., an Amtrak Northeast Corridor locomotive engineer and Chairman of the State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. His union advocates for a new bridge primarily for passenger trains, with CSX retaining ownership of the existing bridge and using it primarily for freight, though both spans would be open to both train types for the sake of fluidity. Solving the funding and governance challenges will require a lot of goodwill between the jurisdictions, Harris added.

An outbound VRE train crosses Long Bridge beneath cherry blossoms along the Potomac on April 8, 2014. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Luckily, the District (of Columbia) Department of Transportation (the entirety of Long Bridge lies within the District, as the state line is at the river’s high water mark on the Virginia side) is undertaking preliminary engineering and environmental analysis for adding a second two-track bridge to allow for four main-line tracks between Virginia Avenue interlocking in D.C. (where Amtrak’s two tracks into Washington Union Station split from CSX’s Virginia Avenue bypass route) and Alexandria’s AF Interlocking, where CSX’s three-track East Coast mainline continues south and Norfolk Southern’s Crescent Route mainline proceeds southwest. 

About a year from now, the last administrative hurdle is expected to be cleared for this project to receive federal and state funding, but funding sources have not been identified and construction would take the better part of a decade once funded. Fortunately, CSX and Amtrak are expected to contribute some of the funding. The northern Virginia regional entities that fund VRE would also contribute, but are statutorily forbidden from spending money on projects located outside of Virginia.

The other big-ticket piece of the D.C. regional rail puzzle is Washington Union Station, the region’s biggest surface transportation hub. A major reconfiguration of the station, combined with a massive air-rights residential and commercial development atop the tracks, will restrict train operations for about a decade once it begins, but will result in the much freer flow of foot traffic to, from, and along the platforms. It will also better connect intercity and commuter trains to Metrorail, the DC Streetcar and the local and intercity bus hub. However, only two tracks connect the station to the south, and there appears to be no room to add more.

MARC, Amtrak and Metrorail trains are seen from the Metrorail platform at NoMa-Gallaudet University station on June 12, 2018. Photo by BeyondDC at
Panelists mentioned a number of more minor challenges to achieving robust regional rail, including:

  • Interfacing between low- and high-platform stations: This would not be an issue for bringing MARC equipment into Virginia as all of MARC’s cars can serve both platform types, but VRE’s gallery cars would need to be retrofitted to serve high-platform stations on the MARC system. As an alternative, one audience member suggested schedule and ticketing coordination allowing for cross-platform transfers between MARC and VRE at Union Station, which is something neither agency has modeled or considered — though both now use the same mobile ticketing vendor.
  • Forging a more cooperative relationship between the State of Maryland and CSX: Expanding service on the MARC Camden and Brunswick lines — the latter being a potential, though unaddressed by the state, alternative to the widening and toll-lane construction on Interstate 270 sought by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) — will require the state, which funds and administers MARC, coming to agreement with the Class I on a level of capacity expansion investment that will make the host railroad open to allowing more MARC trains. Harris said that Maryland could learn from the approach of its southern neighbor, whose Department of Rail and Public Transportation has been able to extract significant concessions to passenger rail — both VRE and state-supported Amtrak services — from CSX and NS. Virginia has also been successful at securing a dedicated source of state capital funding for rail, which nearly no other state has been able to do.
  • Finding space to store more commuter trains: VRE will soon lose the six tracks in D.C.’s Ivy City rail yards where its trainsets are parked mid-day when Amtrak acquires new Acela trainsets and is planning to replace them with two new storage tracks parallel to New York Avenue NE. If it is not seen as practical to run trains through to the other system’s endpoint termini, storage space for MARC equipment will need to be found somewhere south of Union Station.
  • Working around longer, heavier freight trains: CSX’s operating philosophy has been transformed by its late CEO Hunter Harrison’s concept of ‘precision scheduled railroading,’ which the BLET’s Harris called “a pox on the industry” that “strains existing systems in ways that weren’t part of the original capacity models.” “You’re looking at double the size and weight of freight trains than previously predicted. These will be the norm,” Harris added, warning that this will limit CSX’s capacity to host reverse-commute service on MARC’s Camden and Brunswick lines and VRE’s Fredericksburg Line.
  • Federal funding: Any upcoming infrastructure legislation, next year’s surface transportation reauthorization, and/or future appropriations bills will need to include outlays for passenger rail on the scale of the $8 billion included in the 2009 stimulus bill. If this kind of investment is made, the panelists agreed, the D.C. region stands a good chance at securing a chunk of it.

“[Maryland has] been bipolar on commuter rail to say the least,” admitted panelist Danielle Glaros, a Prince George’s County (Md.) Council member who chairs the Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee. “We have made some investment — weekend [MARC] Penn Line service, bikes on [MARC] trains, station improvements. But the bigger conversation around dedicated funding needs to happen,” she said, excoriating advices to help press the vision before the Maryland legislature.

Turning visions, studies and plans into reality always comes down to political will. Fortunately, there has been enough of that in Virginia, and just enough in D.C., to lay significant groundwork for the needed upgrades once federal and local sources of funding become available. Sadly, Maryland is behind the curve, with a governor and legislative leaders who seem blinded by a highways-first and transit-as-an-afterthought mentality. Only the informed and strategic engagement of residents and voters will change that.

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