Archive for the ‘Fantasy Transit’ Category

Future ideas for DC’s commuter rail system

July 21, 2009
MARC Train. Image from J.H.Gray on Flickr

MARC Train. Image from J.H.Gray on Flickr

Washington, DC is blessed to have Metro – a great urban transit system.  It’s probably the single best thing to happen to the city in the past 50 years – and even more notable considering the era it came from.  When most cities were depopulating and building freeways instead of transitways, DC built a subway system.  Several cities built subway lines, but DC managed to build an entire system.  Given the dominance of the automobile both in public policy and in public perception during this era, this accomplishment is nothing short of remarkable.

However, the success of Metro can sometimes hamstring future transit discussion in the region.  If people want transit, they want it to be Metro.  Even if Metro (specifically – heavy rail rapid transit – fully grade separated) isn’t the best option for the job.  Rapid transit lines are tremendously expensive and must have high ridership to justify their expense.  Still, when people talk about expanding transit in the DC region (which is good!) they tend to focus on simply extending Metro lines places.  Plenty of folks point out the oddity of putting the most expensive mode of transit out on the fringe – especially when some of those places (Orange line to Manassas, Blue Line in NoVA) already have existing commuter rail connections.

Some of that stems from the hybrid nature of Metro.  Unlike her sister system in the Bay Area, Metro at least functions as a more traditional subway within the core of DC.  However, out on the fringe, the rail speeds, station spacing, parking supply, and distances covered function much more like a commuter rail system than a subway.  Thus, it’s somewhat natural for people in the region to associate a commuter rail trip with Metro’s brand – but that doesn’t make it the best choice of mode.

The solution seems blindingly obvious – many of the corridors mentioned for Metro extension, whether that’s the Orange line to Manassas, the Blue line to Ft. Belvoir, or the Green line to BWI – are already served by commuter rail.  The issue is that commuter rail service in the DC region is sub-par.   MARC and VRE simply don’t have the good brand name that Metro does, and for good reason – the service they offer is inferior.

Plenty of people have opined about future commuter rail service in DC, including both MARC and VRE themselves. I won’t bother to re-hash what are essentially obvious arguments – bring MARC and VRE under one brand, increase headways, increase hours of operation, essentially make these services more like transit rather than just commuter rail.   Similar services in other places, whether being German S-Bahn services or even New York City’s commuter railroads show how these modes can both serve as express transit services as well as reliable transit.

The genesis of this post was simply a couple of things that came up during the past week.  First, BeyondDC made a few predictions on the state of the DC region in 2040.  The one observation that struck me concerned a future second intercity rail station in the area:

Intercity Travel:
Union Station will be past capacity and we will need a second depot, possibly in Arlington. There will be multiple trains per day running several short-distance intercity rail trips to all other population centers in the mid-Atlantic region. Camden Station will become more important in Baltimore. Dulles and BWI airports will continue to expand. National Airport may be sold and the land redeveloped, or it may continue to operate, depending on how much intercity travel continues to be done by plane.

The potential for a second major rail station in Arlington is intriguing.  It also dovetails nicely with this guest post on the transport politic about the future of regional and commuter rail in New York City.  The post harps on one key principle for New York, also applicable to DC – through-routing of trains:

The New York metro area has many stub-end terminals—Flatbush Avenue, Grand Central, Hoboken, Long Island City, St. George—as well as one station, Penn Station, which is a through-station by layout but a terminal by use, except by Amtrak. Such a configuration works in getting people to take commuter rail from the suburbs to Manhattan, but is inherently limited for all other functions…

Manhattan acts as a barrier to transportation, both by auto and by rail. By train, one needs to transfer. By car, one needs to cross jammed roads and pay multiple tolls. Through-running is a way of breaking this barrier by enabling people to live in North Jersey and work in Queens and Brooklyn, Long Island, or Connecticut, and vice versa. Though some people live on one side of Manhattan and work on another today, the current stub-end use of Penn Station lengthens those commuters’ travel time and restricts their number.

Worse, the stub-end layout reduces track capacity. A rapid transit train can dwell at a through station for under a minute, even if it is crush-loaded with passengers trying to enter or exit. At a terminal, the minimum dwell is about five minutes, and mainline trains discharging all or most passengers at the terminal typically dwell more. This clogs the tracks, leading to the absurd situation that while the RER’s central transfer point, Châtelet-Les Halles, serves 500,000 daily passengers on 6 tracks, Penn Station strains to serve 300,000 riders on 21 tracks.

Both MARC and VRE want to route trains through Union Station to serve regional destinations.   For MARC, the obvious choice would be serving employment centers at L’Enfant Plaza, Crystal City, and Alexandria directly.  For VRE, the same principle applies to Silver Spring and even through to Fort Meade and Baltimore.

Combine those ideas with the notion of both expanding regional and intercity rail service, and such routing options could increase the effective capacity of Union Station’s lower level through-tracks, as well as probably create demand for expanded facilities in the DC region.  The potential for inter city from points south (Richmond, Charlotte, Atlanta) terminating at an Arlington station is an interesting idea, creating a situation akin to Boston’s North and South Station – but with the needed track connector between them.  Likewise, Philadelphia’s through-routing regional rail shows the potential advantages of such a system.

This new terminal could easily fit on the land between National Airport and Crystal City.  The potential for connections between rail and air service is also interesting.  The location would provide an adjacent ‘downtown’ with Crystal City, but also a very short trip into Downtown DC via the Yellow line.

Both of these concepts – through routing and provisions for a new major terminal in Arlington – should be included in any future plans.


Metro Fantasies – now with pictures

July 1, 2009

Following up on my previous comments about Metro expansion and a new Yellow line, I wanted to add some graphical representation of these ideas.

First, the current Metro system:

My plan includes the Silver line as currently planned and under construction, as well as my conception of the new Blue line (shown in teal) as well as a separated Yellow line (shown in Goldenrod), with separation from both the Green like through DC and from the Blue line through Arlington and Alexandria.  The new lines only are here:

Combine both the current system and the new plans, and you get this:

Old tracks are in blue, new tracks in yellow.

Obviously, these maps have no stations (yet).  It’s safe to assume that where two lines cross, you’d want to have some sort of a transfer station there.  With new lines crossing (thinking specifically of the intersection of North Capitol and H St), you could have a brand new Metro Center-esque station, linked by tunnel to the current Red line stop at Union Station.

The purpose of putting these lines on these streets is merely to define the corridors and ensure some feasiblity in terms of potential rights of way and station areas, but they shouldn’t be considered concrete decisions.

Adding to Metro’s Core Capacity

June 30, 2009

Greater Greater Washington’s always had some great fantasy transit discussions – whether talking about the New Blue line, more fantastic visions, or even the multimodal vision for Baltimore and DC.  Over the last few days, the fantasy discussions have started again.  Though these are not always the most realistic discussions, they’re a great starting point for larger discussions about the role of transit in the transportation system in the city, and more importantly they discuss what kind of city we want to have.

This past week’s discussions have focused on the idea of a new Yellow line – originally posted here, along with my response.   The entire premise of separating the Yellow line from the Green line (at least as I understood it) was to increase the maximum capacity of both lines – the same premise behind the idea of separating the Orange and Blue lines.  That way, both colored lines would have full capacity for their entire length.  Doing such a project would also have ancillary benefits, such as adding redundancy to the system with multiple tracks on fairly similar routes, as well as opening up new areas to Metro service (such as adding Metro service to H Street NE with the New Blue line).  Each of these ideas is worthwhile, though slow to implement.  Given the facts that Metro is already straining to handle the crowds along the Orange line though the RBC, focusing on this kind of long term planning is important.  Building new subway lines will take a long time, and with Metro expected to reach capacity sometime between 2025 and 2030, starting the planning process now is vitally important (i.e. Metro was recommended as the preferred alternative for the Dulles Corridor in a 1997 report – the full line is now set to open in 2016 – nearly 20 years after the fact).

With that in mind, proposals that involve a great deal of capital construction must have a long term plan behind them to justify the investment.  The idea of separating the Blue and Orange lines is a good start.  Having a longer term plan to separate the Green and Yellow lines is also a good idea – even better would be to combine those efforts sowe have a nice 50 year map to follow for Metro’s development over time.

The lack of this kind of focus and long term vision troubles me with GGW’s latest series of posts about adding new trackwork in downtown DC.  The premise is a simple question: is there a simpler and cheaper way to add core capacity to Metro without building the entire New Blue line?

How about separating the Yellow Line instead? The Yellow Line plan Dave Murphy suggested last week, and some of your comments, suggest a possibility. If we separate the Yellow and Green lines in DC, then Metro could put many more trains over the 14th Street bridge. According to Metro planners, this option would involve building a shorter subway tunnel from the 14th Street bridge to the Convention Center along 9th Street.

While the tunnel at Rosslyn is already at its capacity, the 14th Street bridge isn’t, because all its trains must merge with Green Line trains from Branch Avenue. Metro can squeeze a few more Yellow Trains in if they reduce Blue trains, but not that many. If the trains didn’t have to compete with the Green Line, the 14th Street bridge could carry many more trains from Virginia.

The second iteration of the idea also generated a great deal of discussion:

If we could run more trains over the 14th Street bridge, where would they go in Virginia? I can see two possibilities: convert the Arlington Cemetery segment to a shuttle train, or add connections to route the Silver Line over that segment as well as the Blue Line.

Both of these ideas are intruiging from an academic perspective, but completely lose sight of why you’re adding core capacity in the first place.

Remembering that the whole point of the New Blue line is to separate it from the Orange line tracks it shares through DC, the reason it gets brought up first is due to the popularity of the Orange line in Northern Virginia.  This GGW idea is an attempt to solve that same problem by essentially starting on a new Yellow line.  You’re essentially building half a subway, except that you’re building the New Yellow line first when the Blue line is the obvious choice.

If you’re going to put shovels into the ground, you might as well make sure that the plans have long term significance.  Metro’s genius is that it was concieved as an entire 100 mile system.  Even so, it functioned well before the full system was complete.

WMATA should take the same step here.  If you want to add new capacity to downtown DC by building half of a new subway, just start building the new Blue line – and do it in phases.  The first phase (say, from Rosslyn to the Connecticut Ave station) would accomplish the same thing – freeing up core capacity on the Orange (and Silver) line, as well as delivering Blue line riders to the core of downtown.   However, unlike the 9th street proposal, the Blue line would be readily expandable at a later date, much like how the Mid City portion of the Green line was completed in phases (with U Street opening in 1991, while Columbia Heights didn’t open until 1999).   Ideally, you’d like to do it in one fell swoop, but the entire premise of this idea is that the funds to do such a project aren’t there.  So let’s at least plan it with expansion in mind.

With that said, the idea of a new Yellow line isn’t a bad one at all, even if the timing isn’t quite right.  However, using 9th street doesn’t make a lot of sense when you already have lines along 7th and 12 streets downtown, and along 14th street in Columbia Heights.  The alignment proposed in the original post makes a lot more sense when viewed with a long-term lens.  A 9th street alignment would indeed be redundant, but almost too redundant – it wouldn’t open up any more area to Metro service, such as the transit poor Washington Hospital Center.  A North Capitol/Georgia Ave route would provide redundancy for both the eastern Red line, the whole of the Green line, and open up a major commercial street to Metro.  This line could also be phased in over time, initially operating as just a partial segment.

As Burnham said, “make no little plans.”  If you’re looking for incremental physical improvements, I’d opt to ensure that they’re part of a larger plan.  The final result will be far better for it.


June 26, 2009

Dave at Imagine DC (and also GGW) put up a nice concept of a separated Yellow line through the core of DC.  Separating the Blue line has been the most popular suggestion, and was originally among WMATA’s official plans, but the idea of separating the Yellow line is relatively new.   Still, amongst extensive discussion in the comments from previous fantasy maps, the idea has come up before – my name is somewhere in those comment threads.

Given the focus that Monday’s accident has put on redundancies in the transit system, it’s fitting to consider the idea.  However, it’s important not to lose sight of the reasons for such plans and expansions in the first place.  With that in mind, I’d propose a few key principles to consider for any metro expansion plan:

  • Separation of the current interlined portions of track.   The proposals to separate the Blue and Yellow lines certainly do this, and for good reason.  The ‘tail’ sections of each line are limited by the capacity of the shared track at the core.  Furthermore, the complexities of switching so many trains on and off the same line only adds to potential delays.  Separating these lines would offer wide ranging benefits to other lines in terms of increased service frequencies.
  • Plan the entire system now.  By ‘now’ I don’t mean today, but if plans are drawn up to implement this kind of expansion, it is vitally important that the lines are planned together.  The fact that all 100+ miles of Metro were planned as a coherent system is what makes it such a useful system today, rather than a hodgepodge of individual lines.  If you look at the poor connections between Baltimore’s light rail and subway, you’ll see precisely what you wish to avoid.  That means planning to separate the Blue & Orange lines, the Yellow & Green lines, and the VA portions of Yellow & Blue at roughly the same time.  Doing so, like the original system, will allow for transfers to be built in and will make for a much better overall system.  Begin with the end in mind.
  • Learn from Metro’s past. Metro’s hybrid nature as both an urban subway and a suburban commuter rail system makes for some interesting compromises in terms of system design.  Given that the newer portions would entail track mostly in urban areas, it’s important to apply the lessons of Downtown DC, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and others.  This is about urban transit, not park and ride stations.
  • Coordinate plans with other modes. Metro expansion should focus on the core because that’s where it’s most useful and can justify the cost.  Ideas like extending the Orange line to Centreville, or the Green line to BWI miss the opportunity to have a newly beefed up regional rail system operating in place of MARC and VRE trains.  Ideally, such Metro expansion plans would be coupled with a transformation of the commuter rail services into a more S-Bahn like system.  In the other (more local) direction, coordination with streetcar planning is also vital.

Speaking in terms of broad corridors, Dave’s plan for the Yellow line is spot on.  I think he’s got too many stations for a heavy rail line, but the general corridor is correct – the line would use the same bridge over the Potomac, then go underground and follow the Maryland Ave right of way, linking to L’Enfant Plaza with a new platform for the station complex.  The line would cross the Mall, then travel north under North Capitol, including a station at H street – which would also be part of the station with the new Blue line – also connecting to the current Union Station stop (hence the importance of planning these lines at the same time).  The line should go up to the Washington Hospital Center, serving that major employment center, then sliding to the west somehow to turn northward again under Georgia Ave.  After reaching Silver Spring, the line can either end there, or continue north along US 29, as proposed by Sand Box John.

The Blue line has been discussed many times – I think the best alignment would be across town under M street, angling southward under New Jersey Avenue, and then continuing east under H street – ideally with transfers to the Red line at both Union Station and under Connecticut Ave, as well as a Green line transfer at the Convention Center and a transfer to the new Yellow line near the Union Station complex.

Separating the Blue and Yellow lines in Virginia is probably the easiest route to conceptualize – simply shooting the line outward under Columbia Pike is the most obvious choice, making the current line to Alexandria one ‘color’ with multiple spurs – one to Huntington and one to Franconia-Springfield.