For mass transit, the future is expansion

WASHINGTON — From Maryland to Virginia, mass transit plays an important role in getting cars off local interstates, and could play an even bigger role in the coming years.

Virginia Railway Express and Maryland Area Regional Commuter officials briefed the Transportation Planning Board on Wednesday about what riders should expect over the next 25 years.

VRE CEO Doug Allen says the agency is looking to add more tracks, longer train cars, bigger platforms and more trains each day.

“We have a long-range plan to build a third track along the CSX lines from Spotsylvania to the District of Columbia. About 50 percent of it is done or under construction right now. It’s a key part of adding capacity to operate more trains,” says Allen.

“Being able to run more trains, we can add more trains to our schedule. We can reduce the time between trains at stations; we could add mid-day service or more service later into the evening.”

A VRE report finds that trains reduce delays by up to 20 percent on I-66 and I-95 in Northern Virginia, and if ridership were to double, delays along the two interstates would go down another 14 percent.

VRE also could add new service from Gainesville to Haymarket. They’ll study how to provide the service and are talking with Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks. Allen says he hopes service to Haymarket could happen before 2020, which he believes could relieve more congestion on I-66.

VRE will add new rail cars to make longer trains. It will also lengthen platforms, and add a second platform at some locations. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority allocated money for new rail cars last year.

“Our locomotives have the ability to pull 10 cars. But the longest train we have now is an eight-car train. We have some six- and seven-car trains. If we just had more cars, we can connect them to the trains we currently have and add capacity, make those trains longer and carry more people,” says Allen.

Metro is also facing a similar situation — it’s due to receive 528 new 7000- series rail cars over the next five years, which will ensure that each rush-hour train has eight cars rather than six cars. On Thursday, the Metro Board of Directors will vote to approve a long-term capital budget that will help fund testing on the current cars.

MARC will also be getting new rail cars to make longer trains. The agency laid out a strategy through 2050 in a separate presentation.

“We’re going to get an additional 16 bi-level cars that will be in service over the next year. So we’ll be able to add passenger cars to the existing train service and increase the number of seats for riders,” says Diane Radcliffe, director of planning and programming at the Maryland Transit Administration.

In the long term, MARC is looking toward building more tracks and add more off-peak, counter-commute and weekend service.

Last December, MARC introduced weekend service on the Penn Line and it says the ridership has been good.

MARC also hopes in the next 15 years to run some express trains between Baltimore and Washington, and also connect MARC with the Baltimore Red Line and, from Perryville, to Philadelphia’s SEPTA Line. After 2030, MARC says, it’ll plan to provide service to L’Enfant Plaza and link up with a seamless trip to VRE on a single trip.

VRE will aim to add a third and fourth track on the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines, but also concentrate on the choke points. One such spot is at the Long Bridge, which trains use to cross the Potomac from Arlington into the District.

“It is the limiting point in dispatching the trains. It is a major choke point. It is a solid bridge, but it’s only a two-track bridge. What we’ve been doing with the D.C. Department of Transportation is looking at options for expanding that bridge, whether that’s replacing it with a four-track bridge or building a second two-track span next to it,” says Allen.

“But that’s where we are all really focused on, because that’s where the whole network goes down to two tracks. So if we can get it to three to four tracks, it will make trains move much quicker.”

Transit advocates agree this work is necessary, arguing that traffic will never be free-flowing on 66, 95, or 270, but making Metro, MARC and VRE able to handle more passengers will produce benefits for commuters in cars.

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