Tuesday, August 2, 2011

MARC, Revisited

A little while ago I wrote a post describing my ideas for improving Maryland commuter rail service. They included:
  1. Combining MARC and VRE to create an S-Bahn environment in D.C. via the First Street Tunnel;
  2. Extending new MARC lines from Baltimore to Annapolis, Frederick, Gettysburg/York, and Westminster (mislabled "Westchester" on the map...bugger); and
  3. Creating a linkage between Camden and Penn Stations to provide an S-Bahn routing through Baltimore, along with
  4. Electrification of all routes (drrr...).
First of all, I'm going to return to the downtown Baltimore tunnel. After spending some time researching the history, I realized it's easier than originally thought: the Howard Street tunnel already does my job for me. This plan thus assumes the reuse of the Port Royal station shed as a new passenger station with an easy pedestrian link to Penn Station (about three blocks away).

However, the Howard Street Tunnel is currently a CSX main line--the one I like to call the "Royal Blue Line" after the B&O name train that once ran it. Combining the operational density of this New York (and beyond)-Washington (and beyond) freight main with two passenger routes at hourly frequency off-peak, 15 minutes peak, is a cocktail for disaster. Hence, in order to use this tunnel, through freights must be shifted off this line.
Current conditions: Mt. Royal station, Howard St. Tunnel.
The question is, how? There does not seem to be any good freight bypass of either Pennsylvania or B&O heritage around central Baltimore, the way there is (for example) a high line freight bypass around Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, and furthermore, both major mainlines through central Baltimore follow shallow tunnels, rendering both unfit for double-stacks; this situation implies that fast freight must follow a significant bypass--the most obvious route heading straight north, via the route being proposed for the Pennsylvania Line trunk, and tying into the former Alphabet Route mainline at Hanover Junction (where the branches to Gettysburg and York also split) towards New York and Philadelphia via Reading...but this routing is, on the face of it, baldly insufficient, especially for CSX, which must run its fastest freights a full day's travel along trackage rights to overcome the insufficiencies of the main line. A hazmat fire in 2001 crystallized the need to vastly improve the facilities at hand, but no option is cheap. Even so, the fact that no freight route through Baltimore currently allows for the transshipment of the tallest equipment the U.S. freight network uses absolutely must be rectified--both to improve the nation's freight network and to free up the Howard Street Tunnel for passenger rail use.

That said, another issue arises. With the Howard Street Tunnel vacated by CSX, MARC can extend the Camden Line (and indeed, all possible lines entering Baltimore from the south via ex-B&O ROW) north to Mount Royal--which offers a close connection to Penn Station--but new lines coming from the north, following the former Western Maryland main to (a) Westminster, (b) Gettysburg, and (c) York would naturally terminate at Penn Station (as Penn Station was once the Western Maryland's Baltimore terminus); changing the access to one that enters Mt. Royal would either need (a) new portals on the Great Circle proposal, or (b) a cutoff from the ex-WM main to the ex-Northern Central main (now the ROW of the Blue Line light rail) somewhere between I-695 (an optimal locale for a park-and-ride) and Druid Hill Park--preferably one at or near the closest (and therefore cheapest) point between the two--or, if possible, following an old ROW connecting them together (such as the one indicated on the map below between Garrison and Lake...Roberts(?); this line appears, from Google Maps, to be (mostly) unmolested.
The former Northern Central Rwy. branch offers, at its nether end, a spur with good curvature to take up the two new lines running northward from Mt. Royal, which is rather useful since the larger-scale projects to alleviate freight and passenger congestion through P&B and Howard Street tunnels will almost certainly form an infrastructural maze in the Jones Falls valley just north of North Avenue. By establishing a close parallel with the light rail infrastructure, the new line is able to traverse this maze using one of the existing ROWs for guidance.

Now my discussion turns towards Virginia. In my original post on the subject, I mentioned merging MARC and VRE--a merger of administration, operations, and equipment. This merger also implies that the combined new agency (which I am provisionally calling MARC) would take over any useful expansions into Virginia. Two exist, both from Manassas junction: one towards Charlottesburg, and the other, Front Royal; VRE is already studying an extension towards Gaither and Haymarket along the latter. Provisionally, I have added both as a pastel-shaded possible extensions of the Manassas Line.

Another possible extension is conceivable along the former Western Maryland main line from Westminster to Hagerstown, and finally, a suggested extension is shown from D.C. (L'Enfant) down to Waldorf and La Plata, communities with tough car commutes. Initially, I had discounted this line because the most obvious running is to Bowie, but I have it on good authority that the former right-of-way from Brandywine Jct. towards Anacostia has been preserved; if true, then this route would be amenable to either commuter rail into the urban core (via Greater Landover) or an interurban extension of the D.C. streetcar.

Following these new ideas, as well as the possibility of a second Annapolis line via the former line from Annapolis Junction, I've made a couple of new provisional maps of this D.C. commuter rail network, showing how these expansions extend the reach of commuter rail to the nation's capitol. The Google Map is linked to; below see the map based on the broader MARC map.


  1. The Howard Street Tunnel is single-tracked and, like the B & P Tunnel, very poorly designed. The FRA study for a tunnel replacement included it, but CSX said that the existing infrastructure is fine for its needs. A Camden-Penn connection pretty much has to involve a new two-track passenger-dedicated tunnel.

  2. I've put my inner foamer to good use coming up with a fantasy transit system for Baltimore and came to the conclusion that the Howard Street tunnel may be better as a Light rail tunnel.

    Here's why:
    A. The surface trains on Howard Street are too SLOW.
    B. The tunnel is too narrow for double tracking with FRA equipment anyway, so headways as a commuter line would be limited.
    C. There is already a through-route for MARC trains, and it will get even better with the Great Circle passenger tunnel.
    D. It kinda sucks to run trains all the way through downtown, but be unable to stop them between Mount Royal and Camden. That is sort of like running trains through Manhattan but only stopping in New Jersey and Queens (Well, not really, but you get the point.) Adding a new commuter rail station would be very expensive since commuter trains are so long. Light rail trains are short, and adding stations is therefore much more feasible. It could be done through cut and cover by digging up a single block of Howard Street for each new station.

    So where should the Light Rail stations go? There should be five (or six, if you count Penn Station.)
    1. Just south of the south portal, near Camden Station.
    2. There is a station cavern that was built in the 19th century at Lombard, perfect for a Red Line transfer
    3. A new station built with cut-and-cover at Lexington for a transfer to the metro
    4. A new station built with cut-and-cover at Monument
    5. Just north of the north portal, using the Mount Royal train shed.
    6. Penn Station

    This yields a station spacing of 0.3 - 0.5 miles, which is pretty close to ideal for a downtown area. This is very similar in concept to what they did in St. Louis with their 19th century rail tunnel.

    Adequate access to downtown Baltimore for MARC passengers in spite of not running commuter trains directly through town can be furnished as follows:

    I. Improve the light rail connection to Penn Station, allowing for cross-platform transfers, perhaps double-tracking and rebuidling the bridge over the JFX with more gradual curves.

    II. Once the Great Circle passenger tunnel is complete, MARC already plans to take over the B&P tunnel and refurbish it for MARC trains. They plan on building a station at Upton for a transfer to the metro.

    III. There is a planned transfer to the red line at West Baltimore.

    IV. Transfer from commuter trains to light rail at Camden Station. If possible, configure this for cross-platform transfers. (Or perhaps people could just walk.)

    V. Fare integration so that once you've paid the commuter rail fare, any of the above four transfers are free.

    VI. Build a connection from the Penn Line to the Camden Line and vice versa at Halethorpe, so that some Penn Line trains from Washington can go to Camden Station, and some Camden line trains can go to Penn station.

  3. Alon,

    While it is indeed true CSX has shifted the rail to the middle of the tunnel to increase (limited) clearance, I would counter-submit that--as long as you stick to single-level coach equipment (such as the Comet series of coaches), you can double-track the Howard Street tunnel again without any real problems. This tunnel has a double-track legacy (see here) and was even electrified once, with an...ahem...unusual third-rail catenary system. (Yes--that's right, a third rail dangling off wires!) Also, Budd RDCs, the template to which most U.S. single-deck passenger equipment has been built for the past 60 years, once ran in that tunnel...I think it's completely feasible to run EMUs of NJT Arrow or SEPTA Silverliner heritage on double tracks through the Howard Street Tunnel, just by stringing the wire, or (at max) undercutting the tunnel by installing the base slab.

    But the tunnel, regardless, has no clearance for double-stack equipment, which makes it obsolete as a freight main.

    Orulz...since light-rail EMU tends to have the same clearances as the types of equipment noted above, see above...in any event, I am of the opinion that grade-separating light rail in the urban core is highly overrated anyway.

  4. A few more helpful hints to refine your proposal:

    1. About the Greenspring Branch connector b/wn Garrison and Lake Roland, linking the old WM and Northern Ctrl lines: Most of the ROW is still intact, except of course the developed Garrison end, but tracks are gone, there is no active trail, and parts of the ROW would need clearing and grading work to be usable, and either purchase or eminent domain to even become available. It might serve for detouring freight and commuter trains should the WM mainline south of Owings Mills be blocked, but I’m not sure that will happen very often. See http://www.abandonedrails.com/Green_Spring_Branch for a little more.
    2. As a former commuter on the “White Snail” (affectionate term in my book, not so much from everyone, and really only accurate on Howard St), I can tell you that for a few hundred feet, more or less, b/wn Mt. Royal and the overpass that carries N. Ave over the tracks, the light rail and the CSX tracks coming out of the Howard St. tunnel run side-by-side, at the same level, w/ only a a concrete barrier (and for a couple hundred more feet the support pillars upholding N. Ave) b/wn them. So there is a potential spot for a junction allowing trains to be switched to/from the light rail line (both the off-street Jones Falls tracks to the north and Howard St. to the south), the Howard St. tunnel (and the CSX Belt Line in the other direction), and Penn Station, as needed.
    3. I’m less happy to tell you that whoever told you there was a preserved ROW b/wn Brandywine Jcn and Anacostia was mistaken—there is not and has never been a direct rail link b/wn the two. The only railway running directly from DC to southern MD that branched off the mainline south of the Pope Creek branch’s Bowie jctn was the defunct Chesapeake Beach Rwy (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chesapeake_Beach_Railway ). A short bit of track survives in the eastern tip of DC and the suburb next door, Seat Pleasant. The rest has been taken over by disconnected sections of rail trail, development (incl. shopping center), and Route 260 (that part is east of the Pope Creek branch that leads down to La Plata).
    4. On the old WB&A ROW you propose using to connect the mainlines to Annapolis: Most of this is still intact. The western portion b/wn Annapolis Jcn on the CSX line and Odenton on the NEC (and short bit beyond to the east) is still intact and at least part still has tracks on it; it can, and possibly will, be easily reopened to provide MARC access to job-rich BRAC benefactor, Fort Meade. Most of the rest is preserved as ROW for a BGE/Constellation Energy high-tension power line; it would take some tricky negotiation and quite a bit of money both to eliminate grade crossings and replace the existing power pylons with new ones that leave room for a railroad, but this too is feasible at a reasonable cost. The last mile or so before Annapolis has been obliterated by the Annapolis Mall and US 50; depending on how the buildings and parking lots are laid out, building here would require either buying/condemning a large slice of parking or a tunnel. Either (costly) option would then need an underpass beneath a raised-up Rte 50, though the trains could then emerge in the median, since the hwy here is fairly level with only modest curves. The Annapolis portion of the old line was street-running; bringing large trains anywhere near the historic core, where nearly all the tourist and waterfront stuff, many of the jobs, and the still-active 18th century State House are located, would require a tunnel.
    Again, good luck.

  5. This comment actually was made first and belongs with the first MARC post (July 9) but Blogspot’s system won’t seem to let me post it there, so, here it is, the short version.
    An S-bahn style system for this region is a good idea, and MD has hopeful plans to achieve something much like your proposed phase I, minus the merger with VRE. A few thoughts from a Marylander to help.
    1. The York/Gettysburg line is probably a nonstarter: the Gettysburg-metro Baltimore market is negligible, and the York branch and mainline miss by miles the main source of PA-Baltimore commuters—the many MD transplants in southern York Co who commute down I-83 to Hunt Valley and Baltimore.
    2. Ridership on your proposed Westminster-Annapolis line will be significantly unbalanced. Half the corridor from Westmonster (not a typo J) to Baltimore is much less populated than the Baltimore-Annapolis corridor and justifies lower service levels, and the other half is already well-served by Metro Subway. The MTA would eventually give up running money-losing half-empty extra trains b/wn Baltimore and Westminster and split the line.
    3. The Baltimore-Annapolis corridor. On the plus side: most of the defunct B&A Rwy’s ROW is intact, preserved by the active light rail line down to Glen Burnie and a rail trail on most of the rest; at 66’, there’s plenty of room for a double-tracked electrified rwy, the trail, and a tree buffer shielding the hundreds (at least) of adjacent backyards; and the commercial Ritchie Hwy corridor is seldom more than a few hundred yards or so away. The downside is this area is a potential NIMBY bomb requiring difficult and delicate work to defuse: many in Linthicum, which has LRT, basically crowned the “loot rail” the source of all crime, criminals, and vandals in the community from before it was even built down to this day, even when the perps were not actually seen coming from/going to the station; a small number of recent ugly crimes actually at or near the station (and one criminal who tried fleeing town by train, never mind the security cameras, and got caught) sparked failed shrill demands to shut the station down. Meanwhile the Annapolis end of the old B&A was street running, so running MARC trains in would require a new bridge and tunnel. Basically, a Penn Stn-Annapolis LRT line is a better return on investment: the trains are smaller and quieter; the frequencies and ridership are higher (the one current LRT corridor has as many weekday boardings, ~35k, as the entire MARC system); and it has potential for street running, in reserved median lanes down roomy Ritchie Hwy should NIMBYs kill a B&A alignment, and in Annapolis should tight budgets and opposition with other priorities for the money preclude a tunnel.
    Anyway, you’re off to a good start. Good luck, and good luck on the job front, too. [parental mode:on] Network a lot, starting yesterday; help out the people who help you; and even crap day jobs while you search are a better friend than gaps in the work history [parental mode: off. Sorry, can’t help it.] John

  6. Are you eventually going to tell us what train stations you'd like to see on all these lines? Or no?