In the earlier installments of this three-part series, I discussed Washington and Baltimore’s rail networks, CSX’s plans for upgrading their infrastructure in the region to handle taller trains, and projects for which Maryland has requested stimulus funding. Many of the comments referenced a study on detouring freight trains around Washington which completed by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in 2007.

NCPC views the presence of freight rail in downtown Washington as problematic for several reasons. Transporting hazardous materials by rail through the core of the city poses a security risk. Infrastructure constraints limit the movement of goods. And using historic street rights-of-way for railroads disrupts the urban fabric.


The study looked at the feasibility of relocating freight rail to other corridors. The study team developed alternatives that would to mitigate the security concerns, eliminate impediments to the public’s access to the Anacostia River, accommodate state-of-the-art railroad infrastructure, and enable expansion of freight and passenger rail capacity in the Washington region.

Because 99% of rail freight using tracks in the District is passing through, NCPC looked at ways to reroute trains around the District. The primary focus of the NCPC study was the northeast-south CSX freight line running from Baltimore (and points north) to Fredericksburg (and points south). While impacts to the line running toward Cumberland (and points west) were considered, that line was not the focus of the study. The report looked at a multitude of corridors, but excluded most as infeasible. The team narrowed the study to three finalists:


Each of the scenarios includes removing the CSX track between the Amtrak connection at 2nd Street SW and the Maryland border, including the Benning Rail Yard on the east shore of the Anacostia. All rail traffic going across the Long Bridge over the Potomac would use the First Street Tunnel and would pass through Union Station. All freight traffic would take the new bypass except for service to the Capitol Power plant, which would retain a spur. Here is a map showing the freight routes through DC in more detail.

DC Tunnel Alternative: This alternative represents the shortest detour for freight trains. It would construct a nine mile long twin-bore tunnel, with each bore capable of handling double-stack intermodal trains. The tunnel would start near where the CSX RF&P Subdivision crosses Four Mile Run at the Alexandria/Arlington border. It would cross under the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and would emerge where the CSX Alexandria Extension crosses the District/Maryland border. Trains would continue up the Alexandria Extension as they do today diverging at the wye at Hyattsville for trips to the Northeast or Mid-West. The Alexandria Extension, which is currently single-tracked, would need to be double-tracked under this alternative.

Indian Head Alternative: Under this alternative, a new 2.5 mile long bridge over the Potomac would be constructed between Arkendale, Virginia and the Maryland shore. In Maryland, the line would turn north and run parallel to the Potomac to the east of Indian Head. This new facility would connect the existing RF&P Subdivision just south of the Marine Corps base at Quantico to the formerly US Government-owned branch line between Indian Head and Waldorf.

At Waldorf, a new connection would be built to the Pope’s Creek Secondary allowing trains to turn north toward Upper Marlboro. The Pope’s Creek Secondary would need to be double-tracked all the way from Waldorf to old Bowie. From Bowie to Odenton, a new line would be constructed adjacent to the Amtrak Northeast Corridor (NEC). A connector to CSX’s Capital Subdivision would be constructed parallel to and between the Patuxent River and Maryland Route 32. At it’s intersection with the Capital Subdivision, a wye would allow trains to turn north toward Baltimore or south toward Washington, Cumberland, Pittsburgh, and points west.

Dahlgren Alternative: This proposal would require a new connection between the RF&P Subdivision south of Fredericksburg to the Dahlgren Branch. It would also require a reactivation of part of the abandoned section of the Dahlgren Branch in King George County, which is now a rail trail. Much of the alignment in King George would be a new alignment parallel to US Route 301. At Dahlgren, a new two-mile long railway drawbridge would be constructed near the US 301 Potomac Bridge. On the eastern shore of the Potomac, the new line would meet the Pope’s Creek Secondary. From Morgantown to Bowie, the Pope’s Creek Secondary would be double-tracked. The Dahlgren Alternative would follow the same Waldorf-Jessup alignment as the Indian Head route.

The DC Tunnel alignment has the highest cost of the three alternatives, likely costing between $4.7 and 5.3 billion. However, it yields the largest time savings. For general merchandise freight, trains would save 40 minutes in the Washington region. The Dahlgren alternative would cost $3.5 to 4.7 billion, and save 23 minutes, giving this alternative the smallest trip time benefit. The Indian Head route is cheapest, at an estimated $3.2 to 4.3 billion, and would save around 31 minutes. These trip times reflect trains moving along the east coast, not those traveling from south to northwest or from northeast to northwest.

For trains headed from the northeast to the northwest, little would change. With the Washington bottleneck removed, trains would face less delay approaching Washington, but they would still travel to within sight of Union Station before turning northwest. Trains coming from the south and turning to the northwest would follow a similar path to today’s under the DC Tunnel alternative. Now, trains coming from the south and heading toward the midwest are saddled with a winding trip through the city (Alexandria to Capitol Hill to Deanwood to Hyattsville to Ivy City to Silver Spring). The other two alternatives increase the distance that trains must travel to make that trip. Instead of heading north as far as Hyattsville before turning south, south-northeast trains would have to head all the way to Jessup before turning toward Washington and the midwest. 

Added by Matt
NCPC’s plans are not funded, nor has an alternative been selected. It is unlikely that any of the bypasses would be operating before 2017 at the earliest.

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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.