Berlin S-bahn. Photo by the author.

This is one-half of a point-counterpoint about transit in the Dulles corridor. Read the opposing viewpoint.

Because it’s often called the Dulles Rail project and managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, many people think the point of the Silver Line is to connect Dulles Airport to Washington. Now, don’t get me wrong, connecting Dulles is one of the points of the rail line. But it is not the main point. A major aspect of the project is connecting Tysons Corner and its jobs to Washington. Now, while I hope that Phase II (to Dulles, Ashburn) is eventually completed, even if only Phase I is completed (through Tysons to Wiehle Ave), it will remain a good project.

For some, the trip from Dulles to Metro Center will be the one they care about. But Metro wasn’t designed for tourists. It is indeed for commuters, as Spencer points out. Some of those commuters will walk to the Ryan Road station from Ashburn Village. Some will drive from Leesburg. And of those commuters, many will head to downtown, likely alighting at Farragut West, Metro Center, or L’Enfant Plaza. But we can’t forget about the jobs in Tysons or Ballston or Rosslyn or at the Pentagon. Many riders from the exurbs will only be traveling part of the way.

As for airport travelers, I’m sure they’d love a quick trip downtown. And perhaps we should find a way for that kind of a trip to happen. But most people who are in a hurry (businessmen, lobbyists, congressmen) pick a more convenient airport or better yet, take the Acela. In the time I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve used Dulles Airport just once. It’s just too far away. But tourists who don’t know any better, or long-distance (international) travelers will be glad for the Silver Line. Even if it does make quite a few stops. Their hotel might be at L’Enfant Plaza or it might be in Reston. They probably aren’t going straight downtown. And if they are, an hour isn’t such a high price to pay.

I think you’ll find airport-bound travelers are willing to ride pretty far. In Atlanta, MARTA allows overnight parking at some stations (for a fee). It’s very common for suburban Atlantans (especially from the affluent north side) to park at North Springs, Sandy Springs, or Doraville on the northern fringes of the rail system and ride all the way to the airport. It beats parking there, it beats driving there, and it gives you something to complain about (MARTA) for the next 6 months. But no matter how much people complain about Atlanta’s subway, they continue to do it. It takes 46 minutes and 17 intermediate stops to go from North Springs to Airport, and it involves a trip right through the center of downtown. If Atlantans will knuckle-down and do it, Washingtonians certainly will.

Spencer compares other airport rail connections to Dulles’ situation, but his examples are apples-to-oranges comparisons. Philadelphia’s SEPTA Regional Rail connection to the airport (R1) only runs every 30 minutes, far short of the Silver Line’s projected 6-12 minute waits. The only reason that the R1 takes such a short time to traverse the trip to downtown is that it’s only 6.9 miles from 30th Street Station (as the crow flies). BART, meanwhile, is even more exurban-oriented than Metro. Despite having about the same distance in miles (106) as Metro, it has half as many stations, with virtually no intracity circulation on the Peninsula. SFO is also much closer to the Embarcadero at 12.2 miles than is Dulles to Metro Center at 22.9 miles.

London is a much better comparison. Heathrow is served by “local” subway trains in addition to an expensive express airport connection and regional-type trains. In fact, if both are possible, they should be built. However, there are major obstacles to reactivating the WOD between East Falls Church and Alexandria.

Paris is another good comparison. Europeans are better at this planning thing than are Americans. Airport-rail connections are excellent ways to link travelers to their final destinations. As Spencer points out, Charles deGaulle Airport is served by high-speed and inter-city trains. Other cities have similar setups. When I returned from my summer-long study abroad in Germany, I “flew” from Stuttgart Central Station to Atlanta-Hartsfield. I went down to the Bahnhof in downtown Stuttgart, went to the Lufthansa counter and checked my suitcase. I then boarded a Deutsche Bahn Inter-City Express which had a Lufthansa carriage attached. It had Lufthansa seat covers and stewardesses. At Frankfurt Airport Station, everyone in my carriage alighted, went through security, and boarded our flights to different parts of the world. I didn’t see my suitcase during the trip from Stuttgart to Atlanta, despite the fact that my first “flight” was by rail.

Unfortunately, the W&OD wouldn’t be able to duplicate the role of France’s TGV. It’s great that TGV trains call at DeGaulle. The W&OD doesn’t connect to anything. Even if the full route were restored, Amtrak won’t be running trains on it. It goes from Bluemont (west of Leesburg) to Alexandria. So an inter-city connection is not possible. National and BWI Airports are both close enough to an inter-city rail line to create a truly intermodal station, but Dulles is not.

Paris’ RER is also not comprable to American commuter rail. In fact, it’s a lot closer to Metro than it is to VRE. Paris’ counterpart to VRE and MARC is not the RER, but rather the Transilien trains.

Spencer is correct when he says, “the Metro system is trying to serve as both a commuter rail or an urban subway.” He’s right. Metro is trying to be a hybrid between commuter rail and a traditional urban subway. And the best part is that it’s succeeding! In Europe, they’d have a different name for the type of service offered by Metro. In Berlin, they’d call it the S-Bahn. In Paris, they’d know it as the RER. We don’t have enough words to describe our modes.

Metro is the second most-ridden heavy rail system in the country. Metro is obviously doing something right. And that thing it’s doing right is serving urban neighborhoods and yet still offering a relatively quick trip downtown from the suburbs.

And while trails and rails can certainly coexist, an Airport Express is quite different from the Purple Line or a scenic train in Maryland’s Appalachians. And 100’ is not as wide as it sounds. Not all 100’ are available for track and trail. There would need to be room for grading and room for noise abatement among other things. But that’s not a major point of contention. Even with just two tracks, Dulles express and local commuter services could operate side by side. It’s just a matter of locating passing sidings in the right places and scheduling trains appropriately.

Adding a connection in Alexandria is probably impossible due to right-of-way encroachment, Interstate 395, and Potomac Yards. Enough money could reopen it, but it wouldn’t be easy or without public objection. The only way to do this, I think, would be to have trains terminate at East Falls Church. But then the line would lack a connection to any other railroad and would fail to offer a one-seat ride to downtown.

VRE and MARC should expand. Maybe a line to Leesburg would make a nice addition. The addition of WOD commuter rail services would complement rather than compete with Metro. But contrary to Spencer’s belief, further expansion of Metro does not deny VRE and MARC the ability to become “full-fledged.” Metro is not stopping VRE or MARC from expanding. In fact, by expanding travel markets, a more expansive Metro encourages that expansion.

This is one-half of a point-counterpoint about transit in the Dulles corridor. Read the opposing viewpoint.

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 Dupont Circle. 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.