A roof deck over a rail yard north of New York Avenue could create new space for bike lanes, a park, or more development in the area. The Virginia Railway Express, a commuter rail line that serves Virginia and DC, is looking at the possibility as part of a project to build a new place to store its trains.

Where the VRE’s proposed storage tracks would go, north of New York Avenue. Amtrak’s Ivy City Yard is the space wtih the grey/white building in the middle with tracks on both sides. Base image from Google Maps.

Currently, 16 VRE trains currently run north on the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines into DC each weekday morning, and 16 run back in the evening. While VRE train schedules are fairly limited and none run in off-peak directions or on weekends, VRE has long-term plans for expansion and is working on more bi-directional service at more stations.

For now, VRE leases space to store its trains in Amtrak’s Ivy City Yard, which sits north of New York Avenue near 9th Street. But there isn’t enough space for one of VRE’s trains, so it runs to and from the agency’s storage facility in Broad Run, Virginia, each day, which isn’t cheap. Between that and the fact that Amtrak wants to use the space for something else anyway  can start reducing VRE’s storage space next year, VRE is looking for another way to house its trains in DC every day.

To find a new location for its trains, VRE evaluated 20 potential sites within 12 miles of DC, and decided that the best move would be to purchase or lease space just off of New York Avenue, east of the Amtrak lot (and just below Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor tracks). In May, VRE released a Request for Proposal to find a builder for five new sets of tracks at that location.

New rails could bring bike lanes and space for development

As part of the project, VRE is looking at how to make the new rail yard fit into the surrounding area. Part of VRE’s request instructs its consultant to examine what it would take to provide “improved rail transit access to the surrounding neighborhood.”

VRE threw out a few possibilities that they might look at, including a possible new VRE and/or MARC rail station as well as walking and biking that connect the neighborhood to surrounding areas, including the NoMa Metrorail station.

The language in VRE’s proposal is pretty broad and vague, but it does ask whoever takes the project on to look into building a deck over top of the tracks. That’d make room for additional development, trails, a possible rail infill station nearby, or park space. In Manhattan, development above a major rail yard is underway:

Construction at Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, December 2012 through May 2016. Video from Hudson Yards New York.

It’s possible this could help with realizing DC’s 2005 Bike Master Plan, which calls for expanding the bike and pedestrian trail from 4th Street NE to further up New York Avenue near the Arboretum. With some collaboration between VRE and DC, a new decked-over rail yard could provide the space needed to get the ball rolling on the trail project and could be a win-win for everybody involved.

Cross-section of the VRE storage yard with existing and proposed ground lines. Image from VRE.

Train storage in Virginia doesn’t currently work for VRE CSX Transportation owns the Long Bridge which runs from Virginia to DC as part of the company’s RF&P subdivision, running from DC down to Richmond, VA. Through an agreement signed with VRE, the passenger rail company has 38 slots for trains running over the bridge. VRE uses 32 of these slots daily for passenger trains to and from Fredericksburg and Manassas. Two more slots are used to deadhead the one train down to Broad Run, since there isn’t storage space for it in DC. And the last four slots are borrowed by Virginia to run Amtrak service to Richmond/Norfolk and Lynchburg to DC. The limit imposed by CSX is one of the main bottlenecks in VRE’s network, and keeps the agency from running more trains through to and from DC during rush hours. This limitation by itself essentially would eliminate the option of storing VRE trains mid-day in Virginia without a renegotiated access contract giving VRE more slots. Another possibility, though more long-term, would be to agree with MARC to have trains run-through and service each others’ stops. The two agencies have talked about doing this for several years now, but there are still hurdles to overcome before that might be a possibility. The tracks at Union Station would make running-through trains only easily doable for the MARC Penn line, the two agencies use a mixture of high and low platforms, and the issue of not enough capacity over the Potomac remains true.
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Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.