The Virginia Railway Express (VRE), a commuter rail system with a large coverage area but somewhat infrequent service, is considering both running trains more frequently and adding new stations, but funding constraints may force a choice between the two. More trains, more often would make VRE more like a transit system, with regular service throughout the day rather than just at rush hour.
VRE’s Fredericksburg Line, which uses CSX railroad tracks, carries commuters north from Spotsylvania County on a route parallel to I-95. The Manassas Line, which uses Norfolk Southern tracks, brings commuters to Union Station from Broad Run, which ends next to the Manassas airport, and is an alternative to commuting on I-66.
The VRE Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Project began in July 2015, with a proposal to build 11 miles of track and three new rail stations to extend the commuter rail service west to Haymarket. Environmental analysis and preliminary design are supposed to be completed in 2017, with service starting in 2022.
VRE is planning to add more trains to carry additional passengers during rush hours, as well as offer service in the middle of the day. VRE plans to add three new trains to the Manassas Line at rush hour, raising the total from eight to 11 (a total of 22 trips/day). A 10-car train can carry up to 1,000 people.
Running trains more frequently could mean more service
VRE is also considering adding service in the middle of the day from Manassas to Alexandria, starting the conversion of VRE from a commuter rail system to a transit system. The proposed Off Peak Shuttle would add seven additional trains each way between morning/evening rush hours. There would be a headway (gap between trains) of approximately an hour, bringing the total number of daily trips to 36.
Off-peak shuttle trains would terminate at Alexandria, where passengers could catch Metro to get into DC. The new service would add customers to Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines outside of rush hours.
Outside of rush hours, VRE trains would not go further than Alexandria due to existing congestion on the CSX Railroad; the stretch of tracks between Manassas and Alexandria is a dead-end stub for Norfolk Southern, meaning the tracks don’t see as much traffic as the CSX ones.
Building more tracks could also mean serving different locations
VRE has packed its proposal to expand service with plans to build new track and stations. The Fredericksburg Line was recently extended south to Spotsylvania County, and since 2002 VRE has been looking at extending its Manassas Line building an extension 11 miles west to Haymarket, near where I-66 crosses through Bull Run Mountain.
Among all of the options its considering, VRE’s preference is to build the extension with three new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket. The existing Broad Run station would be closed and a new railyard would be constructed west of Haymarket, perhaps in Fauquier County.
The extension to Haymarket would cost $468 million. When Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) prioritized projects for the 2017-2022 Six-Year Improvement Program on June 13, 2016, the benefit/cost ratio was not high enough to justify funding. The CTB uses what’s called the “Smart Scale” analytical process (previously known as the “HB2” process) to prioritize transportation projects, and VRE staff called their proposal the “best project not to get funded this cycle.”
Funding for the proposed expansion will be problematic. VRE claims it does not intend to rely upon local funding for construction, but 50% of current operations costs are subsidized by local jurisdictions.
VRE anticipates Federal/state grants would fund one-time capital costs for building track and buying new locomotives and railcars. The counties/cities in Northern Virginia would have to find the revenue in local budgets to fund the extra $4-5 million in annual operating costs not covered by customer fares.
Another option: Expanding by adding a station at Godwin Road
At the start of the analysis required to obtain federal funding, VRE identified expanding via Godwin Road as alternative to the three new stations. That would mean replacing the existing Broad Run Station with a new end-of-line station 1.5 miles to the northeast at Godwin Road, creating space for railyard expansion.
The Godwin Road option would also mean VRE could run more trains at rush hour and during the day, as the Broad Run railyard could support the extra service.
The proposed extension to Haymarket, compared to the Godwin Road alternative, would cost $250-350 million more for construction and $9 million more annually for operations. I believe, however, that it would remove only 100 more cars/day from I-66 in 2025 and only 300 cars/day in 2040. The project’s justification in the Smart Scale process was based on claims for increased economic development, since congestion relief on I-66 would be so minimal.
Funding for passenger rail is limited, and it is obvious that funding better maintenance for Metro will be a higher priority that any VRE expansion. Asking federal, state, and local officials to spend $500 million more by the year 2040 than the Godwin Road alternative, just to reduce 300 cars/day on I-66, will be difficult when so many rail projects are seeking funding.
For more details, see the Prince William Conservation Alliance blog.