The 2009 “Metro Express” concept. Image by the author.

This post is part of our GGWash Sandbox series, where we explore potential transit networks or other potential infrastructure. However, there is no substitute for actual studies, so these proposals may not actually be feasible. They are here to spark a discussion.

If Amazon moves 25,000 new jobs to Crystal City, the region needs to beef up transportation to and from that area. Wouldn't it be nice if there were some train tracks connecting many parts of Maryland, Virginia, and DC to Crystal City? Good thing there are!

This “fantasy map” I made in 2009 shows what that could look like.

The MARC and VRE commuter lines are woefully neglected in our region's transportation mix. There are some technical hurdles, but adding more VRE trains to Crystal City and DC, and running MARC trains from Maryland through to Virginia — or just combining the two into a single integrated rail system — are doable projects.

The payoff: the ability to run frequent trains from three rail lines in Maryland and two in Virginia to and through the Crystal City area, not to mention Alexandria, the L'Enfant Plaza and Union Station areas of DC, Silver Spring, and more. Such a project probably wouldn't be fully integrated with Metro, but what if it were, and functioned as a set of express lines for Metro?

This 2009 map envisions Metro-ish services running about as far out as the Silver Line's future end, with less frequent trains to the more distant ends of the current lines.

This map also shows some other Metro proposals which are more expensive, like a separated Blue Line. That's a concept which has been talked about for decades, though more recently the idea has shifted to a Blue and Yellow line loop concept. There are old names for Silver Line stations and some infill stations which have been talked about only in theory, but the core 10-year-old concept remains sound.

Whether or not MARC and VRE actually become a Metro Express or (more likely) just start through-running some trains, this represents one of the most obvious ways to improve transportation for the entire region.

What it actually takes to connect MARC and VRE

As we've discussed periodically over the years, while running commuter rail trains through between Maryland and Virginia is possible, there are a few obstacles.

  • MARC and VRE don't use compatible trains. VRE uses “low platform” stations, where the platform is down by the tracks and you ascend stairs. Most MARC stations are “high platform,” meaning you step onto the train at the same level as the floor of the car (like Metro), so VRE trains can't travel on MARC except the Brunswick Line. Still, MARC trains work on both, so MARC Penn and Camden trains could go to Virginia. And over time, VRE could buy trains that work on both and/or retrofit its stations to high platform.

  • We need more tracks over the Potomac and at L'Enfant. The Long Bridge, which carries VRE, Amtrak, and CSX trains, has only two tracks, and CSX uses much of that capacity for freight. There are three tracks at L'Enfant Plaza. There's an active project to design and ultimately build a new, wider bridge, and the next public meeting is November 29. It'll take money, though. Likewise, there have been studies of adding a fourth track at L'Enfant Plaza.

  • VRE stations are one-way. VRE doesn't run trains in both directions. Instead, all the trains go from Virginia to DC in the morning, park north of Union Station, and back out after. If the Long Bridge is widened, VRE could switch to two-way, all-day service and/or allow MARC trains to be running in the opposite direction from VRE trains. But the L'Enfant and Crystal City stations don't even have two platforms, and would have to be rebuilt.

  • Governments have to work together. States aren't great at collaborating on cross-border infrastructure, especially when it comes to money. Would Virginia pay some of the cost of MARC trains to Crystal City and Alexandria? Or just Maryland? Who coordinates the schedules? How are conflicts resolved? Or should there be a new Maryland-Virginia interstate railroad that takes over both?

None of this is insurmountable. Most of it just comes down to money, and compared to the cost of building a whole new rail line or highway, it should be affordable. It's very likely more cost-effective than other ways of adding either road or train capacity across the Potomac and to get Marylanders to jobs like at an HQ2 in Crystal City. Almost all of the tracks are already there! There's already a station at the very spot Amazon may be going! (And even if it's not, it still makes sense!)

Not to mention, the trains already go to Baltimore, too. And while Maryland frets about traffic on I-95 and the B-W Parkway, there are not one but two underutilized train lines from Baltimore to DC and Virginia.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.