Tracks 3, 2, and 1 at the Alexandria VRE station as viewed from the west platform. The tunnel which VRE plans to retrofit with elevators is beneath the canopy. Image by the author.

The Virginia Railway Express’s plan to add a new pedestrian tunnel between its Alexandria station and the adjacent King Street Metro station has been put on hold, according to documents from VRE and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. VRE still plans to make other updates to the station, like making it easier and safer for people to access the platforms.

The Alexandria Station Pedestrian Tunnel project had several objectives: Eliminate the at-grade crossing between the two tracks closest to the station, make it easier for people to walk between the two platforms by adding an ADA-accessible route (i.e. elevators), and install a tunnel over to the King Street Metro station. Without the tunnel to King Street, VRE says passengers will continue to have to walk 300 feet from the exit of one station to the entrance of the other.

An overview of the project. Image by VRE.

The Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board granted money for the project in June 2017. Then the VRE Operations Board approved changes to the plan in January 2019 which removed the new pedestrian tunnel but kept the other station improvements. VRE says the newly-modified project will still meet its goals, and that “a future pedestrian connection to Metrorail will not be precluded.”

VRE spokesperson Karen Finucan Clarkson said, “the project’s goal has always been to mitigate the safety concerns associated with an at-grade crossing for Amtrak and VRE passengers and to upgrade the platforms…It’s important to keep in mind that the connecting tunnel was a small part of this larger project.”

“The most significant challenge associated with constructing a new tunnel is the requirement to keep three tracks in service at all times,” the VRE Board presentation says, and the effort would “[require] the construction of a fourth track” to achieve that.

VRE hopes to revisit the tunnel when another project to build the fourth track in this area makes its way through the design pipeline. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation anticipates construction on that will begin summer 2021.

Image showing the below-grade changes in the revised project. Image by VRE.

Even without the new pedestrian tunnel, the project will still benefit riders, especially those who use mobility devices. The existing tunnel runs under the western two tracks (track 3, closest to the VRE station, and track 2, the center track) and only has stair access to the center platform at the station. During this project, the tunnel “will be retrofitted with elevators at each end.” Once finished, the improved stair and elevator access means VRE can remove the ability for people to cross the tracks from the station to the center platform, which should improve safety.

VRE plans to meet the third goal of the project, “allow passenger trains to service the station on any of three tracks,” by removing the fence separating the center and east tracks and widening the center platform. This gives VRE and CSX, which owns the tracks in this area, more flexibility because they will be able to run passenger trains on three tracks instead of just two.

Finucan Clarkson says a “companion project to the one at the Alexandria Station will install a railroad crossover near Slaters Lane…allowing VRE trains to use track 1 [the eastern-most track] at Alexandria. It is nearing completion.” The Slaters Lane crossover is just north of where the Braddock Metrorail station sits.

Existing pedestrian tunnel crossing from just north of the Alexandria VRE station to the center platform. The tunnel would be retrofit with elevators. Image by the author.

The VRE Board approved the project changes in January, and the NVTA subsequently approved them in July. The $1.3 million which NVTA allocated to VRE for the project is no longer eligible, since it was specifically meant for adding the pedestrian tunnel to the Metrorail station. “VRE is unable to reallocate those funds,” says Finucan Clarkson.

The VRE system’s capacity is currently limited by the two-track Long Bridge, which crosses the Potomac between Arlington and DC. There’s a project underway to expand the bridge to four tracks to allow more passenger and freight trains to move through the Virginia-DC corridor, but it won’t be completed for a number of years.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.