Relative to peer regions in the U.S., the Capital Region has robust intercity and commuter rail connections that provided more than 22 million trips in 2017 across Amtrak, Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC), and Virginia Railway Express (VRE).1 The backbone of the rail network—a vital component of the region’s transportation system—connects points north of Baltimore to Washington on Amtrak-owned right-of-way (primarily serving passenger and commuter trains) and from Washington to Richmond and points south on tracks owned by CSX (serving mixed freight and passenger traffic).
Yet, this backbone is congested. Many stretches are just two tracks—the equivalent of a two-lane road trying to move billions of dollars in goods each year and attempting to rapidly, frequently, and reliably connect the central business districts of Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond. The train network also suffers from a lack of coordination across jurisdictions and service providers—a shortcoming that impedes progress on key investments that would reduce congestion on the tracks and induce greater ridership, lessening demand on the roadway network, through competitive and more reliable service.
When compared to the rail service of global peers, the Capital Region’s rail service falls short. It is far slower, less reliable, and less frequent than intercity and commuter service in many other major regions around the globe. Regions like London, Paris, Berlin, and Madrid have made investments to modernize existing rail corridors to next-generation technology, which provides speeds of 200 to 350 miles per hour, and transform their commuter rail systems into seamless and integrated components of the transport system. These investments improve regional connections, support a more inclusive transportation system, and deepen the rich talent available to employers.
Additional Time Pending Traffic
|Baltimore Penn Station||Richmond Main Street||160||230||240|
|Baltimore Penn Station||Washington Union Station||65||110||48||66|
|Frederick MARC Station||Washington Union Station||80||130||102|
|Fredericksburg VRE Station||Washington Union Station||70||110||93||93|
|Manassas VRE Station||Washington Union Station||65||130||78||71|
|Richmond Main Street Station||Washington Union Station||110||140||191|
Units are in minutes
Advanced technologies such as Maglev and Hyperloop offer new and exciting possibilities. The region should continue advancing planning studies for both of these technologies, thoroughly evaluate the business case for both, and convene a public discussion about how these investments will move the region’s transportation system forward. Concurrently, elected officials and transportation agencies should focus on the existing corridor by making targeted and sustained investments that can increase speeds, frequency, and reliability to reduce travel time from Baltimore to Washington to Richmond by more than 1.5 hours. Improving the existing rail corridor is a viable solution to enhance the Capital Region’s connectivity and improve the region’s global competitiveness. The region has approved projects that are waiting for leadership from Amtrak, the federal congressional delegation, and state and local officials to move forward.
The Capital Region should prioritize investments in critical rail assets to transform its service and improve the speed, frequency, reliability, and economic development potential from rail travel in the region.
Capital Region Performance
Currently, more than 225 daily intercity and commuter trains2 connect Capital Region consumers to jobs, appointments, and travel and tourism destinations—reducing vehicle congestion and increasing economic growth. However, the rail system is constrained—limiting the ability of the region’s trains to approach top speeds and making trips unreliable. Both poor trip speed and reliability discourage use and limit train travel competitiveness with vehicles. Decades of underinvestment are largely to blame.
The Capital Region’s rail network is held back by four key choke points—two of which are ready for construction and two of which suffer from federal delay. The projects include: the two-track Baltimore & Potomac (B&P) Tunnel in Baltimore that opened in 1873; the BWI Station’s tracks and platform configuration, which restrict capacity and speed; Union Station, which constrains access for all trains and restricts run-through service for MARC and VRE; and the two-track Long Bridge that spans the Potomac River and, due to its capacity constraints, limits growth for freight and passenger service south and west of the nation’s capital going as far south as Florida and New Orleans and west to Chicago. These are critical projects and require sustained support from state and federal elected officials to receive the necessary funding and financing to construct the B&P Tunnel and BWI Station, and to streamline and speed up the federal planning process for Union Station and Long Bridge.
The region’s investments in its rail infrastructure will unlock the opportunity for VRE and MARC service to integrate and offer one-seat trips for Northern Virginia residents to travel to Baltimore and points north, and vice-versa, without having to transfer at Union Station—as is currently required. These railway improvements will require elected leaders to strategically plan and coordinate investment and operations across jurisdictions, and to collaborate with labor unions and third-party operations and maintenance contractors.
The Capital Region’s commuter rail corridors represent a sleeping giant for economic development. Many station areas have the potential to replicate the commercial and economic development success of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Silver Line corridor. Successful transit-oriented development (TOD) at stations along VRE and MARC corridors is not nearly as robust as development found at WMATA stations. VRE and MARC stations present untapped economic development and job creation success stories that require coordinated local and commuter rail collaboration to realize.
Investments to expand tracks and structures between Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond could allow trains to travel at speeds exceeding 125 miles per hour for the majority of the trip. These investments could dramatically increase intercity and commuter-rail capacity and ridership in the corridor, reduce traffic congestion, and increase economic growth in urban and suburban communities. To turn the region’s station areas into economic development success stories, the region should expand service and improve coordination between local governments and commuter rail operators.
- Streamline planning and secure funding for projects that remove bottlenecks limiting the rail system’s speed, frequency, reliability, and growth
- Create a redevelopment compact to expand and modernize Union Station; redevelop Baltimore Penn Station and Staples Mill Station
- Create a seamless commuter rail network by expanding and integrating MARC and VRE services
- Partnership analysis of MDOT, VRE, and Amtrak reports.
- Partnership analysis of Amtrak, MARC, and VRE train schedules.