Additional Trains Coming on the Manassas Line… Will Transit-Oriented Development Follow?
The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is planning to build three new stations and additional miles of track to extend commuter rail service to Haymarket. VRE plans to submit a request for Federal funding, and therefore must study alternatives as well as its preferred plan.
Built into almost all alternatives is an expansion of service. VRE currently operates 16 daily trains, eight inbound to Union Station in DC and eight returning home to the end of the line at Broad Run, next to Manassas Airport.
Between 5:00-8:00am on workdays, six morning trains with a capacity of about 100 people/rail car take commuters into DC. One mid-day train goes into Union Station at 2:45pm. One of the afternoon commuter trains returns into DC at 5:10pm to make a second run home at the end of the workday.
VRE is a commuter rail system, designed to carry passengers from Prince William, Manassas, and Manassas Park to jobs in the urban core in the morning and to bring those workers home each evening.
VRE is not a transit system like Metrorail. VRE shuts down on weekends and major holidays. VRE offers only one train going into DC in the late afternoon, and anyone using it would have to spend the night. There is no evening service that would allow passengers to take the train into DC for an event and then return.
The trains run on freight rail tracks owned by Norfolk Southern between Manassas and Alexandria, and owned by CSX between Alexandria and Union Station. The contract with CSX allows a maximum of 22 trains/day north of Alexandria.
CSX makes a profit running freight trains on those tracks. The private railroad company is reluctant to lease additional slots of time to VRE because the current two-track railroad bridge over the Potomac River is a major bottleneck. Until that bridge is replaced, VRE expects to be constrained to 22 daily trains north of Alexandria.
VRE offers only 16 trains carrying customers now, but uses all 22 slots allowed by CSX. Two slots are used to bring empty trains back from DC for storage, because the yard near Union Station is too crowded. VRE has “loaned” four slots/day to Amtrak, helping that long-distance passenger rail system and the state-supported regional rail version to offer additional service through Northern Virginia.
Whether or not VRE expands to Haymarket, the commuter rail system plans to add at least three trains in each direction. That would increase current commuter rail service from 16 to the maximum of 22 daily trains carrying passengers.
How will VRE gain six slots?
New track for train storage will be constructed near L’Enfant Plaza. The additional “parking spaces” for empty trains will allow VRE to convert the two slots used now to move empty trains so they carry paying passengers.
The four slots loaned to Amtrak will be reclaimed after new track is constructed on the Fredericksburg line. Relieving congestion there will benefit CSX’s freight rail operations as well as passenger rail operations. Amtrak will then negotiate for additional slots on its own, and release the four borrowed slots back to VRE.
Additional service will cost additional money. VRE will have to purchase additional locomotives and rail cars to offer the additional three trains daily into DC, and three more back. Federal and state grants may cover most or all of the one-time costs for capital equipment, but local governments will have to pay for the extra annual operations costs. The tickets purchased by passengers cover 50-55% of the cost of each trip, and local governments subsidize the remainder.
In addition to the three additional trains to carry commuters in the morning and evening, VRE is considering expanding service throughout the day, adding 14 more train trips.
VRE could run one train/hour on the Manassas Line between rush hours, with trains stopping in Alexandria. By stopping in Alexandria, VRE avoids the bridge bottleneck that blocks additional trains from going across the Potomac River.
Customers could switch to Metrorail at Alexandria. People living in the DC area could use Yellow/Blue Line trains to get to Alexandria, then catch VRE to get as far as Broad Run.
Adding train service every hour on workdays could have a long-term but dramatic effect on job creation in Manassas Park, Manassas, and Prince William County.
High-tech firms are reluctant to open an office on the periphery of the urban core, even though costs for space are lower and skilled workers are readily available (and potentially willing to demand less money, in order to eliminate the long commute to Tysons Corner, Arlington, or DC). The number of workers with a car and willing to commute outward to the edge of the urban region is limited.
If VRE offered consistent, reliable train access throughout the day, employers located south of the Occoquan River could tap into the pool of expertise, including the millenials with cybersecurity or other specialized training who have chosen to live “downtown.”
The best way to measure if that scenario is coming true will be to measure demand for office space within walking distance of a VRE station (about ¼ mile). Rents are at a premium near Metrorail stations. If the same pattern develops near VRE stations, then the additional train service could be credited with spurring Transit Oriented Development.