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Monday, September 15, 2008

Thoughts on Rail, National and Local

While driving from the football game in Oxon Hill to my brother's bar in Bethesda today, I was lamenting the lack of passenger rail opportunities. Primarly, this was because I tried going through the city to avoid the Redskins traffic and found myself turned around several times because of some sort of a marathon for which I had know prior knowledge. I would have much rather Metro'd across town than driving. 10K's and marathons have a habit of not disrupting rail they way they disrupt the roads. It also made me even more frustratingly aware of the fact that several highways dead end in the middle of the city, facilitating a traffic disaster when something like this occurs with poor signage.

Bit if rail is done right, there's a lot of things that aren't disrupted. When I drive from Laurel to Oxon Hill and then Bethesda and back to Laurel, this is all metro area traffic. But I'm mixing with folks just running to the store, and people ostensibly driving from Miami to Boston. I'm mixing with individuals running errands, families on vacation, and trucks carting freight all over creation.

With rail we can separate the passenger and freight, something we rarely do on roads (exceptions being perhaps the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and other roads that limit trucks). And with passenger rail, we can have streetcars for local, subways for metropolitan, commuter rail for regional, and AMTRAK/national rail for interstate. It is similar to a road hierarchy, however if one group, say, the metropolitan travelers are backed up by heavy volume for an event, like say a pro football game, the local, regional, and national rails aren't backed up, even if they run along the same right of way, provided they all use separate tracks. Same goes for freight rail.

Separate tracks is the key. Richard Layman makes the case for a better national rail infrastructure, citing a passenger/freight crash in LA. We have 16+ lane highways. Why can't we have four lane rail rights-of-way? I'm no engineer, but wouldn't it be cheaper to build rail bridges and tunnels? Isn't there less space required? Wouldn't it be cheaper to bury more of the rail network instead of burying freeways through the city? Bury them all, in my opinion. Bury them together!

Sharing tracks, I believe, is the main reason that MARC stations have largely failed to promote transit oriented development around their stations. I think of it this way: a family with kids might not mind living on a street with lots of bus traffic. But if those buses are 18 wheelers, the impression of the street changes. Not to mention, sharing the tracks with freight trains and AMTRAK is what prevents MARC from having a schedule useful for anything more than commuting. The tracks are too crowded.

Imagine a separate highway for trucks, another for interstate travel with exits only in major cities. If a CSX train derails, it doesn't ruin MARC and AMTRAK service for the day. Any thoughts on this theory?

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