Regional business group kicks off effort to unify the greater Washington region’s passenger rail network

And deficiencies in the network are holding back the region’s growth, the group said.

“We need to be able to run more frequent, reliable trains that connect folks from Maryland to Virginia and vice versa, running both directions all hours of the day, seven days a week,” said Joe McAndrew, transportation policy director for the partnership.

“We’re going to chart that vision,” he said, “and answer the question on how to do it.”

To address these shortcomings, the group, composed of chief executives of major employers from Richmond to Baltimore, said it is bringing all the interested parties together to create a plan for a modern, interconnected system that offers frequent and fast train service and that seamlessly traverses the District, Maryland and Virginia.

The Capital Region Rail Vision project, announced Tuesday, will deliver a step-by-step plan for how to build a “world-class” commuter rail system within 25 years, McAndrew said.

The rail network is “operationally and physically fragmented among several service providers and owners, straining rider connections, potentially lowering operator revenues and increasing operational inefficiencies,” the Greater Washington Partnership said in a statement. “These shortcomings limit our ability to grow the system into a more modern and inclusive rail network.”

The group said it will unveil its vision this fall and, in early 2021, release a more detailed guide on how to achieve the vision. The plan will outline steps needed to better connect the region, from Baltimore to Richmond, a plan that the group said will result in improved access to jobs, housing, and more equitable and inclusive growth.

The plan also will offer a solution to help realize the decades-old desire for commuter rail that crosses jurisdictional lines in Maryland and Virginia, officials said.

Plans for a more integrated commuter and intercity rail system have been discussed as far back as 1971, with multiple reports in the decades since supporting the run-though service of MARC and Virginia Railway Express trains.

A recent study by the Transportation Planning Board at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) on the market ridership of MARC and VRE run-through service, concluded that demand exists for such service. According to the June report, by 2030 more than 16,000 trips a day would be attracted to run-through service, with the greatest demand found on the corridor between Baltimore and Alexandria.

Even though the idea has been discussed for decades, the report said “Infrastructure, capacity, and institutional challenges have contributed to the difficulty of implementing the service.”

Major improvements planned for Union Station along with a $3.7 billion rail project in Virginia, including the construction of a new Long Bridge — long known as a major chokepoint for trains between D.C. and Virginia — will help address some of the challenges of the past, according to the COG report and transportation experts.

McAndrew said what has been lacking is a holistic regional approach to realize run-though service and other improvements.

“That’s really what we’re trying to solve here, is how we can do this and do this together,” he said.

Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said in a statement that the effort provides an excellent opportunity for the region to build a more competitive rail system.

“Through effective regional collaboration, we can fully leverage the plans and investments of our Transforming Rail in Virginia initiative and move forward together successfully as a region.”

In December, Virginia announced a $3.7 billion plan that includes a massive revamp of the state’s tracks from D.C. to Richmond, as well as the construction of a new rail bridge next to the Long Bridge, doubling capacity at the crossing. The Long Bridge expansion is viewed as a critical piece to making run-through service possible.

The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation this year laying the groundwork that would allow MARC to travel to Arlington and Alexandria. The bill was among various proposals vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) amid concerns about budget uncertainties as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Maryland Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), who earlier this year pushed the bill to bring MARC trains into Virginia, is one of the biggest cheerleaders of creating a Capital Region Rail Vision.

“For too long, the Potomac River has been a stumbling block to a more cohesive, integrated rail network,” Solomon said.

Even as the coronavirus pandemic promises to change the region’s commuting patterns, at least in the short term, transportation officials forecast higher demand and the need for more commuter and intercity train service.

Business leaders behind the project say a better coordinated system could result in improved access to jobs and housing, ultimately resulting in more equitable and inclusive growth. It would broaden the housing options for area workers and enable employers to access a larger talent pool in their recruiting efforts, they say.

“We’re going to need a greatly expanded commuter rail system to ease the burden on our transportation system, to ease the demands on our housing systems, to make it more affordable for all incomes to be able to access opportunity and to better connect our region so folks don’t need to drive a car if they so choose not to,” McAndrew said.

“A more unified, coordinated system is certainly better for the rider,” he said.

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