June 03, 2014

Washington metro masterplan gathers Momentum

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Nearly half a century after the first metro line opened in the US capital, the system is under increasing pressure to cope with the demands of a growing city. Keith Barrow reports from Washington, DC on how the city's transport authority is seeking to overcome years of underinvestment and build a foundation for future expansion.

WITH its cavernous underground stations and aluminium-bodied trains, the distinctive architecture and sleek styling of Washington's metro reflects the system's space age origins in the early 1970s. But while the Washington metropolitan area has continued to expand outwards, there has been little change in the fabric of Metrorail.

In the late 1970s, the network carried just over 100,000 passengers per day, but by 1990 average weekday ridership had reached 500,000 and in 2012 the figure exceeded 750,000, making Metrorail the second-busiest urban rail system in the United States. In the region's core, 43% of commuters use the metro and non-work trips are also rising, accounting for 17% of weekday journeys. Ridership is projected to reach 1.05 million passengers per day by 2040, a 40% increase over 2010 levels.

Ridership growth mirrors upward population and employment trends in the region. Between 2004 and 2010, the metropolitan area grew by 275,000 households and 295,000 jobs were created. Over the next 30 years the regional population is expected to grow by 30% while 39% growth in employment is forecast. Furthermore, after decades of suburbanisation, the population of the city itself is rising once again and now exceeds 600,000, its highest level since the 1970s.

WashingtonWashington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) argues that investment in Metrorail has failed to keep pace with the growth of the city and the surrounding region, and as a result passengers are experiencing the "spiralling effects of years of underfunding and underinvestment." WMATA is seeking to redress this through Momentum, its 2013-2025 strategic plan, which sets out how Washington's public transport system can overcome the historic failure to invest and keep pace with anticipated growth over the next decade and beyond.

The plan proposes investment of around $US 6bn across all modes by 2025 in order to meet projected levels of demand and provide a foundation for accommodating further growth in the longer-term. WMATA says that implementing its Metro 2025's proposals will eliminate severe overcrowding on Metrorail and provide adequate capacity until 2040.

"We are facing a situation on Metrorail where we're dealing with upward demand and finite capacity," says managing director of planning for WMATA Mr Shyam Kannan. "The problem is we never finished building the system. The network was designed for eight-car trains running at 90-second headways, but we still can't do that. Back in the 1970s we planned capacity 50 years ahead, but we've run out of the capacity we have available now and we're still growing rapidly. For the last 30 years transport funding was all about roads, but the demographic and population shifts we're seeing now favour transit, and an infusion of capital will be necessary for the system to cope with continued growth."

One of the core proposals in Momentum is the lengthening of the train fleet to ensure all peak-hour services are formed of eight-car sets, increasing network capacity by 35%. "The fleet is a big limiting factor in providing more capacity," Kannan explains. "At the moment we have around 1000 cars, but we need at least 1500 cars to move to full eight-car operation."

In 2010 WMATA placed an initial $US 886m order with Kawasaki for 428 7000 series cars, and the first pre-series train began trials on the Metrorail network in January. Around 300 of these vehicles will replace the oldest 1000 series trains, while the remainder will provide the additional fleet capacity required for the opening of the Silver Line to Washington Dulles International Airport and Ashburn (see panel below).

WMATA exercised an $US 184m option for 100 additional cars in May 2013 to replace the unreliable Breda 4000 series vehicles, and subsequently took up a second $US 610m option last September for a further 220 vehicles, taking the total order to 748 cars. This means almost half of the Metrorail fleet will be made up of 7000 series stock by 2018.

In order to continue the eight-car rollout, Momentum suggests an additional $US 420m order for 140 8000 series cars will need to be placed in 2020-21.

In addition to new trains, the operation of an eight-car railway at peak periods will require investment in infrastructure. WMATA estimates it will need to spend around $US 370m upgrading traction power and related systems, and a further $US 600m to upgrade depot and stabling facilities. Planning was completed last year for the depot expansion programme.

Additional crossovers and turnback sidings will be required to operate a more intensive service on the busiest section of the network and provide capacity for stabling trains and track maintenance equipment at more locations. WMATA says the construction of 'pocket tracks' will increase operational flexibility and allow it to respond more quickly to peaks in demand. With the need to build in constrained locations, including underground, this element of Momentum is expected to cost around $US 500m.

Core stations

Another major element of the plan is a programme of improvements to the network's so-called core stations. This group of 26 stations in Arlington and the District of Columbia are the heart of the Metrorail system and 80% of passengers disembark or transfer at these stations. Peak demand already exceeds capacity at some core stations and WMATA proposes a number of improvements including additional escalators and new passageways between platforms to improve passenger flow. WMATA's current six-year plan includes $US 100m for access and capacity improvements at Union Station and Gallery Place, but it calculates that $US 1bn will be needed by 2025 to fully implement the core stations programme.

Momentum also proposes new construction on the Blue Line to allow the reintroduction of six-minute peak frequencies between Rosslyn and Pentagon stations. With the opening of the Silver Line, Blue Line frequencies will be halved with trains running every 12-14 minutes. Two options are being considered: a new link between the Blue and Orange lines and the construction of new Blue Line platforms at Rosslyn, which would be linked to the existing station by an underground passageway. Both options would add five trains per hour per direction between Pentagon and Rosslyn, but the complexity of construction means both have a pricetag of around $US 1bn.

WMATA is currently upgrading Metrorail's telecommunications infrastructure and is procuring new train control software, which will be rolled out over the next three years. Momentum proposes the replacement of passenger information systems from 2018 to provide better, more accurate information to passengers. The total investment in communications proposed by Momentum across all modes is around $US 400m, including a $US 250m allowance for further advances as new technology emerges.

Metro 2040

For the longer-term, WMATA is developing a multi-modal Regional Transport System Plan (RTSP), which will provide a blueprint for the development of the public transport system over the next 30 years. WMATA says the aim of this plan will be to encourage the various levels of government that support Metrorail to consider how the system can meet the region's mobility needs in the decades to come.

The RTSP is likely to specify the construction of new metro lines in the core. Momentum notes that new east-west and north-south lines could be built through parts of Arlington and the District of Columbia to relieve existing lines converging on the key interchanges of Rosslyn and L'Enfant Plaza. The extension of Marc commuter rail services which currently terminate at Union Station to L'Enfant Plaza and across the Potomac River to Crystal City could also relieve Metrorail's busy Union Station platforms while providing new cross-city links between Maryland and Virginia.

Kannan says the network will need to expand to meet demand, particularly outside the peaks. "This is not a nine-to-five society anymore, and we're seeing close to peak loadings during some off-peak periods," he explains. "This is a hub-and-spoke system, so to accommodate growth in the long-term we need eliminate some of the inter-lining. For example the Green Line is limited to 13 trains per hour (tph) because it shares track with the Yellow Line, and the Orange Line shares track with the Blue Line. In the next 30 years we will need to separate lines to provide 26tph service. This is going to be a quantum leap because it will require billions of dollars of investment."

In order to implement the projects included in Momentum, WMATA is working towards a funding agreement with local and state governments, and it expects to conclude negotiations by the end of the year for the next funding period, which starts next year. WMATA estimates it will need $US 1bn per year to support and maintain the existing system, even after upgrading, and a further $US 500m per year until 2025 for capital projects.

The authority is seeking a 10-year term, although previous agreements have been for a maximum of six years. "The need to invest is becoming more accepted politically, but this is a challenging issue," says Kannan. "Politics in the United States is very localised, and we recognise state governments have to balance the needs of the Washington region with other urban and rural areas. However, the next 20 years will be defined by how successfully we are able to recalibrate funding for urban transit. Funding mechanisms haven't kept pace with changes in the planning system, but that change will have to come."

Silver Line ready for take-off

JULY is expected to see the first expansion of the Metrorail system in nearly 10 years with the opening of the initial 18.7km four-station section of the Silver Line from East Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue on the eastern edge of Reston.

The primary objective of the Silver Line, which is also known as the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project, is to bring Dulles International Airport and western districts including Reston, Tysons Corner, and Ashburn onto the Metrorail network. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is implementing the project and is providing 52% of the $US 5.5bn budget for the first and second phases, although the line will be operated by WMATA.series-7000

In July 2013 MWAA awarded Capital Rail Constructors, a joint venture of Clark Construction Group and Kiewit Infrastructure South, the design-build contract for the 18.5km seven station second phase, which is due to open in 2018 and will extend the line from Wiehle Avenue to Reston town centre, Herndon, Washington Dulles International Airport and Ashburn.

Silver Line trains will be extended onto the existing network to serve central and eastern districts of the city, terminating at Largo Town Center on the Blue Line.

WMATA has allocated 64 new 7000 series cars (pictured) to the Silver Line, although trains from the existing fleet will be used on the route until July 2015 when the final Kawasaki trains are due to enter service.

Trams return to the capital

MORE THAN 50 years after the closure of its once-extensive tram network, light rail is set to return to the streets of Washington later this year in the first phase of a proposed eight-line system totalling 60km.

The 3.9km H Street/Benning Road Line will link Union Station in the west with Oklahoma Avenue in the east, and will eventually become part of the One City Line from the Anacostia River to the Georgetown waterfront. The initial section will be operated by a consortium of RATP Dev and McDonald Transit Associates under a five-year contract using a fleet of six low-floor LRVs. However, no official opening date has so far been disclosed.

wash-tramsIn September 2013 a comparative analysis of options for the Union Station to Georgetown section of the route recommended a 5.5km eight-station tram line along K Street, New Jersey Avenue, and H Street as the most suitable option for high-capacity public transport on this corridor. According to the study, the line would cost $US 340-370m to construct.

Last month the District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) submitted a revised application for a Federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (Tiger) grant, which would partially fund the $US 64m Anacostia Streetcar extension from Howard Road/Fifth Sterling Avenue to 11th Street Bridge.

To the north of Washington, Maryland Transit Administration is moving towards tendering for the 25.8km Purple Line LRT, which runs inside the Capital Beltway from Bethesda in the east to New Carrollton in the west, with direct connections to Metrorail's Orange Line, Green Line and two branches of the Red Line as well as the Marc commuter rail Brunswick, Camden and Penn lines.

In March the US Federal Transit Administration approved plans for the $US 2.37bn project, which is being implemented as a public-private partnership, enabling MTA to proceed with final design and land acquisition.

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