Should the W&OD be Revived as Commuter Rail?

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    Over the past five decades, Northern Virginia has experienced significant growth, distinguishing itself by establishing a robust public transportation network amidst rapid urban expansion, unlike counterparts such as Charlotte or Atlanta. While this system has effectively served the eastern region, extending westward, it has left Leesburg, the densely populated city and county seat of Loudoun County, disconnected. As regional transportation authorities contemplate expansive development plans, it’s imperative to explore cost-effective solutions that bridge the gap between densely populated areas.

    To address the disconnect in western Loudoun and offer a swift commuter rail option for the broader region, I propose the revitalization of the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) railroad as a commuter railway linking either Leesburg or Purcellville to the East Falls Church Metro station, facilitating onward travel towards the region’s core.

    Historical Context

    For the uninitiated, the W&OD once traversed from Bluemont, situated on the western fringes of Loudoun County, through Leesburg to Rosslyn and Alexandria, catalyzing development along its path and shaping much of the historic landscape of Northern Virginia. Following its discontinuation in 1968, the county endured 54 years without train service until the advent of Metro’s Silver Line Extension in 2022, heralding a new era of connectivity for eastern Loudoun.

    The Silver Line extension has undeniably bolstered public transit connectivity, offering convenient access to Dulles Airport, Reston, and Tysons. However, its current configuration falls short of meeting demands. Its circuitous route with multiple stops renders it slower than driving, particularly between the Ashburn and Rosslyn stations.

    Furthermore, its location amidst a bustling highway complicates development along its trajectory. Rather than serving as a commuter rail, the Silver Line is better suited to its original purpose: a Metro line and airport link.

    Embracing the W&OD

    WMATA’s proposed “Silver Line Express,” although seemingly addressing speed concerns, remains prohibitively expensive. The original Silver Line incurred a staggering $6 billion expense, predominantly constructed within a highway median. Implementing the Silver Express concept would entail constructing elevated or underground tracks for miles, a financially daunting endeavor.

    In contrast, the W&OD persists as a bike trail, offering a straight path through Northern Virginia’s notoriously pricey real estate. Utilizing this corridor for railway construction presents substantial cost savings, circumventing one of the most significant expenses in transit projects: land acquisition. Negotiating with property owners along a route is arduous and costly, as evidenced by the California High-Speed Rail project.

    Moreover, the linear nature of the W&OD facilitates high-speed travel, potentially exceeding 90 miles per hour. This rapid transit option could incentivize Northern Virginia’s drivers to opt for trains, reducing traffic congestion, carbon emissions, and dependency on automobiles. The proposed travel time between Leesburg and DC, just under 45 minutes, surpasses driving durations by 5-10 minutes, depending on traffic conditions.

    The W&OD route intersects several historic and densely populated downtowns, including Vienna, Leesburg, and Purcellville, offering an opportunity for their revival. Reopening historic train stations in these locales could catalyze economic rejuvenation, enabling commuters to reside downtown and commute sans automobiles, while also enticing DC residents seeking idyllic weekend getaways to patronize local establishments.

    Addressing Concerns

    Some may express apprehension regarding the fate of the existing trail. However, coexistence with the new rail tracks is feasible, considering the ample width of the park land surrounding the trail, akin to California’s SMART commuter rail project.

    Timing and Viability

    While proposals to revive the W&OD have circulated for years, the present moment presents an opportune juncture for action. With the Silver Line’s full operation since 2022, WMATA has embarked on studying expansion plans, including the costly Silver Express initiative.

    However, these proposals primarily focus on affluent neighborhoods with existing transit access, neglecting communities like downtown Vienna and western Loudoun lacking adequate public transportation. Reviving the W&OD circumvents exorbitant tunneling costs while connecting six underserved communities, notably benefiting remote workers and commuters alike.

    Conclusion

    Championing this project demonstrates local transit agencies’ bold leadership, opting for an innovative initiative that fosters connectivity among densely populated and historically significant communities at a reasonable cost. Contrary to the prevailing narrative of exorbitant costs and lackluster outcomes in American public transportation endeavors, this proposal harnesses an existing corridor to furnish an efficient and swift transit connection promptly and economically. The resurrection of the W&OD railroad presents an opportunity for redemption following its abandonment, promising widespread regional development and revitalization. [Click here](Link to the full proposal, including benefits, route details, technical specifications, and travel time estimates) to peruse the comprehensive proposal.