April 25, 2017

New MARC stations: North/Mt Royal, Upton, Sandtown

The chosen plan for the new Amtrak tunnel in West Baltimore would provide enough trackage for all anticipated future train service. The old existing tunnel would thus be free to be used for anything. This means the old tunnel can be rehabbed in a way that is optimized for critical local needs - not Amtrak's - and new stations can be provided to support neighborhood development opportunities.
Seldom seen view of the southwest corner of Mount Royal and North Avenues, looking west.
The ancient brick enclosure for the tracks entering the Amtrak tunnel (in the foreground)
could be opened up to create a new local MARC station and lead into a "campus green"
that connects to the MICA buildings in the background. North Avenue is barely visible to the upper right.

The recent Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) "Record of Decision" calls for a new $4.5 Billion replacement tunnel that includes four tracks rather than the current two tracks. But the alignment for the new four-track tunnel would still make it possible to retain connections to the old existing two-track tunnel. As stated in the FRA Record of Decision: "The existing B&P Tunnel, a contributing element of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad historic district, will be abandoned in a manner that will allow for future transportation use." This specific point is also spelled out as one of the top five "Project Benefits" as listed on the Amtrak website.

So while future Amtrak trains and most (if not all) MARC commuter rail trains will be whizzing through the new modern tunnel, the existing historic tunnel can be uniquely reconfigured to position West Baltimore growth and development as a vital part of the burgeoning Baltimore-Washington corridor.

OLD AMTRAK TUNNEL - Going west out of Penn Station (right) toward Washington, DC, the tunnel begins
just prior to North Avenue and ends at Gilmor Street in Sandtown. Three new MARC stations can be accommodated
at the beginning, middle and end of the tunnel at North Avenue/Mount Royal, Upton and Sandtown.

Three new West Baltimore MARC Stations

Unlike the proposed new Amtrak tunnel which would be bored deep in the ground, the existing tunnel is located directly below the surface. New stations along the old route can therefore be intimately integrated with surface activities and development in the local communities, unhampered by demands for high speed and high capacity. This line could use shorter self-powered trains that consist essentially of a cross between commuter rail and light rail vehicles, even allowing riders to walk across the track at selected locations, which is forbidden in the Amtrak corridor.

The stations could then be configured as a kind of "transit mall" to bring the passengers as close to the communities as possible. The three proposed new stations also happen to be located at open-air interruptions in the tunnel, which would further reduce the separation between the station and community environments. The line could probably also be reduced to a single track in confined locations if necessary where pedestrians and platforms need the space.

The old tunnel has been designated as its own historic district and consists of fascinating nineteenth century stone and brick work that heretofore has mostly been seen only in dark, dank, dirty fleeting views seen by train riders with their faces pressed against the windows. A challenge to designers will be to present the historic aspects of this tunnel in the best possible perspectives and light.

Here are three key places for proposed new MARC stations between Penn Station and West Baltimore Station at US 40 (which would also be totally rebuilt and slightly relocated under the FRA's chosen plan):

NORTH AVENUE / MOUNT ROYAL STATION - connecting to North Avenue light rail station at the upper right,
and Maryland Institute College of Art buildings to the left and center.

1. North Avenue Station at Mount Royal

This new station could be built around a submerged "campus green" between the two North Avenue buildings of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) which are located on either side of the Mount Royal Avenue intersection between the Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill neighborhoods. This "campus green" would create intimate access to the station and generate activity by college students even when there are no trains. The new station space would also circumvent the major traffic conflicts at the busy intersection above. The current opening in the rail tunnel to the sky, located southwest of the intersection, could be enlarged to ensure it is a bright attractive place.

This station space should also be extended to the east in the existing tunnel under North Avenue and the Jones Falls Expressway to the adjacent light rail station. This would provide an important new transfer point so that all light rail trains could connect to MARC, not just the very limited number that traverse the stub branch from Howard Street to Penn Station. This new station would thus provide a valuable amenity not only for Maryland Institute and the neighborhoods, but for the whole region.

UPTON STATION - looking east into the tunnel under Pennsylvania Avenue,
with buildings on both sides of the street seen above the tunnel portal. The "Avenue Market" is just off to the left
and a pedestrian connection to the Metro subway station mezzanine could be provided below it.

2. Upton Station at Pennsylvania Avenue

The anchor for this station would be a connection to the Upton Metro Station, located under and next to the "Avenue Market" on Pennsylvania Avenue between Laurens and Pitcher Street. The new MARC station would be located in the existing open-air interruption in the rail tunnel between Pennsylvania Avenue and Fremont Avenue (see photo above).

It would probably be best to completely rebuild the market to integrate it with the new station and facilitate the below-ground connection to the Metro station mezzanine, with a much larger site footprint that encompasses both blocks to the north and south sides of the tracks. The combined Metro and MARC station would then be a major focal point of the Upton community, instead of being hidden away as it is now.

SANDTOWN STATION - in an open air cut just west of the tunnel portal
from Gilmor Street (east, right) to Monroe Street (US 1 - west, left)

3. Sandtown Station between Gilmor and Monroe Streets

This station would be located just beyond the west end of the tunnel between Gilmor and Monroe Streets. Since it would be open to the sky, it would be the most visible, accessible, largest and easiest place of all to develop a new station.

This fringe area of the "Freddie Gray" neighborhood around the heavily used Fulton/Monroe Street couplet is rough even by Sandtown norms, so it's not a neighborhood that's likely to be too attractive to affluent Washington-Baltimore commuters for a while. But since this is a long range plan, every step helps and every job is important. There is also a huge amount of underutilized industrial land just west of Monroe Street toward Rosemont and Walbrook that can be redeveloped to a higher intensity.

Other alternatives and variations

It should also be mentioned that another alternative exists that would provide a West Baltimore Metro-MARC connection without using the existing tunnel at all. A MARC spur could be built onto the old West Maryland Railroad line (now owned by CSX) north from the current West Baltimore MARC station to either the Cold Spring Lane, Rogers Avenue or Reisterstown Plaza Metro Stations. An intermediate stop could also be provided where the tracks cross over North Avenue near Coppin State University. This line would require passenger service to be share the tracks with freight service.

All the concepts set forth here are an evolution of the previous plans for a localized type of MARC service that were part of the 2002 regional rail transit system plan. At that time, this was designated as a "high priority", but the idea self-destructed almost as soon as the plan was published, most plausibly due to inevitable serious conflicts with existing longer-distance Amtrak and MARC service on the same tracks.

That plan would have been far more limited than this one. The 2002 plan had only a new station at Sandtown-Winchester, but not at Upton or Mount Royal. It therefore would have connected to the existing rail transit system only at the very limited light rail stop at Penn Station. It was also planned to operate only in the Baltimore metropolitan area, as far south as BWI-Marshall Airport and Odenton.

However, a Washington connection would be very important, either running the service all the way to Washington Union Station or at least as far as the New Carrollton Station of the Washington Metro. Amtrak would have the final word on this. Union Station is currently very congested and train traffic will continue to increase..

There may also be some locations elsewhere between Baltimore and Washington where a similar kind of smaller and more localized kind of station is appropriate, which could then be linked to the local West Baltimore service. It may also enable some existing MARC service to be redirected away from smaller stations, which could improve travel times for some trains.

This is the point in the project planning process where these kinds of local amenities and mitigations can begin to be discussed, and where the negotiating power of the local communities can be used to their advantage.

The recent decision by the Federal Railroad Administration, in concert with Amtrak and the state, to abandon the old West Baltimore rail tunnel, now breathes new life into all these concepts. They are also fed by the urgent need to stimulate new growth and optimism for the future of West Baltimore.


  1. Are the CSX tracks even in use? It looks like they just dead end at Monroe Street, where they would have continued through the B&P Tunnel

    1. You are correct - I just checked it on Google Earth. Given that, I'd guess the track on the entire little connector between the Western Maryland to Amtrak line has fallen into disrepair. It wouldn't be too terribly difficult to restore it if anyone wanted to, which could conceivably be part of some kind of detour while the Howard Street CSX tunnel is being enlarged (I'm really grasping at straws here).

      I also doubt this option would ever be chosen for MARC service, but I thought I should mention it anyway.

      While I'm at it, here's another aside: Not many years ago, the MTA actually proposed to run MARC service thru the Howard Street tunnel up to 26th Street in Charles Village. If by some remote chance that wasn't already dead, I'd guess it's dead now that the Howard Street tunnel is to be rehabbed for freight.

  2. I've wondered if DMU cars could be used on the western maryland line on the northwest, as there is a need for it. And have a connection to the subway, around Mondawmin.
    The connection to the Penn line to penn station (and at one time, western maryland's hillen station) has a gravel plant in the way, now. I can't imagine the connection could be restored, with the new alignment in the way.
    I remember the pink route, on the MTA 2002 plan, and wondered what would become of it.
    That would be more suited for EMU/DMU, not locomotive hauled trains, which is what we're stuck with, the next 20 years.

    I recall the plan to have MARC service through Howard tunnel. It seemed a little redundant to me, as it closely parallels the Penn Line, north of the city.

    1. Thanks, David. You've outgeeked me here, so I had to look up that DMU stands for Diesel Multiple Unit train. I guess you're probably talking about service up to Westminster. The Western Maryland tracks don't go too close to Mondawmin, so I think that's out. Also, I wouldn't think folks would want the smell of diesel trains through the B&P tunnel if there are stations there, so that might be out. I'm just thinking out loud here.

      So maybe such a MARC line would be would be Westminster to the Reisterstown Plaza Metro Station. But I also just saw that Carroll County's population did not go up last year. Maybe suburban sprawl is finally abating.

      But in the planning biz, you can fit any square peg into any round hole if you're willing to pay for it. A gravel plant? I think that's pretty low on the land use food chain.

      What you're calling the "Pink route" in the 2002 MTA rail plan on the Amtrak tracks was actually the "Purple line". I've got an original hard copy of the report. The color may have changed in the digitization.

  3. So is there an estimate for how much it would cost to rehabilitate the existing tunnel, which if I recall was built in the 1870's and suffers from water intrusion?

    1. No, the Environmental Impact Statement does not have a cost estimate for the rehabilitation of the existing tunnel because that alternative was rejected before getting to that stage, for the main reason that the entire line would have to be shut down for up to several years to do such a rehab. That would no longer be a problem if the existing tunnel was only used for local service.

      By the way, I just discovered that the link to the project "Record of Decision" above in the second paragraph was dead so I just fixed it. But I should probably just refer to the project's home page, which I doubt that they'll change - http://www.bptunnel.com/

      You can get to the various project documents from there if you're interested.