Plans taking shape to replace a Potomac River bottleneck

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WASHINGTON — The Long Bridge, CSX Transportation’s crossing of the Potomac River is at the center of plans to significantly increase rail capacity in northern Virginia and the District of Columbia. Departments of transportation of both governments are developing plans to fix a bottleneck that affects freight and passenger service across the aging 2,529-foot bridge.

Both Virginia and Washington are planning to expand CSX trackage in their jurisdictions. A portion of Virginia's $1.4 billion Atlantic Gateway project will add a fourth track along the former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad right-of-way between Arlington and Alexandria, 6.2 miles. Another 9.4-mile stretch between Franconia and the Occoquan River will get a third track.

Washington, D.C., officials anticipate expansion of its 1.4 mile corridor, says Anna Chamberlin, who is the district’s transportation department Long Bridge project manager. The current two-rail line may expand to three or four, depending on an environmental impact study that begins this fall.

There has been a Long Bridge across the Potomac since Thomas Jefferson was president. The first wood piling trestle was built in 1809 and burned by the British during the War of 1812. Several similar bridges were built and destroyed by floods during the first half of the 19th century.

The U.S. Military Railroad built the first bridge sturdy enough to carry a train during the Civil War. The Pennsylvania Railroad built the current bridge in 1906. It was strengthened during World War II to meet the demands of wartime traffic. Chamberlin said that the environmental study will guide the engineering of a new bridge. The options range from an all-new four- or three-track span to a tunnel under the river.

Chamberlin says the bridge now carries 70 trains a day: 18 CSX freights, 20 Amtrak and 32 Virginia Railway Express commuter trains. VRE, in particular, has plans for expanding service that are constrained by bridge capacity, according to a study projecting transportation needs in 2040.

The 2040 study calls for 65 commuter trains a day. But Joseph Swartz, VRE chief of staff, cautioned that number was what he called aspirational. In the real world, the number will likely be lower.

“The Long Bridge and the RF&P line are bottlenecks for rail operations along the entire East Coast,” Swartz said. It's not just commuter rail that will benefit from a new bridge. “Everybody is going to win when we get this new capacity.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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