A terrible transit plan for the Baltimore-DC corridor


A tunnel cross section for the Loop. Just big enough to get one of the specialized cars inside.
A tunnel cross section for the Loop. Just big enough to get one of the specialized cars inside.

The Boring Company (TBC) wants to deliver a “Loop” connecting Baltimore and Washington, DC. The initial draft Environmental Assessment document is out, detailing things like capacity and service levels. The idea had great potential. Speeding the movement of people between the two cities – or to and from BWI Airport that sits between them – via electric vehicles would be a great win. Alas, it is hard to read through the document without concluding that this Loop is a terrible plan that will come up spectacularly short on improving much of anything.

The Plan

TBC proposes construction and operation of the Washington, D.C. to Baltimore Loop Project to create a safe, affordable, environmentally-friendly, and expandable transportation alternative for a congested urban transportation corridor.

The crux of the Loop plan is a pair of 35-mile long “artery” tunnels connecting a parking lot at Camden Yards in Baltimore with a small station just north of Union Station in Washington, DC. The tunnel will carry specially modified autonomous electric vehicles (AEVs) at speeds up to 150 miles per hour between the two stations. Eventually maybe additional stations will be built, with side spurs connecting in to the main artery.

Travel time between the two endpoints is estimated at 15 minutes, requiring an average speed of 120mph. Given a top speed of 150mph, necessary acceleration/deceleration times and the potential for short side spurs that will be a sporty ride.

Rendering of a station for the Loop between DC & Baltimore
Rendering of a station for the Loop between DC & Baltimore

To connect passengers to the dedicated AEVs the stations will have elevators or ramps installed, depending on the location. Riders might be able to bring a bike along – the document indicates cyclists and pedestrians will be favored in the planning – but private cars will not be welcome. The AEVs will all be battery powered. A large maintenance facility along the route will provide space for repairs and recharging.

This is NOT a Hyperloop. It does not support the ultra-high speed operations that depend on a vacuum in the tunnel. Instead it runs more basic electric vehicles. Which could be good news as it avoids crushing some of the Hyperloop dreams with its limited implementation, though it is unclear those plans will deliver better against these shortcomings.



Limited Options

By artificially limiting the viable options for the design – specifically requiring that it be underground – TBC ensured that there is only one choice to consider for the project.

TBC proposes construction and operation of the Washington, D.C. to Baltimore Loop Project to create a safe, affordable, environmentally-friendly, and expandable transportation alternative for a congested urban transportation corridor. The purpose of the proposed Project is to provide underground, high-speed passenger transportation between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore

The project definition also requires the use of federal land, namely right of way owned by the National Park Service, because other options have curves and would be expensive to acquire.

Only a single alignment connecting Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, meets the Purpose and Need of the proposed Project and satisfies the design objectives identified in Section 1.4. Other potential alignments between the two cities maximizing use of public ROW (e.g., an alignment following I-95 and public ROW between I-95 and each city) would not satisfy the objectives to optimize travel times, design speed, or passenger comfort because such alignments would involve curvatures that would require reductions in speed increasing travel times and decreasing passenger comfort. Other alternatives using private land not owned by TBC could not be accomplished due to the timely process and complexity related to acquiring many subsurface easements for private land, and eminent domain would not be used on this project.

By applying these conditions and excluding improved surface transportation options TBC forces its design on the requirements. When your only tool is a hammer everything looks like a nail.



Limited Capacity

Perhaps the biggest failing of the DC-Baltimore Loop is its limited capacity. While The Boring Company  believes that the main artery tunnel can eventually support 100,000 daily passengers in each direction the initial capacity will be 1,000. For an entire day.

TBC cites the “limited size of the Washington, D.C. Loop Station location” as the reason for the limits. Across a 20-hour operating day the 1,000 riders breaks down to a full 5-passenger car departing every 12 minutes on average, or a single rider vehicle nearly every minute. The latter seems unlikely given the need for the elevator system to access the tunnel.

A tunnel cross section for the Loop. Just big enough to get one of the specialized cars inside.
A tunnel cross section for the Loop. Just big enough to get one of the specialized cars inside.

The total number of riders anticipated is so low that TBC does not expect it will alter commuter patterns, despite that being the primary goal:

Operation of the proposed Project would not impact the current commuter rail system and would not change travel patterns in the region. The proposed Project would not improve access to major employment centers in Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Baltimore Counties such as Fort Meade, University of Maryland, Joint Base Andrews, and Social Security Administration.

Moreover, the Loop’s initial plan will not substantially affect the local economy, though somehow the fares will remain unsustainably low:

Operations of the proposed Project would not employ enough staff to substantially impact local economies. Fares for the proposed Project are expected to be comparable to public transportation. Due to the limited capacity of ridership and connections, economic development opportunities would not be substantially impacted by the proposed Project

Scaling up to the 100,000 rider goal depends on additional stations being added to the network. TBC is quick to point out that no rider will ever have to make intermediate stops; each AEV will drive from the pickup location to the drop-off nonstop. The logistics of operating that many vehicles getting in and out of the main artery at high speeds on short spur is an interesting problem to solve.

Even if the system realized 100% loads (1000 riders each way per day) and maintained the current MARC fare ($8) the revenue from the Loop would top out below $6 million per year. There’s no way the system is viable to build and operate with that income stream. If we assume TBC used the Acela fare – $80 each way – to do the math the economics are still horrendous. And using that number is certainly a misleading approach to the market.

The Dirt

TBC historically planned to reduce costs and environmental impact of its projects by taking the dirt from the tunnels and making bricks from it. That does not appear to be the case for the DC-Baltimore Loop. Some 2,000,000 cubic yards of soil – roughly 100 truck loads each day – would be excavated from the main artery tunnels over the 12 to 20 month dig period. The ventilation/safety access shafts and stations would require additional excavation.

While this is not a deal-breaker by any means, it does alter both the economics and environmental effects of the proposed design.

Alternatives

Could additional trains be added to the MARC schedule to move more travelers? Could those trains skip some stops along the way and increase top speeds to reduce travel times? Rail infrastructure in the USA rarely sees significant new investment so these would be hard to realize, but it seems fair to consider them rather than defining only a single option then declaring it a winner.

It also seems likely that establishing initial operations connecting BWI Airport to each downtown would drive higher ridership rates. Then again, with the tiny capacity of the DC station perhaps the limited ridership is a good thing right now.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

4 Comments

  1. Your criticisms of the TBC monopoly plan are good, but you conclusion “By applying these conditions and excluding improved surface transportation options TBC forces its design on the requirements. ” is unsupported and, in fact, wrong.

    This is a conventional high-speed, underground railway. Similar to e.g. the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France, or CrossRail underneath London (opening next year). Talk to engineers who have worked on hgh-speed underground rail and they will tell you that this is just a ‘land grab’ by a neophyte wannabe entrant into the underground rail space. There is no advanced, proprietary technology here. In fact, TBC lacks the state of the art technology that established firms bring, as well as hundreds of man-years of experience.

    The taxpayers and riders of the Baltimore-Washington region would be far better served if the underground concept were retained, but put out for competitive bid.

  2. They could save money by bringing back the Concorde and using it to fly this route! 1000 passengers a day would be no problem.

  3. Don’t get me wrong, the MARC is not great by any means but building something of this caliber and initially planning only 1k pax a day is about as wasteful as it gets. Northeast Maglev was also pitching ideas… I still find it very surprising that linking Baltimore and DC is such a big deal, yet I think larger populations commute to DC from VA… unless they can connect BWI to Union Station or another major connecting point, this should be DOA…

    as an aside, whenever I saw references to “The Boring Company” from Musk, I thought that was snark directed at Boeing…

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