The Capital Crescent Trail in Chevy Chase was a former rail line. Check out this slideshow of the Purple Line route through Bethesda and Chevy Chase.
Twenty-five years ago, households in Bethesda and Chevy Chase already had trains running through their backyards. A few times a week, trains carrying coal would travel a single track, dubbed the Georgetown Branch, from Silver Spring to Georgetown. The coal was used to power over a hundred federal buildings.
"People would wave from their backyards" at passing trains, says activist Pam Browning. "They thought it was quaint."
When the freight trains stopped running, Montgomery County started looking at ways to use the land for transit. What we have today is the "future" Capital Crescent Trail, named as such because its completion hinges partially on the construction of the Purple Line.
so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .
Guest blogger Adam Pagnucco explains:
In 1986, CSX decided to file for abandonment of its tracks. The county then passed the Georgetown Branch Master Plan Amendment in 11/86 designating the tracks as "a public right-of-way intended to be used for public purposes such as conservation, recreation, transportation and utilities." The amendment stated that "a transit facility could be an important element of the County's long-term transportation system."
This trestle bridge over Rock Creek was once used for freight trains.
In 1988, the county purchased the right-of-way from CSX for $10.5 million. Two years later, the county passed the Georgetown Branch Master Plan Amendment of 1990, which "designates the Silver Spring & Bethesda Trolley and the Capital Crescent Trail as suitable uses for the 4.4-mile portion of the Georgetown Branch right-of-way between Bethesda and Silver Spring."County Executive Ike Leggett explained his reasoning behind opposing the Georgetown Branch Trolley in this JUTP interview last February. The trolley would have used the same single track as the freight line, meaning that trains could only go one direction at a time.
The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Master Plan, also adopted in 1990, reinforces the intended right-of-way use for both trail and transit. It states, "Use of the route for transit would provide an alternative to driving on East-West Highway and Jones Bridge Road. It would assist those people who rely primarily on local public transit. The key to attractive, successful transit service is providing reliable, speedy service. The Georgetown Branch provides an existing travel corridor that could readily be adapted for transit use."
See the sector plan for further details - pages 103 and 104.
Newspaper articles from that time show that the county government intended transit use at the time they bought the CSX land. Chevy Chase residents reacted by first opposing possible residential development on the land and later by opposing rail service.
In 1989 the county council voted to accept state money to pay for most of the cost of what was then known as the trolley by a 6-1 vote. [Then-councilman] Ike Leggett was the sole dissenter. Two years later, the trolley line died because of rising cost estimates and state budget problems.
"It would have taken forty-three minutes with single-track [there] and back," he says. "If you're on the platform in Silver Spring and the train just left, that's forty-three minutes you have to wait."
And while groups such as the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition already opposed that project, Leggett's push to make it more efficient - by having two tracks instead of one and extending the line east to New Carrollton - have only increased their opposition. The current trail is exactly as wide as the original rail. In order to fit two tracks, a trail, and the necessary separation of the two, most of the trees in the right-of-way would have to be taken down.
"We don't think you could feasibly put a train and a trail here and not have it ruin the experience of the trail," says Mier Wolf, a Chevy Chase town councilman who proposed a town-led study of the Purple Line. "You don't get a [tree] canopy like this overnight."
Photos taken on the Capital Crescent Trail in Chevy Chase. Research by Adam Pagnucco; analysis by Dan Reed.