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Virginia, CSX, Amtrak Get Serious About Passenger Rail

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

Amtrak trains will operate almost every hour between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Va., within 10 years under a landmark $3.7 billion agreement involving the Commonwealth of Virginia, CSX and Amtrak that will expand passenger rail service in the region and other parts of the state, improve CSX’s capacity, and cost far less than one-third of an interstate highway expansion, according to a Dec. 19 Richmond Times-Dispatch report.

The agreement that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and CSX announced Dec. 19, which is expected to be completed by year-end 2020, “will give Virginia control over hundreds of miles of railroad right-of-way in three rail corridors, including [CSX’s] former RF&P (Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac) line that parallels Interstate 95 between Richmond and Washington,” the Times-Dispatch wrote. “It will not expand the two-track rail line that runs through Ashland, which the state already has promised to preserve. “

The agreement will give Virginia control of 350 miles of railroad right-of-way and 225 miles of existing track. The package includes half of the 112 miles of right-of-way and 39 miles of track that CSX owns between Richmond and Washington. The deal also includes passenger train rights to 30 miles of track between Richmond and Petersburg, 75 miles of right-of-way on CSX’s abandoned S-Line between Petersburg and Ridgeway, N.C., to eventually allow higher-speed rail service to the Southeast, and 173 miles of right-of-way and 186 miles of track on the Buckingham Branch Line between Doswell and Clifton Forge for eventual cross-state passenger service.

The project’s cost would be split approximately three ways among Virginia, Amtrak and regional partnerships, but would not require any new state money, commonwealth officials said. Virginia will purchase, for $525 million, existing CSX right-of way on three rail lines. The agreement will allow the state to build and own track for higher-speed passenger rail service, including expansion of Long Bridge, a 115-year-old railroad bridge across the Potomac River shared by Amtrak, Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and CSX and at near-full capacity. Amtrak intends to contribute $944 million to the project, which also would be financed by the state and regional partners, including the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, co-owners of VRE.

Virginia plans to build the project in three phases. The first adds 4 miles of track in Fairfax County from Franconia south to Lorton by 2024. The second, to be completed by 2026, adds 19 miles of track, including the flyover in Fairfax and a third track in Hanover County north of Ashland that would serve as a siding for coordinating rail traffic. The third, scheduled to be complete by 2030, includes the new Long Bridge, which state officials say could be completed by 2028.

Key to the project is expansion of Long Bridge, the two-track bridge across the Potomac between Arlington and Washington. CSX owns the bridge and corridor, but the agreement will allow Virginia to build and own a parallel and upriver two-track bridge now under environmental review for construction. The new bridge will be devoted to passenger rail service, with a separate span for bicycles and pedestrians, allowing CSX to use the existing bridge solely for freight service, in particular traffic to and from the Port of Virginia. Virginia will build and own separate tracks for passenger service between Alexandria and L’Enfant Station in Washington. It also will build a r flyover near Springfield and Franconia to allow passenger trains to cross from the east side of the rail line to the west to cross the new bridge.

Virginia’s agreement with Amtrak would allow addition of six daily Northeast Regional trains between Richmond and Washington, beginning with one next year, more than doubling capacity and allowing such trains to depart almost every hour. The expanded capacity also would allow additional Amtrak Northeast Regional service to Norfolk in 2010 and Newport News by 2026. Currently, five Amtrak Northeast Regional trains serve Staples Mill Road Station in Henrico County, but only two stop at Main Street Station in Shockoe Bottom. An additional four Amtrak long-distance trains stop at Staples Mill in runs between the Northeast and Southeast. State officials say those trains also could serve Main Street Station with additional rail improvements.

Virginia transportation officials say the project would relieve traffic gridlock on I-95 at one-third of the cost of adding a new lane to the interstate and allow a major expansion of commuter rail service in Northern Virginia, including additional trains through Manassas that would siphon rush-hour traffic from heavily traveled Interstate 66 west of Washington. A commonwealth study estimates that adding one lane to I-95 for 52 miles between Springfield in Fairfax County and Thornburg in Spotsylvania would cost $12.5 billion, but that by the day it would open it wouldn’t significantly relieve long-term rush-hour traffic congestion.

The agreement with CSX envisions contributions from Amtrak, use of state funding from Virginia’s existing partnership with the federal government on the Atlantic Gateway project in the I-95 corridor, and regional toll revenues from the I-66 expansion inside the Capital Beltway. The project would require authorization of bonds, but not for tax-supported debt.

Virginia officials said the project will increase VRE capacity by 75%, allowing trains to run on 15-minute intervals in peak hours and add service on weekends. It will allow addition of five daily VRE trains between Spotsylvania County and Union Station in Washington. It also will allow four additional VRE trains on the Manassas Line between Union Station and Broad Run in Prince William County. Expansion of the VRE Manassas line also would divert traffic away from I-66; commonwealth officials are working with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission to devote a portion of new toll revenues to the project. Additional rail service is subject to negotiation with Norfolk Southern, which owns a portion of the track, but Virginia officials said the CSX agreement is the first critical step.

According to the Times-Dispatch, Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell and other business leaders in the Greater Washington Partnership say the announcement should lead to negotiation with other potential partners to further expand rail service among the jurisdictions in the region extending from Richmond to Baltimore. Those partners could include Maryland, which they said could extend its MARC regional/commuter rail service into Northern Virginia over the new Long Bridge. “This is one of the biggest achievements for passenger rail in the United States since Amtrak was created almost 50 years ago,” Farrell and two other co-chairmen of the partnership’s regional mobility initiative said in a written statement. “We commend Gov. Northam and his team for their vision, leadership and execution of this historic effort.”

“Amtrak is thrilled to be supporting this game-changing rail investment program as an investor and partner,” said Amtrak Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Operating and Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner. “This program is a model for the nation of how to grow passenger and freight service together in order to relieve congestion, protect our environment and enhance mobility.”

 “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our rail system work better for everyone, both in Virginia and along the entire East Coast,” Gov. Northam said at the Crystal City headquarters of JBG Smith, the real estate company that helped Virginia land Amazon’s new East Coast headquarters in Arlington County, Va., in 2018. “This agreement will change the future of transportation in Virginia, improving our ability to move people and goods across the state, and opening up potential rail service in underserved parts of the commonwealth.”

“CSX is proud of the innovative agreement reached with the commonwealth of Virginia, which will advance our goals for increased safety, efficiency and volume growth while meeting the public’s desire for more passenger rail service to relieve commuter traffic congestion in the I-95 corridor,” CSX President and CEO Jim Foote said.

“Offering new options means you won’t have to drive on I-95,” said Danny Plaugher, Executive Director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, which said once the project is completed, it will increase ridership by an estimated 2.6 million annually and generate about $370 million in annual economic benefit. “I think this is a historic day for Virginia. I don’t say that lightly. We haven’t owned a rail corridor in well over 30 years. Taking ownership and having a stake in the corridor between Richmond and D.C. is a very big deal.”

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