The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) and Norfolk Southern (NS) on June 30 announced the financial closing of a deal that will expand commonwealth-supported Amtrak service from Washington, D.C., to Roanoke and to the New River Valley.
As part of their Western Rail Initiative, announced in May 2021 and finalized in January 2022, the commonwealth is acquiring approximately 28 miles of NS-owned “V-line” right-of-way including existing tracks from Christiansburg in southwest Virginia’s New River Valley to the Salem Crossovers, plus the passenger easement between Salem Crossovers and the Amtrak Roanoke station platform. NS will continue to provide freight service on the line.
The commonwealth’s plans also include rail infrastructure improvements between Manassas and the New River Valley. In May 2021, they were reported to include: Roanoke Yard upgrades; a seven-mile siding from Nokesville to Calverton; the creation of a 22-mile continuous double-track corridor from Manassas to Remington; and improvements from Salem to Christiansburg, including signaling and track upgrades, a maintenance facility, a passenger platform, and other infrastructure work along the Route 29/Interstate 81 corridor.
It was announced in January 2022 that the acquisition and infrastructure improvements would be partially funded by contributions from the I-81 Corridor Multimodal Improvements Fund, Commonwealth Rail funds, and the General Assembly’s 2021 Transportation Initiatives. In May 2021, the initiative’s total price tag was reported to be $257.2 million.
VPRA said the first step in the passenger service expansion is the addition of a second commonwealth-supported round-trip between Roanoke and Washington, D.C., which is launching July 11, 2022. It will make stops at Alexandria, Manassas, Culpeper, Charlottesville and Lynchburg. The Western Rail Initiative also calls for a potential future station at Bedford.
Following track and signal improvements and construction of a new station, the Roanoke service will be extended to Christiansburg. It will mark the first time since 1979 that the area will have rail service. The expansion is expected to add approximately 80,000 new riders in the first year, according to VPRA.
“The closing of the Western Rail Agreement is great news for Virginians as this is a big step forward in our mission to expand passenger rail to the New River Valley,” VPRA Executive Director DJ Stadtler said. “Communities along the Interstate 81 and Route 29 corridors will now have more passenger rail options when traveling to and from our nation’s capital and beyond, and the improvements will also increase our economic opportunities by enhancing freight rail service through the commonwealth. We thank our partners at Norfolk Southern for helping us make this a reality.”
“Together, we have reached an agreement that expands access for passengers and preserves an important link in the supply chain for businesses that rely on freight rail to ship base materials and finished products,” NS Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Mike McClellan said. “The partnership of our government leaders was critical to making this plan a reality and we appreciate their commitment to the people and economy of Virginia’s Blue Ridge.”
Amtrak regional daily service in southwest Virginia began in October 2009 with one round-trip between Lynchburg and Washington, D.C. In November 2017, the commonwealth expanded service to Roanoke. In FY 2019, ridership reached 220,000. In April and May 2022, ridership on the Roanoke route surpassed the record ridership of the same months in 2019, according to VPRA.
The VPRA-NS deal is part of the $4 billion “Transforming Rail in Virginia” initiative to improve passenger and freight rail capacity and relieve automotive traffic congestion, which former Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled in December 2019. On June 29, Virginia Railway Express (VRE) committed nearly $195 million to the initiative.