New passenger rail corridor could link Hampton Roads to Blacksburg and beyond

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The trip between Richmond and Charlottesville takes just over an hour. However, taking a train for the same route requires eight and a half hours. The picture is equally bleak for travelers between Norfolk and Roanoke: the four-and-a-half-hour journey takes nearly four times as long by train – 16 hours.

The Commonwealth Corridor, a proposed east-west rail link, would put both rail trips on par with their road counterparts, making passenger rail travel across Virginia faster, cheaper, and more convenient.

Department of Railroads and Public Transportation Director Jennifer DeBruhl said an official survey of the project shows Virginians are excited about the prospect and eager for the state to continue expanding its rail network.

“Right now, all roads in the state end in DC, so the potential for me to get an east-west route is really exciting,” she said. “It’s about making a connection that opens up a whole different kind of rail travel in the Commonwealth.”

So how long might it be before people can ride the rails directly across the state?

From Blacksburg to the beach

The origins of the idea of ​​an east-west connection — the first in the state for more than 40 years — go back to a 2018 report published by Virginians for High Speed ​​Rail, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Virginia21, and the Hampton Roads and Roanoke Regional Chambers of Commerce.

The concept became much more concrete in 2020, when Senator Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, presented a proposal to carry out a feasibility study of the project during the General Assembly. The idea was adopted almost unanimously and the DRPT has spent the past two years calculating the potential cost, ridership and timing of the Commonwealth Corridor.

As currently envisioned, the new route would run from Blacksburg to Newport News via Roanoke, Charlottesville, Richmond and Williamsburg, with the potential for a southern branch to Norfolk as well.

With an expected price tag of $416 million, the proposition isn’t a slight lift; however, taking into account the legislator distributed $190 million general funds this year to widen just 29 miles of Interstate 64, a new 280-mile rail link seems like a bargain by comparison. These cost estimates also include all the kit needed to run the route, such as new engines and train cars.

Virginia acquired the 186 miles of track that includes the Buckingham branch, the freight rail corridor from Doswell to Clifton Forge, in a $3.7 billion contract with CSX that former Governor Ralph Northam’s administration negotiated in December 2019.

(Virginia Department of Railroads and Transit)

Once the Commonwealth Corridor was completed, there would be two round trips each day in each direction, carrying around 170,000 passengers a year. Currently, trains carry 1.56 million passengers in Virginia each year, meaning that completing the corridor would increase rail ridership in the state by more than a tenth. But even that estimate is likely low, according to Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed ​​Rail.

“Usually ridership models are quite conservative, so we could be looking at a lot more passengers per year,” he said. “The Lynchburg line was only expected to have 40,000 riders and has exceeded 120,000. Virginians love their trains, and this study shows there’s huge demand because few people particularly enjoy riding I-64 through mountains.

Boarding for Cville

After Newport News – the likely eastern terminus of the route, as running trains further south to Norfolk would add an hour of travel time and additional costs – Charlottesville is likely to see the highest number of passengers on the North Corridor. Commonwealth. According to DRPT, the rail section between Charlottesville and Hampton Roads is expected to generate three-quarters of all passenger traffic on the road.

A faster connection between the city and the rest of the Commonwealth is a no-brainer for Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville: “Getting between here and Williamsburg is a real chore today, but our two towns have so much in common and could really benefit from fast and affordable connections,” she said. “There are tons of people living in Charlottesville and working in Richmond, especially now that remote work has taken off. A direct train to the capital would make productive journeys possible.

It’s a good thing that Charlottesville has the highest demand for the Commonwealth Corridor, as infrastructure upgrades to serve it are worth around $409.8 million – 98% of the total cost of the project.

Most of that money would go to the corridor between Gordonsville and Doswell, a community about 20 miles north of Richmond. .

Bringing it up to safety standards for passenger rail transport will require an almost complete reconstruction of the rails.

For Hudson, the infrastructure improvements are well worth the investment to connect different parts of the Commonwealth.

“The rest of Virginia has incredible assets in all of our communities that could be unleashed by this type of transportation,” she said. “We love the quality of life in our towns and cities in central and southwestern Virginia, but due to the lack of meaningful public transportation, it can be difficult to travel between them. There is no serious solution to our climate crisis that does not include massive investments in trains. We know we need to improve rail connections in Virginia, so why not start now? »

A building crisis

The fact that the new east-west route will not be operational until the end of this decade at best is paradoxically a sign of DRPT’s success. Last month, the agency launched a second train from Roanoke to DC. A high-speed rail project between Raleigh and Richmond received $58 million in funding this summer. The state is on track to complete a new christiansburg station and a launch service to the New River Valley in 2026. There is also a project underway that will double the capacity of the long bridge – currently the only north-south rail connection east of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority has a list of a dozen projects all of which fall under its ambitious Transforming Rail in Virginia initiative. For the Commonwealth Corridor to join them, it must be formally adopted into the Statewide Rail Plan which will be completed later this year.

Even once the project officially becomes part of the state’s long-term plan, the biggest hurdles will be funding and bureaucratic capacity.

There is no serious solution to our climate crisis that does not include massive investments in trains.

– Of the. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville

“The state is more or less exploited with the $4 billion Transforming Rail program,” Plaugher explained. “We should be glad we are because this is one of the 10 biggest rail investments in decades, but until the Long Bridge is completed the state doesn’t know. not what resources will be available beyond 2030. Every federal dollar we receive for our current plans will open up state dollars to spend on other projects like the Commonwealth Corridor.

President Biden’s federal infrastructure bill allocated $66 billion rail passenger transportation across America. If Virginia were to receive $2 billion of those dollars, Plaugher hopes the rail authority could complete the Commonwealth Corridor by the 2030s. If the project has to wait for state money, the connection between Virginia might not not happen before 2040, he fears.

“Our goal is to bring as much federal funding back to Virginia as possible — more than our fair share,” DeBruhl said. But the state must “be strategic in our requests and show the Commonwealth that we are committed to providing the corridors already in our plan before we get to additional corridors,” she added.

Although Plaugher sees an ally in the DRPT, he said he intends to continue pushing to secure an accelerated timeline for the completion of the East-West Railroad in Virginia.

“This push for a Commonwealth Corridor is citizen-led,” he said. “This is a grassroots movement as opposed to something that started legislatively or administratively. I hear from everyday people all the time, ‘Why isn’t that already a thing?’

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