Expect more VRE, Amtrak service as Virginia reaches $3.7 billion rail agreement

Have you ever wished you could ride a Virginia Railway Express train to Washington, D.C. on a weekend and skip the congestion on Interstate 95?

It appears Virginia is moving forward with a $3.7 billion plan to unlock a major sticking point on the region’s rail network, clearing the way for increased passenger rail service on Virginia Railway Express and Amtrak. A press release states:

Governor Ralph Northam announced a landmark agreement to expand reliability and service on Virginia’s rail lines, creating a pathway to separate passenger and freight operations along the Richmond to Washington, D.C. corridor. The parties will continue to work to finalize definitive agreements with execution planned in the second half of 2020.

The agreement between the Commonwealth and CSX outlines a $3.7 billion investment that includes:
Building a new Virginia-owned Long Bridge across the Potomac River, with tracks dedicated exclusively to passenger and commuter rail;

  • Acquisition of more than 350 miles of railroad right-of-way and 225 miles of track
  • 37 miles of new track improvements, including a Franconia-Springfield bypass.

“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,” said Governor Northam. “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.”

Currently Long Bridge, built in 1904 and owned by CSX, carries every passenger, commuter, and CSX freight train that crosses the Potomac River. But it has only two tracks, and is at 98 percent capacity in peak times. The new bridge will relieve this bottleneck, providing track for passenger and commuter trains while freight trains exclusively use the existing Long Bridge.

The Commonwealth has negotiated improvements with CSX to increase service levels. These improvements will be phased in over 10 years, resulting in the additional service:

  • Doubling the number of Virginia Amtrak trains;
  • Providing nearly hourly Amtrak service between Richmond and Washington, D.C.;
  • Increasing Virginia Railway Express (VRE) service by 75 percent along the I-95 corridor, with 15-minute intervals during peak periods and adding weekend service;
  • Increasing Amtrak service to Newport News and allowing for an improved schedule of the third Amtrak train to Norfolk;
  • Laying the foundation for Southeast High-Speed Rail through the acquisition of the abandoned S-Line which runs from Petersburg into North Carolina; and
  • Preserving an existing freight corridor between Doswell and Clifton Forge for future east-west passenger service.

The Commonwealth is bringing together federal, state, and regional partners to fund the proposal, with Amtrak playing a critical role. The Amtrak Board of Directors has approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the Commonwealth that outlines their commitment to this program.

Studies show that highway expansion is increasingly unable to alleviate gridlock and congestion in Northern Virginia. The Commonwealth’s Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment is completing a study of the I-95 Corridor. One preliminary finding estimates a $12.5 billion cost to build one additional lane in each direction for approximately 50 miles—with congestion returning in the peak period the day it opens.

This rail expansion is expected to remove five million cars and one million trucks off Virginia highways each year, and propel the Port of Virginia toward its goal of moving 40 percent of containers by rail.

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