Virginia’s USD3.7 billion rail plan called a ‘game changer’

THE WASHINGTON POST – Virginia closed 2019 with a bold pledge to significantly grow passenger rail service in the commonwealth this decade by building a new rail bridge over the Potomac River, adding new rail track in the Washington-to-Richmond corridor and buying hundreds of miles of passenger right of way from CSX.

The USD3.7 billion plan, announced last December 19, will put Virginia in control of rail service increases, allow Amtrak to double the number of trains operating in the state and expand Virginia Railway Express service to the nation’s capital beyond peak rush hour within a decade.

New intercity and commuter train service could begin as early as this year, according to the proposal’s timeline.

Environmental and rail advocates have called the plan a “game changer” that will transform rail transportation in the Washington region. A major chokepoint in the region’s rail system would be eliminated,and a path toward separating passenger and freight trains – improving efficiency – would be established.

“It is going to allow us to control our destiny when it comes to rail service, commuter rail service, the performance of the service and the reliability,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said.

Some details about how the plan will be carried out have yet to be finalised.

The central deal with CSX still needs a sign-off, and funds still need to be raised, but here’s what is known about the plan and what to expect this year:

THE DEAL

Under an agreement with CSX, Virginia would build a new, USD1.9 billion rail bridge over the Potomac to expand capacity for passenger trains. The new span will run parallel to the existing two-track Long Bridge, the 115-year-old structure owned by CSX that carries all Amtrak, VRE and freight trains between the District of Columbia and Virginia.

The state also will purchase 225 miles of track and 350 miles of railroad right of way from CSX for USD525 million, including half the right of way between Washington and Richmond.

Outside the Washington region, Virginia will acquire from CSX the 186 miles of tracks on the Buckingham Branch Line, between Doswell and Clifton Forge. That will allow Virginia to launch an east-west train route from Norfolk to the Roanoke area. The commonwealth also will acquire the rights to use the abandoned S-Line from Petersburg to Ridgeway, North Carolina, an investment that would facilitate plans for a high-speed train system in the Southeast. The plan calls for the construction of 37 miles of new track, including a fourth track approaching the Long Bridge from Alexandria, a third track from Franconia to Occoquan and a rail bypass at Franconia-Springfield.

A 10-YEAR PLAN IN PHASES

The improvements will be made over a decade. Virginia aims to finalise the deal with CSX by midyear, which will include the acquisition of some of the right of way this year. This will allow Virginia to quickly introduce new trains in the corridor.

Then Virginia will begin Phase 1 of the project, which includes construction of about 23 miles of new track in the Interstate 95 corridor in northern Virginia.

This will allow the state to add more trains by 2026.

Phase 2, which includes completion of the Long Bridge, 14 more miles of new trackand the addition of more Amtrak and VRE trains, is scheduled to be finished in 2030.

A PLAN OF THE LONG BRIDGE

Virginia’s announcement concurs with a years-long proposal to expand the Long Bridge, which is owned by CSX.

The Federal Railroad Administration and the District, which are leading an environmental review of the project, released a draft impact statement last September that lays out a preferred five-year construction process that would keep the Long Bridge and build a second two-track bridge next to it to create a four-track crossing.

Virginia officials said the plan is to build that second bridge, following the FRA’s final recommendation, expected to be released this year.

The federal review estimates construction will cost USD1.9 billion. Virginia anticipates the bridge will be completed in 2027.

The bridge, along with the other rail investments south of it, will be paid for with available resources that exist today, officials said.

Under the Virginia-CSX deal, the railroad company will retain ownership of the Long Bridge and two tracks south of it. The state will own the new bridge and a third and fourth track from the new bridge that will carry passenger trains. It will also own half the right of way between Washington and Richmond.

Portions of the I-95 rail line already have a third track, which Virginia will own under the agreement, and the state is pledging to build a third and fourth track along other stretches.

Passenger trains will be able to use that third and fourth track where available, avoiding delays due to freight traffic.

DOES VIRGINIA’S PLAN INCLUDE A PEDESTRIAN BRIDGE?

As part of the Long Bridge project, a stand-alone bike and pedestrian bridge would be built upstream from the new rail bridge, allowing people to walk or bike across the Potomac River between the District waterfront and Crystal City in Arlington. Virginia officials said the state plans to build that pedestrian and bike bridge.

“We are working with our regional partners to determine how it will be funded and implemented,” Virginia Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue said.