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.
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 finalized. 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:
Under an agreement with CSX, Virginia would build a new, $1.9 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 and Virginia.
The state also will purchase 225 miles of track and 350 miles of railroad right of way from CSX for $525 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, N.C., 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 finalize 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 track and the addition of more Amtrak and VRE trains, is scheduled to be finished in 2030.
The plan for 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 in 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 say 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 $1.9 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 exclusively 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 D.C. 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.
What is the effect on VRE?
The infrastructure investments will result in a dedicated passenger-rail corridor between Franconia and the District, allowing for more passenger trains. VRE’s Fredericksburg line, which uses the CSX tracks, will see an increase in service of 75 percent, or 15 intervals, during peak periods by the plan’s completion. VRE will also be able to introduce weekend service.
The Fredericksburg line, which runs eight round-trip trains each weekday, will add five new round-trip trains during the weekday rush hour and introduce three round trips on Saturday and Sunday. The agreement, officials said, will allow VRE to add special Friday evening trains to give Virginians the option to use VRE after hours.
A project timeline indicates a round trip could be added this year between Washington and Spotsylvania County. State rail officials say that although the slot to add the new train will be available this year, service may start in 2021. Two more round trips will be added in 2026 and two additional round trips in 2030. Weekend service is planned to begin in 2026, according to the timeline.
On the Manassas Line, which also has eight round trips, Virginia officials say they will be negotiating with Norfolk Southern, which owns those tracks, to add service there. The plan calls for new round-trip service this year and three other trains in 2026.
How is Amtrak service going to change?
The agreement with CSX will allow Virginia to double the number of state-funded Amtrak trains in the I-95 corridor, providing nearly hourly service between Washington and Richmond.
Today, Amtrak runs five Northeast Regional trains to Richmond. Officials anticipate adding six additional daily round trips to Richmond and two extended trains to the Hampton Roads area.
A new round trip from Washington to Norfolk is planned to start late in 2020 or early next year. Two additional trains would be added — one ending in Richmond and the other in Newport News — by 2026, and three additional to Richmond would be added by the end of the decade.
Who will fund the $3.7 billion plan?
Virginia transportation officials have come up with a formula that splits the $3.7 billion into three funding sources: federal, state and regional.
Virginia will assume about one-third of the cost using existing rail funding and additional discretionary funds available through the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
Federal funds will cover about another third of the price tag, including the $45 million rail share from the federal grant to the Atlantic Gateway project, which addresses the bottlenecks on the I-95 corridor with improvements to the rail network. Amtrak intends to invest $944 million, which would contribute to the federal funding share, state officials said.
The final portion would come from regional partners, including the District, Maryland, VRE and other Northern Virginia transportation boards, Virginia officials said. The District and Maryland have pledged support for a bridge expansion, but it is unclear how much each jurisdiction would be willing to contribute.
So is it is a done deal?
Virginia officials say they will finalize the agreement with CSX and execute it by midyear. Virginia will be able to run more trains in the I-95 corridor as soon as the deal is finalized, meaning some service additions to VRE and Amtrak could happen as early as this summer.